Accounting firms and their clients have been faced with many challenges over the course of the pandemic. Business shutdowns and countrywide lockdowns have meant that physical meetings have been a no-no. Video meetings and online communication may have saved the day, but what happens next? As the restrictions ease and society opens up, how does your accounting team get back to in-person meetings, face-to-face interactions and being back ‘in the room’?

We’ve looked at some of the key challenges and the positive things you can do to put your staff, your clients and your prospects at ease – and the importance of forging these vital relationships.

How we created a new normal

A year spent communicating almost solely online has had an impact on how the average firm interacts with its clients. Office-based meetings, catch-ups over coffee or after-work events were commonplace pre-pandemic. But throughout 2020 and 2021, it’s more likely that you’ll have spoken to your clients via Zoom, on the phone or via instant messaging, such as WhatsApp.

One of the amazing things about humanity is our ability to evolve and acclimate to a new situation. And, in retrospect, it’s impressive how quickly firms pivoted to a purely online means of client communication. For cloud-based, digital firms, the pandemic didn’t stop any of the important work taking place. Bookkeeping could still be done online, accounting work could still be carried out and management reporting could still be produced.

In short, firms and their clients could get by, but there was still something missing. And that missing element was the instinctive, emotional response you get when talking in person.

The need to step back from the online-only approach

Remote working has helped practices survive and continue working, but has also made accountants feel more distant to their clients.

Accountants became an isolated presence at the end of a Zoom or Microsoft Teams’ call. Firms could continue to help with the important jobs of fixing cash flow issues, applying for furlough payments or accessing government funding. But what was missing from the online-only approach was good old human interaction.

This produced some big challenges:

  • Video meetings don’t reveal the whole truth – video technology has been a saviour over the pandemic, but the dynamic is very different to sitting in a room together. Video meetings can feel less natural. So, it’s difficult for the client to relax and tell the whole story of what’s going on in their business – and that can be a problem for you.
  • Emotional responses work better in person – as an adviser, you’re far more likely to pick up on the key emotion cues when sitting in a room with your client. You’ll both be more at ease, you’ll ask better questions and you’ll get a more instinctive feel for the client’s pain points. After all, that’s the foundation of being a good adviser.
  • We need to value the tech but not rely on it 100% – the software and digital infrastructure offers a whole host of benefits to a modern cloud accountant. But we mustn’t let technology be the sole basis for our relationships. Value the benefits of the tech, but put human interactions, insights and relationships first as a firm.

Five key ways to get back to face-to-face client interactions

We would all love to return to a more normal way of doing business. But it’s also important to stay safe, to consider your clients needs and to make the best use of your tech solutions.

Here are some suggestions for embracing the new reality:

  1. Talk to clients and find out what they’re comfortable with – not every client will want to dive straight in with a face-to-face meeting. However keen you are to return to this reality, it’s important to talk to clients and to gauge their feelings. If people are wary, it may be better to start small, or to stick to video conferencing for the time being.
  2. Be proactive about booking meetings – if a client is keen to see you in person, then strike while the iron is hot. Start booking meetings and having regular monthly or quarterly catch-ups face-to-face. The sooner you get back into your stride, the sooner you’ll be able to start adding more value and nurturing these client relationships.
  3. Make sure you have clear safety protocols – although the restrictions are being eased, the appearance of the Delta variant does still raise cause for concern. Have hand sanitiser available, hold your meetings in well-ventilated rooms or even meet up outside. A walk with a client could be just as enlightening as a formal office-based chat.
  4. Use technology where it makes sense – returning to in-person meetings doesn’t mean ditching the tech. Use all the benefits of cloud accounting, automated bookkeeping and online communication. But use it alongside the more traditional, softer skills of being a good adviser. Good use of tech frees up the time to talk more with clients.
  5. Aim for a hybrid working modela hybrid approach means mixing up your working methodology. Some work can be done remotely, some in the office and some at your client’s premises. By being more present with your business clients, you’ll understand far more about their business, their people and their goals – all benefits as a good adviser.

Getting back to a face-to-face reality

Responding to change takes time. It’s unlikely that most firms will simply step directly from an online to an offline approach in an instant. The transition back to face-to-face interactions and in-person meetings will take time to get used to. But, just like riding a bike, we’re confident that your client relationship soft skills will come back to you once you start chatting.

The important thing to bear in mind is that you, your team and your clients are comfortable with being in the same space. If you can make people feel safe, at ease and welcome, you can start to open up your business interactions and start helping your clients drive their recovery.

There’s more advice here on opening up your business as the restrictions are lifted.