Try scheduling Bill Parish for a meeting, and the accountant will tell you to log on to his Web site and make an appointment yourself. Messages left on his voicemail are automatically transcribed and sent to his inbox for his records. The same holds true for faxes. And if his clients have MSN Messenger and know his screen name, they can shoot him an instant message to ask a pressing question or just to see how the weather is, wherever he may be. Sometimes he even uses a Web camera so that clients he has never met can see what he looks like.
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Parish's company, Private Practice Group, is based in Cyberspace. Well, technically he can touch four walls at his Kansas City, Mo. home business, but he spends most of his time online.
The rest of his time is divided between Kansas City, Tampa and wherever his clients need him, but he's always sure to change the icon on his screen name so they know where he is-palm trees represent Florida, a racecar depicts Indianapolis.
"I didn't invent that technology, but I've embraced it," says Parish, a former technology committee and practice development committee chairman for the National Society of Accountants. "I've tried to take anything I can do in person and do it through cyberspace."
Parish serves as a rare model of how accountants can embrace electronic communication tools such as email, chat, blogs and RSS feeds to improve business with their clients or colleagues and cultivate deeper relationships in the process. But while the technology is affordable and the learning curve minimal, acquiring the skills to manage e-overload takes discipline.
Just Say No
"Clients can reach us any time, day or night, 24/7-or think they can. Technology adds stress. Just because we can deliver work faster, doesn't mean we must," says Claudia Hill, an enrolled agent and owner and principal of Tax Mam Tax Services Group in Cupertino, Calif. "The Internet can consume time, and time is what service professionals sell."
Lisa McCarthy, managing partner at Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Accounting Resource, attempted billing for answers to email questions but found it is not well-received by her clients who are more accustomed to prepaid phone-based tech support packages and assume email advice is free-as do Internet surfers with whom she has never conducted business.
"I'm not going to give out free information in hopes of them becoming my client," McCarthy says. "People will suck the life out of you if you let them."
If someone tries to type her a quick question, she responds that it cannot be answered over email. "I don't want them to think I'm an email help desk," she says.
Beyond loss of money comes potential liability if a client were to misinterpret an accountant's suggestions.
"For every question a client asks me, I usually ask three back," McCarthy explains. "I don't want to put advice in writing without talking to them and finding out the full spectrum of what they want to accomplish."
But what happens when clients won't take no for an answer?
Block them from asking, advises Parish.
He invites about half of his approximately 100 clients to engage in chat sessions with him and about a dozen take him up on the offer each day, some scheduling appointments through his Web site to conduct meetings in that format.
"I like that it's instantaneous, that my clients can say 'Do you have a minute to invest in me.' It's almost like having (them) move in to the space next door-you see them in the hallways and stop to talk to them. This becomes that hallway."
But like annoying neighbors who want you to listen to their jokes all the time, clients may do the same thing online. The trick is avoiding people who abuse the privilege. "You have to look at it as a business tool, not as a toy," Parish says.
Those who respect the system reap the rewards. When he sees articles of interest to a particular person or group, he copies and pastes the links into a chat window, whereas years ago he photocopied them and mailed them with yellow sticky notes.
Important discussions can be cut and pasted into a Word document and saved to the client's file. They have come to understand that because he bills in 15-minute increments, they are charged for conversations that last more than seven minutes, but most of them are shorter.
Sense of Urgency
While instant messaging practically demands an immediate response, accountants need to overcome the mindset that the same holds true for email if they do not want it to take over their lives.
Ferris Research has found that workers take an average one minute and 44 seconds to react to a new email notification and about 60 seconds to return to their prior task. If practitioners aren't careful, they can find themselves in a constant state of disruption and risk lowering their service levels as a result.
"There's a culture that any email message will elicit an instant reply. If it's simple and quick for me to send a message, it should be simple and quick for you to reply," says Richi Jennings, lead analyst, enterprise security practice at Ferris Research.
Not responding often triggers senders to follow up by phone or with another email message, even if it's obvious that the response may require time, he says. His advice: Send a reply saying "I'm onto this, but it will take me a while."
He advises setting aside four to fives times per day to process emails after finishing important tasks to maintain the balance between response time and completing those tasks.
Creating folders to sort messages for different days and weeks also helps. Workers can deal with more urgent tasks and then scan parallel inboxes on a regular basis.
Instead of inundating employees with emails, UHY Advisors decided to expand its Intranet portal to include RSS feeds, Web feeds that can be customized to include information for specific user groups in the firm and items of individual interest.
Weather and road conditions are among the choices, which Chief Information Officer Matt Camden admits are personal, but still relevant to business, especially for employees who travel.
UHY rolled out its new portal around March Madness last year to improve communications among its staff of roughly 1,500 members across 10 offices.
Since then, UHY has linked its time and billing and research tools to the portal and developed specific sections for tax, audit and litigation support. Now, RSS feeds travel directly into a special folder in employees' Outlook, so they don't even need to remember to check the intranet when basketball isn't in season.
UHY surveyed employees prior to last year's launch to determine how well it was communicating. Initially scores were low, Camden says. "One year later, there's a dramatic improvement to (how well) our staff people feel like they know what's going on."
Monetary investment was low the first time around, but the company plans to spend more to relaunch the system every year during the NCAA tourney to rekindle interest. Educating users how to navigate RSS feeds takes less than 10 minutes.
"It's the tail end of tax season and a good time to refresh," Camden says. "Anything we can do to increase employee awareness and employee satisfaction, it's worth the investment."
UHY also uses that tactic on potential clients, sending them RSS feeds that include reference tools and information about the industry and their competition and giving them a one-year subscription even if they don't choose to do business with the firm.
"We're trying to break into middle market public clients. These types of proposals are sometimes a year in the making," Camden says.
Setting the Trend
Camden's firm is far ahead of the technology curve in this arena, however. Of the top 50 accounting firms in the United States, only four provide RSS feeds for any of their Web site content, two of which are members of the Big 4, according to a yet-to-be-published spring 2007 study entitled "Beyond Brochureware? How 100 accounting firms in the United States and United Kingdom are responding to the opportunities of the new online environment."
"CPA firms are looking to provide thought leadership-briefings on new studies and white papers. RSS gives them an alternative to delivering that. However the leap in the means of delivery away from the printed word is missing in all but a tiny handful of firms," says Paul Gladen, president of Muzeview, a New York-based research and consulting firm focused on the professional services industry and coauthor of the study.