[IMGCAP(1)]Most tax preparers have heard by now of Skype or one of the similar video-conferencing services -- and some have tried such services, and report success when connecting with long-distance clients --some of whom the preparers have never even met.

As is typical of such services, Skype is computer-based and allows users to place voice calls through an Internet connection. Many of these services can also be used for chat, computer-to-computer and computer-to-phone calls and video conferences. Users typically pay a monthly fee, though several services offer free calls to members in the same provider’s network.

If used right, Skype or other video-conferencing services can fulfill all the clients’ -- and all the preparers’ -- needs of a face-to-face meeting, as well as often conveying a sense of cutting-edge tech to clients.

Enrolled Agent Lynn Schmidt of Lynco Financial & Tax Services Inc. (www.lyncotax.com), in Winter Haven, Fla., has been using Skype for about four years. Schmidt, who formerly lived in New York State, says that Skype has been especially effective in a state like Florida, where clients are often from elsewhere and sometimes out of town when they need taxes prepared. She schedules Skype video conversations with clients much as she would face-to-face appointments. 

“I thought it would be helpful because it helps alleviate a little of that maybe uncomfortable feeling a client might have because they’ve moved away or their accountant or preparer has moved away,” said Schmidt, a member of the National Association of EAs and the Florida Society of EAs.

Schmidt uses Skype with “several dozen clients” throughout the year for both her financial services and tax businesses, and has a Skype app on her cell phone, which is especially effective, she said, if she’s at a conference or elsewhere out of town and need to meet with a client.

“It helps bring back the closer relationship and more of the personal element of the business relationship. It makes [tax prep] more than just a transaction process,” said Schmidt, who’s found Skype such a good marketing tool that she features her Skype name on her company’s Web site. She also notes that Skype is much cheaper than adding another phone line for tax prep services that need to expand their phone access.

“Clients love it,” she added. “They think it’s totally cool.”

The LinkedIn discussion group “National Association of Tax Professionals” also bandied the idea of using Skype or a similar service. One preparer on the group said he uses Skype to interview clients remotely for preparing returns, but success depends on whether the client’s Net service is “Skype-capable,” and he was unsure how this would work with a new, unknown client. The client, who had not met the preparer before but who was “out of time” for filing, e-mailed a previous year’s return, however, and the preparation went “great … very natural and simple to interact.” The client also “liked the idea of the high-tech interaction.”

Another EA on the board, however, noted that there are security and client-privacy issues to consider before using Skype as part of a practice.

(A follow-up article addresses tips for using Skype and similar services and take a general look at what online video conference services are available.)