insight magazine

White Glove Service in a Virtual World

Faced with an unprecedented change in the way they interact with clients, CPA firms found solutions so successful they plan to continue using them long after the pandemic subsides. By Del Wright | Spring 2021

It was over a year ago that Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many CPA firms, what started as contingency plans and stopgap measures meant to last just a few weeks while sheltering in place have evolved into standard operating procedures. With vaccines being deployed, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel, but while there are plenty of pandemic practices we’ll be happy to leave behind, some seem destined to stay. Now is the perfect time to take inventory of all the changes we made and decide which ones we should bring into the new normal when COVID-19-era restrictions finally abate.

One of the areas where firms saw the most adaptation during COVID-19 was client service: After all, how could firms continue to offer white glove service in a socially distanced world? The answers were, no surprise, largely digital, but the results were sometimes surprisingly versatile and effective. A few of these quick-fix solutions proved to be game changers for firms and their clients. In fact, a recent PwC survey found that 53 percent of finance leaders believe that the service changes they’ve made due to COVID-19 will actually make them more successful in the future. Which of these originally temporary fixes resulted in more efficient, more seamless—and simply better—client service?

Meetings Go Virtual

One of the most ubiquitous solutions for all industries and organizations was the migration to videoconferencing services like Zoom. Meetings, love them or hate them, are foundational to any modern business, and once people could no longer meet in person, Zoom and other videoconferencing software filled the void.

Jennifer Grealish, ICPAS member and firm administrator at Wheaton, Ill.-based Mathieson, Moyski, Austin & Co., says that when rumors of a stay-at-home order started circulating back in March 2020, the firm found itself searching for solutions on a tight deadline. “We spent that week making sure all of our employees and partners were going to be able to work remotely,” Grealish recalls. “We had already been using Microsoft Teams for smaller meetings and continued to do so, and we started to use Zoom for all-staff meetings and check-ins.”

Peter Zich, CPA, ICPAS member and principal of the tax department at Dugan & Lopatka in Warrenville, Ill., says his firm followed a similar strategy for client conversations that used to occur in person. “We quickly got up to speed and made Teams our primary communications tool,” he explains. “Many of our clients quickly moved to Zoom and we would use that as well if initiated by a client, but we didn’t share documents on Zoom because of security concerns.”

Indeed, videoconferencing solutions proved versatile enough for all kinds of scenarios—even for job interviews, onboarding, and talent development. “Once new staff picked up their laptop, their training was done virtually,” says Maria Perez, CPA, ICPAS member and firm manager at Shepard Schwartz & Harris, noting that the Chicago-based firm used videoconferencing from the first interview to onboarding.

Skill-building and mentoring, which in pre-pandemic days often happened casually at a team member’s desk, moved to Zoom and other virtual platforms as well. Gina Pasyk, marketing account manager at Wipfli, says that their performance coaches have made it a priority to regularly reach out to their team members, encouraging communication and connectivity.

While clients may not be aware of all these behind-the-scenes changes, being able to continue hiring and developing staff has allowed firms to continue offering the high quality of work their clients have come to expect. And videoconferencing itself—more nuanced than a phone call or email, more convenient than an in-person meeting—will be a valuable part of the client service repertoire for years to come.

A Place to Chat

Chat apps like Slack were already common in offices before COVID-19, but the pandemic pushed firms to find new ways to use these apps to improve communication, streamline processes, and build camaraderie—both within firms and with clients. These messaging programs allow a quick back-and-forth and offer an alternative to the formality of email. Banter flows more freely on these apps and, during remote work and social distancing, they’ve proven to be the most effective replacement for the casual, ongoing conversations that used to happen throughout the day in the office, notes Mary Lynch, office manager at Ciarlette & Robbins in Mokena, Ill.

The usefulness of chat platforms isn’t limited to internal conversations, however. At Chicago’s Lance CPA Group, Managing Director Joshua Lance, CPA, CGMA, who’s also an Illinois CPA Society board member, says that Slack has proven to be a great way to engage with clients. “We started a Slack group for our brewery clients,” he explains. “It’s a place where we provide up-to-date information on new regulations and hot topics, answer common questions, and share ideas.”

While resuming in-person conversations with coworkers and clients will certainly be welcomed once the pandemic subsides, the firms that have adopted chat apps and capitalized on their connectivity and agility say they’re here to stay. Lynch say that Ciarlette & Robbins will continue using Slack long after the workplace returns to normal simply because the channel has proved so effective. “It has helped our team’s overall communication tremendously,” she says.

Going Paperless

Another COVID-19 challenge was finding a new, contact-free way to collect important client documents. Almost overnight, clients could no longer deliver documents in person—something many of them had been doing for decades. But with tax season approaching, firms had to get creative and find a new way to safely handle the impending onslaught of paper.

Staggered office staffing and physical drop boxes allowed clients to choose the reassurance of handing over sensitive information to a person, or the peace of mind of dropping off paper records in a locked receptacle to minimize their potential exposure to COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, the firms that had implemented secure online portals where clients could upload scanned documents had already seen a decrease in the volume of paper they were receiving. COVID-19 only increased the popularity of these digital solutions, which provide a streamlined client experience as well as a pandemic-safe handoff. This trend will continue long after COVID-19 recedes, as both firms and their clients see the benefits of paperless processes.

Lance notes that going paperless has made it much easier for his firm to request, obtain, and share client documentation. “Adaptations such as this have made Lance CPA Group a more agile organization and allow us to serve our clients better than before,” he says.

The Human Element

With all this talk of efficiency, it’s easy to forget the one thing that makes excellent client service possible: people. Without the dedicated individuals answering phones, scanning documents, processing tax returns, performing audits, and providing strategic advice, there would be no work product to optimize. In tough times, firms had to ensure that their employees felt just as cared for as their clients.

“I think the pandemic in general increased everyone’s stress and anxiety levels,” Lance says. “Trying to assist clients who were worried and stressed about their businesses meant that everyone’s mental health was pretty frayed.” Research resoundingly echoes his assessment: A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly half of Americans feel that COVID-19 has been harmful to their mental health, while an August 2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that anxiety had tripled and depression quadrupled compared to the same time a year ago.

To cope with these mental health challenges, Lance’s firm gave staff extra time off and strongly encouraged use of their existing employee assistance program, while Ciarlette & Robbins found that having a dedicated specialist to directly address these amplified concerns was vital. “We’ve had a therapist as a consultant on our team to help with our overall communication and team dynamic since the beginning of 2020,” Lynch explains. “Once the pandemic hit, her services have become more important than ever.”

The past year has been full of changes, but it’s clear that not all of those changes were for the worse. By putting clients and employees first, firms are creating innovative solutions they might never have otherwise. In these uncertain times, firms can be sure of one thing: As long as they remain agile and open to change, there’s opportunity for growth—even during a pandemic.

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