Will accountants ditch face-to-face for video meetings?
After a year of coronavirus restrictions, clients are now used to meetings over Zoom or MS Teams. With lockdown easing across the UK, will we revert back to face-to-face meetings?
Have your clients’ favourite biscuits gone stale in the biscuit tin? Since the pandemic hit last year, clients used to popping into the office have had to settle for online meetings. Now the country is gradually re-opening, Zoom-fatigued clients are itching to get back to physical meetings.
The “cautious” easing of lockdown restrictions in England will put accountants in an anxious position. Park bench reunions with another household were allowed from 8 March, and the stay at home order will end from 29 March, enabling the flexibility for private garden get-togethers.
Requests to meet clients
As a viewer on AccountingWEB Live’s Any Answers raised last week, accountants now face requests for face-to-face meetings and the daunting dilemma of closing Zoom and mingling with clients again.
With the virus still prevalent, and the government-mandated restrictions in place, the viewer isn’t ready for in-person meetings yet - despite pressure from clients saying that their friends’ accountants are having meetings.
“I am not keen and don't feel we should yet and we are offering Zoom, phone calls, face times,” said the viewer. “We also send out information via emails, phone calls, WhatsApp. But some are quite funny with us that we won’t have face-to-face meetings.”
Similarly, viewer Luke Luke who is clinically vulnerable also denied a meeting with a client who “wasn’t too chuffed”.
Do we even need to meet clients?
But as accountants push back against client meetings, there is a question over whether face-to-face meetings are even needed.
"I don’t think face-to-face meetings are going to be anywhere as prevalent as they were before,” said Any Answers Live panellist and founder of PJCO accountants, Peter Jarman.
His firm is having every meeting virtually where possible. If anything, the last 12 months have demonstrated that “location is no longer a major influence on potential clients” - and these clients want virtual meetings.
Indeed, Insight 101’s Phillipa Haynes has seen the pandemic serve as a catalyst for change.
“Competition has broadened and location is no longer as important as it once was. We can reach further but that won't be face to face,” she said. “Some won't want this but over the years it is bound to change the landscape of accounting.”
Remote working changes the office dynamic
Another consideration for PJCO is the success of the government-mandated remote working. “I doubt we’ll have the whole team together in the office again,” said Jarman. “It’ll be a matter that part of the team will be in at part of the time. So there won’t be the option for clients to turn up. It will be a matter of arranging online meetings.”
Sarah Sallis of The Accountancy Office and Any Answers Live panellist also doesn’t expect a return to the standard face-to-face meetings in the profession. “A whole new culture has been developed as a result of the pandemic and ppl are relying on zoom and virtual calls. Previously we had a number of clients who would have never considered Zoom as a way of communication and it was accepted that it was a face-to-face meeting. But those clients have now become accustomed to using Zoom.”
Face-to-face is still needed
But the success of virtual meetings has been a mixed bag. Bhimal Hira, a partner at Jeffreys Henry, told AccountingWEB that most of the younger clients are happy to communicate via Zoom/MS Teams – but this doesn’t suit everyone.
“We've found the older generation still prefer face-to-face but socially distanced meetings. We've also found that our conversion of new clients has dropped as online meetings with potential clients just doesn't ignite that spark.”
Jarman has also met a couple of clients where there was no way to deal with them virtually. These tend to be older clients where technology is a problem but he also has a client with hearing problems and needs to meet in-person to lip read.
Although Sallis hasn’t had any requests for face-to-face meetings, she’s had two instances where new clients have dropped off ID documents or paperwork – but this was done at a two-meter distance and wearing masks.
Video and face-to-face hybrid
Firms now tread a difficult balance of adapting to the new post-Covid world of video conferencing, but without the detrimental effect on their client conversion.
Jarman wants to incorporate online meetings into his practice post-Covid, but while Zoom and MS Teams filled the void, he has reservations about their ability to replicate the same atmosphere as a meeting in his office with clients.
He thinks he’s found the answer in Connect 4, an app that brings together an inclusive video meeting with agendas and the option to go back to past meetings. “It makes it much more like a physical meeting in your office,” said Jarman.
What does the future look like?
Meanwhile, Sallis isn’t ditching face-to-face meetings, although the flexibility of online meetings, without the hassle of travelling in for the meetings, is perk clients have appreciated.
As restrictions start to ease, and firms wait on government guidance, it will be interesting to see whether clients want to return to face-to-face meetings or whether they would now prefer to hop on a Zoom call.
But with Any Answer Live viewers considering socially distanced outdoor meetings in the near future, perhaps now might be the time to restock on your client’s favourite biscuits.