Proactively educate clients on how your firm will serve them this coming tax season
For many firms, the sudden disruption brought on by COVID-19 shutdowns, operational mandates, and imposed protocols in March 2020 was (or perhaps still is) the proverbial fire-drill. The profession witnessed a scramble to enable staff to work from home and configure contactless client service options. The abrupt shift across society also came with a sort of grace period, allowing businesses to adjust and a new normal to emerge. Understandably, some firms have been operating with a patchwork technology and service model approach.
Fast forward and the outlook for the pending tax season is anything but a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. With the prospect of a broadly distributed vaccine not likely until the middle of 2021, the profession must expect the January–April 2021 tax season to continue in a COVID-19 environment.
As the pandemic drags on, expectations of the general public have increased regarding how service providers adjust to find new, better, and most importantly, safer, ways to serve them. Now is the time for firms to take command of the situation and proactively communicate with their staff and clients. Planning now will remove unknowns and help ensure a smooth tax season – perhaps laying the foundation for a more permanent way of serving clients that leverage technology for ease and convenience.
Four steps to position your firm for a successful tax season
It is important to take time to assess shifts in your firm’s process that may have been made in haste at the beginning of the pandemic; review what is working and what is not, then improve where it makes sense.
Step 1: Align your staff
Being decisive in times like these has a reassuring effect on your team and eliminates organizational hesitation when developing a plan to move forward. Introducing a plan of action with your staff presents a unique opportunity to implement automated, centralized, and standardized workflows across the firm; the importance of which is magnified in a dispersed workforce. This article will focus on proactive communication with clients, but if you are interested in firm preparedness, please read my previous article, “Managing Unanticipated Change.”
Step 2: Take advantage of client touchpoints
Soon, you will be reaching out to clients with customary touchpoints for this time of year – engagement letters, client organizers, year-end close reminders, etc. Take this opportunity to establish how your firm will operate and serve clients for the coming tax season, mapping out how you will handle every touchpoint in your client experience.
Step 3: Convey a clear message
It is important to keep clients and staff on the same page. Here are some of the key areas to cover in your communications both internally and externally:
- Safety: The safety and well-being of our staff and our clients is our top priority. For this reason, we are planning for the office to remain closed, our staff to work from home, and our service to our clients to be virtual and contactless.
- Service: Just because our offices are closed doesn’t mean we’re not fully available to serve you. Our commitment providing you with great service is unwavering. Offering you smooth, secure, and convenient ways to work with us digitally for the coming tax season will ensure no disruption in our service or delays in meeting your needs. Our role as your tax and accounting professional is to help you manage through these uncertain times, including plans to minimize your taxes or help you with cash flow and contingency planning.
- Availability: Our team is always available to meet. That can be via a virtual video meeting or phone call, or, as necessary, an office visit with precautionary measures and guidelines to ensure a contactless experience.
- The plan: Our firm will interact with clients leading up to and including tax season in the following ways:
- Resources available on the firm website.
- Engagement letters for e-signing will be delivered via this channel at around this time.
- Individual client organizers will be delivered via this channel at around this time.
- Securely uploading, downloading, and exchanging documents and files will be handled via this channel.
- Meetings to interact about preparing the tax return and other aspects of the tax engagement will be handled via this channel.
- Completed tax returns will be delivered via this channel.
- Invoice payments will be made via this channel. Consider taking this opportunity to eliminate payments by check and switch to only credit card / ACH payments.
- Promote new services: Our firm offers advisory services to support the PPP loan and other stimulus programs.
- Optional messaging: Indicate that beyond the safety that comes with virtual, contactless service, there is also a positive environmental element: less paper, toner, emissions from driving, etc.
Be sure to convey that you’re fully open for business and committed to providing a high level of service that is safe, secure, timely, intuitive, and reliable. These details will serve as a way for your firm to assure clients that service will continue without disruption, and that questions will be answered promptly; this will also ensure your firm continues to be paid for services rendered.
End with a nod to missing handshakes and hugs in the office, but that you’re happy technology can be the lifeline to continue serving.
Step 4: Keep the lines of communication open
As needed, plan to send additional communications to clients about your firm’s social distancing and COVID-19 awareness policies, along with any changes to guidelines as the situation evolves and changes.
These steps will better position your firm for the future. It is likely that clients will prefer a no-contact service post-pandemic.
There has never been a better time to shift from paper permanently. The feedback we have received from many firms over the past 9 months has included sentiments such as, clients who we might have ever tried a video conference meeting loved it; clients were better at using the secure document upload tools and e-sign technology; and the whole appointment happened more quickly. One advantage of the new normal across the profession is that technology-laggard clients may have to finally adapt to paperless practices and the use of screen-sharing, multi-factor authentication, and other virtual service tools. With the help of you, their trusted advisor, clients may never go back to the old days of paper!
SafeSend’s mission is to automate the tax and accounting profession with innovative, emerging technologies that help practitioners work more efficiently and serve their clients better. Progressive accounting firms and tax professionals rely on our unique and robust solutions to make their lives easier and their work more enjoyable.
SafeSend offers several foundational technology solutions for the tax and accounting profession. Our flagship offering, SafeSend Returns® is a multi-year winner of the CPA Practice Advisor Technology Innovation Award and has redefined the way accounting firms digitally assemble, securely deliver, and quickly capture e-signatures from clients for completed tax return packages. Additional tools we offer include TicTie Calculate®, an Adobe® Acrobat® plug-in for accounting professionals, and SafeSend Exchange™, the secure, bi-directional file exchange system. Visit safesend.com to learn more about our digital solutions.
Scott Fleszar is CEO of SafeSend. This article was originally published on LinkedIn.