Clarity Practice Management | How to Be the Chief Communicator
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How to Be the Chief Communicator

How to Be the Chief Communicator

Your role as chief communicator is closely related to your traffic cop role. In the traffic cop role, we covered prodding clients to keep projects moving along, but there is more to client communications than just moving projects along to completion.

How many times per day do clients contact you to ask such pressing questions as, “Are my dog’s vet bills deductible medical expenses?” The answer is yes, if your vet holds dual DVM and MD degrees and your dog is classified as a dependent on your tax return. See IRS code section 999, subsection C, paragraph 666.

Client communication expectations and methods have changed in the 21st century. In the 1990s, almost all of our clients contacted us by telephone, and we responded by telephone. Calls returned in 24 hours were the gold standard of client service.

With email, text and other electronic modes of communication, clients now expect much faster response times than 24 hours. They need to know immediately if their dog’s medical expenses are deductible to know if they should go in or out of their health insurance networks.

Nobody expected immediate returned phone calls in the 1990s, but everybody expects nearly instantaneous response to email. No, logic need not apply.

During tax season, I receive nearly 20 emails an hour; probably half of them are client-related. Most of those are emails related to tax returns in progress. Routing the messages to the correct people in our firm is part of my role as traffic cop.

That still leaves a substantial number of client messages that are questions and requests for advice. Clients’ needs don’t stop just because we’re overwhelmed with tax season. If a client needs a tax estimate for selling a rental property, we had better get it done, or they’ll find someone who will.

Now that we have freed you from the drudgery of tax preparation, you have time to delight clients by quickly responding to non-tax season requests during tax season.

I’m not going to tell you that the standard for responding to client emails is 30 seconds. It isn’t. But clients expect same day or even same morning or afternoon.

I get client requests primarily in two electronic formats: email and notes on our project management system. Our project management system allows for back-and-forth exchanges of notes with clients behind a firewall. This gets me out of IRS issues with using email for exchanging confidential information.

When a client gets a CP2000 letter, he posts it to our project management system. Of course, none of our clients ever get CP2000 letters, so this is just a theory. Then I can read and prepare a response in one step, skipping a few rounds of phone tag. Again, just a theory. Never actually happens, because all of our returns are perfect.

Because I live my life in 15-minute increments during tax season, I get lots of short breaks during which I can return email messages and messages from our project management system. I am responding to electronic communications almost every hour.

When a client meeting ends five minutes early, I use the five minutes to answer client inquiries.

Email, despite its immediacy, has some disadvantages compared to having a closed communications system like our project management system.

First, the IRS is trying to kill our ability to communicate by email with clients. It requires password-protected attachments and encrypted messages. How many of our clients deal well with passwords and keys for encrypted messages? Pretty much none.

Second, email messages can be hard to find a few days after the message was sent. When you get as many emails as I get, relying on Outlook’s ability to index and search a large inbox gets dicey. I am always calling support to get Outlook’s indexing back on track. Some days, I’m tempted to call the NSA or the Russians, because they have all of our information.

Third, knowing that your client actually got an emailed message is difficult. Yes, you can send read receipts, but a lot of systems reject these, and don’t you really enjoy being on the receiving end of messages from someone who sends read receipts with every message? What if your messages end up in spam folders? In a closed network, none of this happens.

Opt-in communications networks, like our project management system, are the future. On LinkedIn or Facebook, you decide who’s included in your network. With email, all 7.25-plus billion morons on the planet can interrupt you at any time to tell you that you’ve won $10 billion in the Nigerian army lottery.

Why do most clients leave CPA firms? A lack of proactive advice and timely communication. Your role as chief communicator addresses both of these.

Freed from tax preparation grunt work, you can work on big-picture items for clients. You can really consider a client’s needs and deliver tailored advice even during tax season. You can also respond to client questions nearly immediately. There will be no more missed connections, when you are too busy entering W-2 forms to respond to a message and just forget about it.

You can use communications strategically. Last year we sent 52 e-blasts to clients on subjects from estimated taxes to S corporations. In December, we started a series of e-blasts called “Countdown to Tax Season.” We provided information about our procedures and document deadlines. We provided information about efficiently gathering documents.

My favorite e-blast from last year was “Why in the hell can’t you keep track of your estimated tax payments?” Well, it was something like that. The result of a few years of our countdown to tax season blasts was a corporate tax season that kicked off in January, when we had capacity, instead of mid-February.

You can educate clients, and they will thank you for it. When we’re unhappy with a type of client behavior, we address it with a humorous e-blast.

A couple of years ago, we tried to encourage clients to not put staples in all of their documents, because it wastes hours of admin time pulling the staples to run documents through our scanners. Here’s a quote from the e-blast, in which we used our fictional employee, named the Tax Lady. Her picture was the Church Lady from “Saturday Night Live” with my head Photoshopped on her shoulders:

“During my 50 years as a Sunday school teacher, I removed exactly 8,235,879,441.379 staples from my students’ papers. Somewhere along the line, the thrill of wrestling five staples from a two-inch stack of papers left me. Not using staples won’t cause the U.S. steel industry to collapse, and you can soften the unemployment blow by using paper clips. We recycle them to bind IRS agents to their chairs, which is fun for the whole office.”

Clients want to hear from you, and the more the better. I have never heard a client tell me that we communicate too often. Even when they don’t read the e-blasts, they know you sent them. We get a 40-plus percent open rate, which email marketers will tell you is off-the-charts successful.

Finally, send a short online survey at least once during the year. We offer chances to win gift cards as an incentive to respond. Keep the surveys very short. Once a client is two minutes into a survey, the odds are she will leave without finishing.

We use a number of standard questions about our turnaround time and ease of dealing with us for historical tracking purposes. We know year by year how we have performed in the eyes of clients. Ratings questions are the heart of the survey, but give clients at least one open-ended question. You’ll get really interesting information in the answers. Specifically, you’ll learn who was unhappy with you, and you have a chance to save the relationship with a phone call.

We do a Net Promoter Survey once each year. This survey measures the likelihood that clients will make referrals to your firm. If you’re interested in the details of Net Promoter scores, Google it.

Your role as chief communicator is essential for client retention. Fortunately, as CEO, you now have the time to competently fill this important role.

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