Ready or not, here it comes: the cloud is upon us. Whether you wanted these changes or not, it’s time to get on board and radically alter how you operate your tax and accounting practice. With the emergence of new technologies and client expectations continuing to shift every day, the way we run our businesses (even in an “old school industry”) has to evolve as well — and the cloud can help you keep up the pace.
Even if in-person meetings are your specialty and a key differentiator for your firm, the reality is that some clients no longer need to see you face to face. In fact, 58% of small businesses do not expect to meet with their accountants in person anymore. New competitors such as Visor will be competing with your offerings by utilizing technology as a differentiating factor. The rise of cloud-based accounting tools are both a blessing and a curse: your firm’s growth is no longer restricted by geographic proximity to clients, but neither is anyone else’s. A new competitor (like Visor) located across the country (or not restricted by location at all) could take a local client of yours that previously thought they had no other choices. At the same time, using the tips below along with a more aggressive and sophisticated technology and marketing approach, you may have some ability to access markets and clients that used to be out of your reach.
The rivalry will continue to grow in the near future, and firms need the proper tools if they are going to remain competitive. Here are some best practices for setting up a virtual tax and accounting practice.
1. Develop your digital footprint
There are countless ways to build out a presence in the digital world for your firm, but some are more important than others. All of the items below will help you build out a great foundation for your virtual practice.
HTTPS SSL websites
As you may have noticed, since around October of 2017, Chrome, Firefox and other major browsers started flagging websites as “Not Secure” if they were not using SSL certificates and HTTPS. This is valuable for the public, as it protects web users from having their identity or private information intercepted; however, for site owners it can add complications and decrease the number of form submissions they receive if their pages are flagged as “Not Secure.”
There are a multitude of reasons to make the switch, beyond the benefit for your visitors of having peace of mind that their information is secure. Google now also rewards HTTPS secure websites with better search engine results, and you may even see an indirect benefit of your site receiving more form submissions (our TaxBuzz leads increased by 125% when we upgraded to HTTPS).
Between the labor to install the certificate and the certificate itself, getting an SSL secure site can be expensive. Last year, we upgraded our entire web-hosting platform to include an upgraded firewall, more powerful servers and SSL security built in. This is available to our subscribers on the Profit Margin and above packages. If you are not currently a website subscriber, the free SSL certificate might be enough to get you to make the switch. Feel free to start a free trial to get the power of CountingWorks PRO behind your practice.
While some may see blogging as something people do for pleasure, it is also vitally important to your business — and differentiating your firm from competitors. With tax reform and the growth of cloud accounting, people have questions. Use your blog content as a way to introduce your brand to a new audience that is seeking professional help. Let’s take a look at some numbers.
First off, blogging brings in leads. In fact, small businesses that blog get 126% more lead growth than those that do not, and with 70% of customers saying blogs influence what they buy and 90% finding custom content useful, you cannot afford to be missing out on this medium of content creation.
On the SEO side of things, there are even more benefits. 95% of businesses with a blog report higher search engine ranks and receive almost 2x more inbound links than those who do not. Adding between 21 and 51 blogs can increase your website traffic by up to 30%, and adding at least 52 posts can increase your traffic more than 77%.
A few more perks: having a blog creates content for social media sharing, builds your online reputation, provides a platform for you to to showcase and share your expertise, and allows you to differentiate yourself from the competition. Are you convinced yet? If you have not started your blog, now is the perfect time.
The rise of social media has been both a marathon and a sprint for marketers, with some companies clearly leading the pack and continuing to innovate how they interact with customers on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. With the number of active social media users worldwide inching closer to 3 billion each day and 85% of people relying on Twitter and Facebook for their morning news, there is no easier way to reach your target market than to have active social profiles for your firm.
As an added bonus for small businesses, social media profiles are an extremely cost-effective way of building a digital footprint and marketing to potential clients. The profiles themselves are free to set up and companies who do choose to utilize advertising tools like Facebook Ads will find them to be significantly cheaper than many other marketing techniques.
If you want to widen your exposure and start building brand awareness (both in your locale and outside of it), then maintaining active social media profiles for your firm is imperative.
In the past, accounting and tax firms used printed newsletters to stay in front of clients and generate word of mouth referrals. Today, email newsletters provide a faster and easier way to keep clients informed of what’s happening with your firm and in the world of accounting and tax.
Done well, email newsletters showcase your expertise, alert clients to the latest changes in tax and accounting rules, and help retain and grow your client base.
At CountingWorks, we provide accountants and tax pros with easy, automated and industry-leading newsletters, client alerts, eGreeting cards and more. We set them up, import your client lists, create any email segmentation, and automate it for you. Newsletters are sent automatically from you, under your firm’s logo and branding.
Local citations and inbound links
Local citations and inbound links are essential to your firm, especially if you are trying to get access to larger virtual markets out of your area. In order to get citations, your business will still need to use a physical address, or multiple physical addresses if you have multiple offices and virtual offices.
Citations also include sites that list a company’s name, office address and phone number, along with website addresses, photos, blogs and other information. Ensuring your firm is listed on local citation sites will increase 1) how many times you are mentioned on the web and improving your SEO and 2) how much traffic you receive from visitors finding your information on those sites and choosing to contact you.
It is important to note here that citation sites do require a local business address. So, even for those accountants who are running their business virtually from the comfort of their own home, it is imperative to have an office address listed.
Now, while these sites do go out and gather this business information from the web in large quantities on their own, it is still a best practice to verify and/or submit your business listing if it is missing. Google loves citation sites, and they are often some of the top search results. So, if your business is not on a list but your competitors are, they are far more likely to be capturing your potential customers when they go looking for the product or service you offer.
Positive reviews online will drastically change how much business you receive. Period.
Consider some of the statistics from Small Business Trends’ infographic on the importance of reviews. For every star a business gets (i.e. out of five stars on Google, TaxBuzz, etc.), there will be approximately 5-9% increase in business revenue. That’s huge. Beyond bringing in more customers and clients overall, businesses with great reviews can also increase their prices, as consumers are likely to spend 31% more on a business with excellent reviews.
On the opposite side, negative reviews (if not handled properly) have the potential to affect your business for years to come (the internet never forgets, remember?). 22% of consumers will not buy after reading just one negative review. After three negative reviews, that number jumps to 59%. On average, a single negative review can cost you 30 customers.
Don’t kid yourself thinking that having no reviews is just fine either: business listings with no reviews can turn off skeptical customers who may think you are not established in your industry.
Reputation building is a tricky business, but it is a crucial piece of your digital footprint. And, since the internet never forgets, make sure you are going the extra mile to earn positive feedback from your customers. Reviews can have a permanent impact on your firm’s success.
PR & guest posts
You are what people think you are. No matter what you dictate to be your firm’s key differentiators, if you cannot effectively communicate that to the public, then it will not come across in your messaging. Proactively maintaining relationships with media partners and controlling the narrative regarding your brand will ensure that you do not end up with a difficult public image situation later on.
One great way to boost your PR efforts is by writing guest posts on other blogs and websites to establish your firm as an expert thought leader in the industry. Guest posts will drive extra traffic to your site, improve brand awareness and help you obtain more of the ultra-illusive (and invaluable) inbound links.
2. Utilize cloud-based onboarding tools
Over two-thirds of accountants prefer cloud accounting to traditional methods. If you are one of them (or you want to be), then you may be aware of the many ways to take your firm into the cloud. There are countless tools to modernize your business operations, but let’s explore a few ways to get started with converting new clients using the cloud.
New client engagements
When you are onboarding a new client to your cloud-based accounting and tax practice, it is possible for everything to be done virtually, but security is an important consideration. As we discussed earlier, it is vital that your website has an SSL certificate and uses HTTPS in order to ensure that your clients’ personal information (e.g. social security number, business details, etc) does not fall into the wrong hands. Other services that allow you to securely operate entirely on the cloud can save valuable time and resources. For example, our secure electronic signature technology (E-Sign) allows you and your clients to sign documents from the convenience of your computers, tablets and even right from your smartphones. This means no more faxing and no more sharing confidential info by email. Your clients will thank you!
Voice over Internet Protocol (or VoIP) technology allows you to deliver voice communications and multimedia sessions (e.g. video chat) over the internet rather than via the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Since our world is more connected than ever and you are likely using the internet for a large portion of your workday anyway, this is a great way to have access to client calls anywhere, anytime.
As an added bonus, VoIP voicemail boxes do not get “full” like normal phone voicemails and they immediately notify you each time a message comes through, ensuring you never miss out on a new web lead or referral.
In the beginning of their life cycle, mobile phones were heavy, inconvenient and difficult to use. As we all know, that is no longer the case — so take advantage! With the emergence of the remote workforce and face-to-face communication losing its necessity in business, you can easily take your office with you. Ensuring potential leads have a mobile number where they can reach someone from your firm will drastically improve your ability to convert those leads into clients.
Beyond calling, your mobile phone (or tablet or laptop) can house countless apps and tools that better allow you to develop new business, even when you are outside the office. If your firm is based in the cloud then so are you, so your geographic location no longer has to limit your activities.
3. Make it easy for clients to securely interact with you online
So you onboarded a new client using cloud-based tools — now what? Well, the need for security and simplicity does not stop there. With 53% of small businesses adopting cloud-based practice management solutions on many levels (such as project management and communicating with clients), firms who stick to the “old ways” will be left in the dust. On top of that, 83% of clients are demanding more from their accountants today than they were five years ago. It is vital that your firm makes it as easy as possible for clients to safely communicate with you via the cloud in any situation. If you don’t, a competitor will.
Set up a secure portal
First things first: your clients need to be able to communicate with your firm securely. As we mentioned earlier, SSL and HTTPS are vitally important for the safety of your clients’ information, and for peace of mind for everyone involved in the business relationship. At CountingWorks PRO, we provide your clients a secure place to share confidential files, sign documents and send secure email messages–right from your website.
With our Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protection and the latest in encrypted digital services, you can confidently provide your clients with easy, 24/7 access to securely message you, provide key confidential documentation, book appointments and more. These secure client tools will help to make managing your practice easier and less time-consuming.
Use tools that make you mobile
Providing your clients with yet another easy way to contact you, such as with tools like Skype and Slack, will make their relationship with you even simpler. This goes along with the “mobile office” we discussed earlier: as more and more things continue to demand your attention in the future, taking work with you on the move (when necessary) can ensure you are always able to maintain those all-important client relationships — even in situations that would otherwise be inconvenient.
If you have not given your clients a way to pay you online yet, it is time to start. With checks becoming a distant memory — 52% of millennials never use them — online payments are both the present and the future. A 2013 report by the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General said nine out of ten Postal Service customers want to pay bills online, even if they choose to receive the bills in the mail. This is just one more way to make your clients’ interactions with you as easy as possible.
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There is one important caveat to the virtual tax and accounting practice discussion: should you be completely virtual? The short answer, especially for newer practices, is no. Even if you want your practice to be virtual, Google and many customers still expect to see a local address on their websites and marketing.
For practices who are already established with a large client base, moving toward being more (but probably not completely) virtual can be done over time and is a little easier. For newer practices, however, it is not recommended to start completely virtual, unless you 1) have a lot of investment money to spend on advertising, content and public relations or 2) you are already great at social media networking or something similar. Unless you are able to publish tons of custom content (which is both time consuming and expensive), you are willing to wait 1-3 years to show up in search engine results, or you spend thousands of dollars each month on advertising, it is extremely rare for a new virtual accounting and tax office to be successful without a local marketing focus.
So, the vast majority of practices (even if they consider themselves “virtual”) still need to display a local address on their website and marketing materials in order to optimize traffic and lead generation.
Times are changing for accountants and tax professionals, and clients are now more demanding than ever before. After surveying 3,000 accountants for the “Practice of Now” study, Sage reported that 42% of clients would now like accountants to offer business advice. If this is the case, it means that accountants need to review how they can loosen their administrative burden by automating the most time-consuming tasks.
A shift to the cloud is imperative for those firms that wish to remain competitive not only in their locale, but in their industry overall. Be prepared to put in the work now that will make life easier for yourself and your clients in the years to come.
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