“The foundation of the client relationship is in jeopardy.”
“How can I build rapport with someone if I’m never face-to-face with them?”
“I need to shake someone’s hand to feel related to them.”

When we talk about moving toward a more remote service and staffing model and embracing Anytime, Anywhere Work™, we often hear objections like these. It’s understandable to worry about losing the human element of a relationship in an increasingly virtual world. The public accounting profession was built on relationships. For many professionals, those relationships are what keeps them motivated to do great work.

I’m here to give you great news: the client relationship is not in jeopardy! You can build rapport without being physically in the same room as the other person! Your client relationships will sustain and get even better – so long as you adapt the way you serve them and be sure to meet their interests.

The face of the client is changing and their preferences are, too. Millennials want a more autonomous client experience with faster and better technology. They want transparency in the buyer-consumer relationship and they want the experience to feel personal. These values may have been spearheaded by today’s young adults, however, we’re now seeing these changes desired by all generations. This means that firms must be proactive in meeting client preferences. If clients want fewer in-person meetings, we should serve them with fewer in-person meetings. As client service changes in an increasingly digital world, we must focus on how to retain the personal or human element of a relationship in this new paradigm.

Strong client relationships are built on trust, rapport and mutual care for the other party. They foster open two-way communication and have a level of familiarity and comfort that helps sustain the relationship well into the future.

Let’s explore six ideas to ensure these elements thrive, using technology to our advantage:

Communication and Consistency
One challenge that comes with digital communication is the missing of verbal and non-verbal signs and reading body language (facial expressions, posture). These are mitigated when using online video conference platforms (more on that in a minute!), but what do we do if we’re mostly communicating through email? It’s more important than ever to become super comfortable and consistent with documenting clear expectations, writing recaps and communicating regularly on those expectations.

In all client engagements, you should be sure you’re clearly communicating with the client about the scope of work agreed to, the project timeline, who is delivering what and by when and updating the client as soon as there is any change in scope or timing.

In addition, it’s important that you understand each client’s communication preferences. Ask your clients if they prefer to communicate by phone, email or video call. If a client prefers to talk by phone, still send an email recap summarizing the decisions made and actions assigned, so that you both can refer back to it as needed. When you’re discussing the engagement scope and timing, suggest how often you intend to provide status updates and make sure they’re okay with your suggestion. Some clients will want more frequent status updates and some will want less. When you understand their communication preferences, you’re able to provide them with the level of client service they want.

Meet Your Commitments
This sounds obvious, yet we don’t always do it! Part of having trust and integrity means doing what you said you’d do, by when you said you’d do it. When you make a commitment to a client and miss the deadline that you agreed upon, you’re eroding some of the trust that you’ve taken so long to build. And, the impact of failing on a commitment is heightened in a relationship that’s mostly virtual. If commitments are repeatedly missed, that client can easily become detached from you and your firm and begin looking elsewhere for an advisor that will meet the commitments they make.

Avoid failing on commitments by ensuring you set realistic by-when dates with clients (and first ensuring you can meet that deadline internally with your team!) and putting your commitments in writing via an email recap. There will be times when you make a commitment and realize you won’t be able to meet it. In these cases, it’s crucial that you reset expectations with your client as soon as possible.

Obtain Feedback
At the end of the client service cycle, ask your client to provide feedback on how they viewed the experience of working with your team. They might have some valuable feedback on small changes you can make to enhance your client service that you would otherwise not have known. Asking for feedback builds rapport and shows your client that you care about their success, which in turn deepens the relationship. If you’d like to learn more about our suggested process for facilitating client feedback or satisfaction surveys, read our blog.

Building Rapport
My colleague Jack Lee wrote a blog entitled “Go Deeper in Your Relationships Starting Now,” which I highly encourage you to read. It explores the importance of building deep relationships with others, and that includes your clients.

A crucial aspect of developing rapport in any relationship is to remember the things you learn about the other person. As you have discussions with a new client and begin learning about them, document the things you learn. Your firm might have a CRM platform that you can use for this or you can track the info in Outlook Contacts or using a simple Excel spreadsheet. You have too many clients, prospects, referral sources and colleagues to try to retain personal interests, family members and other information for each one in your head alone.

Then, find opportunities to incorporate what you know about your clients and to continue learning more in every interaction. If you know your client’s favorite sports team just won their last game, send them a quick email saying that you also had the game on and thought of them cheering on their team. If your client recently went on a vacation and you’re sending them a work-related email, begin your email by asking how their vacation went.

You can also set up Google alerts for your clients and their industries. You’ll be notified whenever there is news about a client, at which time you can send an email to them acknowledging the news, or news related to a specified industry, which may be something to share with your clients who are in that industry.

It’s the “little” interactions like these that make a big difference in the nature of your relationship.

Incorporate Face-to-Face Communication
Your client may prefer written communication forms, but that doesn’t mean they might not be open to connecting face-to-face via a video web conference platform. Tools like Zoom.us and Join.Me make spontaneous video meetings accessible in an instant. You and your client could be 500 miles apart and yet you can see each other and interact as if you were in the same room – we truly are not limited by geographic boundaries!

These are great tools for collaborating, but it’s still important to ask your client for their preference. If they’d rather not use a video web conference platform, offer another method of communication instead.

Social Media
Online social networking platforms are a great way to stay in touch with clients. If you’re not active on LinkedIn, it’s an ideal place to start. Be sure that you’re connecting with your clients, colleagues and other professional contacts on LinkedIn. When you read an interesting article or news update, you can share it with your LinkedIn network or you can send it to just one or a few people in a direct message. It’s likely that many of your clients are also active on LinkedIn, which gives you the opportunity to interact with them in a different setting. If you aren’t checking the platform regularly, you could be missing important news or updates that they’re sharing with their networks.

In addition, it’s becoming more common to connect with clients and business contacts on traditionally “personal” social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (we’d highly encourage Twitter for thought leadership!). If you feel comfortable doing so, it’s a wonderful way to connect with clients on a more personal level. You can segment friend lists on Facebook, too, which allows you to decide who sees which posts (helpful for when you want to announce that your son’s old bike is for sale, but don’t feel like your long-distance client cares to know about it).

Many of these ideas should already be in play in your existing client service strategy. They’re even more important for maintaining strong relationships virtually. Choose one area where you could make an improvement during the next six months. Then, choose another area to tackle. Get creative with the ways that you connect with your clients and you’ll experience great benefits in your client relationships.

What other ideas do you have for serving more virtual clients? Where can you improve your communication with clients? We’d love to hear your ideas!