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Technology can help firms keep on top of their client messages
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Tech tools to juggle client communications

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Even with all the tools we have available, client communication continues to be a delicate balancing act, writes Alex Falcon Huerta. 

30th Mar 2022
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We are inundated with emails all the time. Even before Covid times, there were more incoming messages than it felt like we could manage.

I don’t see this as a negative. It means business owners are becoming more aware of compliance requirements and are keen to learn more about options and what is available to them. The pandemic showed many people how important it was to stay on top of the admin.

[email protected] [email protected] 

At Soaring Falcon, we currently use one inbox for the team and manage it carefully to channel messages in a virtual way - often using the department name or function as the destination address. As the emails come in, they are allocated to the right person by our operations manager. This means we don’t miss emails from clients; if an account manager isn’t available, someone is on hand to respond or help. 

Under our current comms regime, a client emails [email protected] and their message is allocated to the responsible person. If the recipient doesn't know how to respond or have the technical details to hand, the message is escalated internally to try and find the answer or solution. In some cases, it may need to be escalated externally; in both cases, there are delays in getting back to the client, which can fuel frustration at their end.

If the team member promises to get back, but forgets to communicate the outcome the client’s frustration will build and they may end up chasing me or copying me with the message to get a response. 

High end clients in particular require immediate replies because they will often be stumped with something to do with the day to day running of the business. The team needs to turn around their queries as quickly as possible. At the same time, the wellbeing of team members needs to be managed so they are not overwhelmed.

Ticketing systems

In the past I did try out various “ticketing” systems. These are classic helpdesk programs that record an incident or request, assign them an ID number and then track activity on each task through to completion. I quickly realised they all required a lot more attention than just adding the app into our workflow. They needed to be fed with FAQs [frequently asked questions] that gave suitable advice to all comers, while directing clients to get further advice from us if their query wasn’t covered properly. We didn’t have all this material in place, nor the infrastructure to manage it all.

But as I researched communication management tools that could track turnaround times, monitor who was accountable and how issues get escalated (with an audit trail), my shortlist came back to ticketing solutions. The programs we looked at were:

  1. Help scout
  2. Front Ap
  3. Zendesk
  4. Jira
  5. HiverHQ

I also took a look at chatbots. We needed a system that wasn’t going to interrupt team members while they were dealing with high-end tax work. I didn’t want to set ourselves up to fail with a disappointing response mechanism. 

Managing ad hoc queries

When day-to-day workflows are high, email responses can be slow. This will always be the case for accountants as we are always faced with hard deadlines. We try to manage this by advising clients of the heat map graphic available on our website. Being transparent and honest about delivery can help the overall outcome and end result. We faced this several times during the pandemic, when we had hundreds coming in at the same time marked as “urgent”.

I needed to identify a way to communicate effectively and meet the demands from clients and ensure everyone had a reply and the answer they required.

At the moment, our comms process feels long-winded and time-consuming, but it's a work in progress. In most cases, teams look after their own inbox, but if they are not tracked, I wouldn't actually know if they are all being dealt with efficiently.

Client responses

The same concerns apply the other way around. If one of our team asks for information from a client, they often have to do this several times, with increasing frequency. It is only when the deadline is approaching that the client sends it in, because they are fully focused on their business. The finances aren't as much of a priority to them as us. 

Clients are working on their own projects and customer deadlines. But when data such as VAT returns are all due at once, the cumulative delays can overwhelm our team, so that’s another communication workflow we need to manage carefully.

Automated solutions

With all these various challenges to overcome, our comms strategy is based around a number of automated solutions, including:

  • Having an out-of-office on to advise the clients of urgent matters and allow the client to automatically book in a slot to discuss matters that need to be dealt with, using an interactive calendar such as Youccanbook.me
  • Creating a quick guide to a particular subject, with links to videos, processes and “how-to” tutorials. We use confluence for this content.
  • Reminders of when things are due - either by email or text message/ WhatsApp messages
  • Ticketing system - for auto-replies and guides, but essentially showing the turnaround time for internal purposes (yet to be implemented).

Implementation strategy

Any systems and processes introduced to a business will always need an implementation strategy. Trying to roll a new system out using trial and error and learning as you go isn't smart or efficient. The whole team needs training before you introduce it to ensure they know how it works and can keep on top of it.

For example, to implement something like a chatbot, we need to allocate time slots when the team members will be available to handle replies, and ensure they are dedicated to the responses. Where a client has a specific query, we can automate a response which that asks, “When do you need this by, within the hour, within the day, or tomorrow?”

If there are one-off queries that take time, then we will still need to advise the client on our availability and book time in - we can use our booking system for this. 

Team communication 

I speak to my team on a regular basis. We check in on deadlines and delivery with daily huddles and updates. Following some advice from one of our clients, these daily check-ins are now handled via the DailyBot in Slack, which asks each team member: 

  • What did you do yesterday? 
  • What do you plan to do today?
  • What are your blockers? 

The automated process works really well and gives an audit trail for each client and allows us to drill down to find out where we are spending most of our time on client work.

We also use Hubstaff to track staff productivity and Xavier Analytics to monitor the level of work required for each client. These tools are all relevant since if the team starts to spend more than the service level agreement designates for a client, we then need to review their fees. 

The communication and service formula can be quite complex, but essentially we are here to make a profit. It's important that we keep on top of things. Communication is key to learning and understanding where the business is at, where the team is at and where the clients are at. But overall, a good client comms environment means we are all aligned and understand the goals, vision and purpose of what we do.

Replies (3)

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ghm
By TaxTeddy
31st Mar 2022 11:22

An excellent article, very well explained.

It's great to see the current technology being used in a thoughtful way and each part of the process being looked at critically, not just a case of "if it's the latest technology it must be good".

The only slightly disappointing aspect was that your "heat map" looks exactly the same as it would for my micro business which runs without all of this technology.

Which begs the question of whether the technology is actually helping or whether it means that your firm is doing the same as it has always done, just with different tools?

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By indomitable
31st Mar 2022 16:52

What you are explaining appears overcomplex to me. I only recruit qualified staff, whether that is accountants or bookkeepers or tax advisors. They are allocated clients when the client is taken on.

Staff know they must respond to to each client's email within 48 hours or delegate the issue up.

If your staff do not have too many clients that they can handle they should be able to do this without any issues.

Depends on your business model I know many accountants that recruit not so qualified staff as they are cheaper and then give them too many clients. A recipe for disaster as they will never be able to answer all emails and may not know the answer.

I don't think automation helps at all here and clients prefer an email from a person, not a ticket. People like to deal with people. I know I do.

Pricing is also a consideration if you are at the lower end of the market, it will be difficult to service clients properly.

I think this really boils down to a couple of things - have your staff got the time to answer emails from clients and educate clients to not email stupid questions

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ghm
By TaxTeddy
01st Apr 2022 17:07

Just to qualify my earlier comments, this reminds me very much of an interview I saw some years ago with Andy Summers, guitarist with The Police.

Those of you who are not guitarists may not fully appreciate that most guitarists will use an array of effects (reverb, echo, delay, and so on). Summers was talking about his latest digital state-of-the-art effects rack and in particular mentioned what, back in the 1970s, would have been know as a "wah-wah pedal" but had been reinvented as a digital effect and was now known as an "envelope filter". Different, but the same.

The telling comment from Summers was that when he was summing up his new, shiny and very expensive digital effects system he did so by saying that what it allowed him to do was to produce all of the sounds which he had already done many years ago without all of this equipment.

And I suppose, that's my point.

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