Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.

Business Development Plans while Keeping Socially Distant

Cheryl L. TalericoBy Cheryl L. Talerico

Months after COVID-19 forced the abrupt closure of businesses, the world remains upside down in many ways. As businesses and individuals look to trusted advisers to get them through this difficult time, CPAs have become more important than ever before. But connecting with potential clients has become more difficult than it was already. CPAs need to adjust their tried-and-true business development techniques and prepare for a post-COVID-19 world that may look much different.

Reach Out

Holding a virtual meeting onlineAppropriate pandemic measures require social distancing, but it is not a time to disappear. We don’t know when or if our contacts will be going back to an office, so proactively identify bankers, attorneys, and prospects to reach out to. Ask how you can help them and to whom can you introduce them. It may be the right time to narrow your focus and try to build a stronger relationship with just a few people. Create a calendar to connect, even if it’s with one contact every two or three days. A quick call or email can mean a lot.

Know Your Audience

It’s difficult to tell what people are feeling during times of disorder. Even the toughest cookie may have days when they feel like they may crumble. Be sensitive to the fact that a client or prospect may be dealing with high stress or anxiety. Connect authentically. A simple “How has the pandemic affected you?” or “Are you OK?” can set the table for them to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. You may gain important insight by listening to their response.

Current Clients May Need More Help

Sometimes the best business development effort is to simply do good work. Continue servicing your current clients at the same high level you always have. If you transitioned to working remotely, remind clients of that. Some firms have discovered the benefit of more face-to-face (albeit virtual) contact with clients while reducing travel time. Check in with clients to see how their business is doing. Keep your ears open for opportunities that may arise outside of your normal engagement.

Illustrate Your Expertise

Information consumption has increased greatly since March, and CPAs are racing to send out information before competitors. It’s important to be aware of and on top of current issues. Personal emails are a great way to reach out. If your firm has a marketing department, they can lead the effort to send information to your clients and contacts. If your firm hasn’t already, identify niches/specialties on which you can focus business development efforts.

Learn to Use Technology

Just as you would handle an in-person meeting smoothly and efficiently, your contacts will expect the same for virtual encounters. Take the time to learn and understand the platform you’re using. Going forward, this skill needs to be an element of one’s executive presence. Take the time to set up the appropriate lighting, positioning, and background for your virtual meetings.

Beef Up Your Online Presence

It’s so easy now to research a person while in a meeting with them. You may be on a video call with someone who has your LinkedIn profile on a second screen. Be sure to have a recent photo on that profile. Run a Google search on yourself to see what others see when they search for information about you. Post articles and original content to reinforce your expertise. If you can commit to adding content regularly, start a blog, or write an article for your firm’s website.

Identify and Articulate Expectations

If you are planning a virtual networking event, clearly state what the event will look like. Will all attendees be given the opportunity to speak/identify themselves? Will the call be a presentation format? Should attendees use cameras? How will you share attendee information? Identify someone to host or moderate the event, and make sure it starts and ends on time. They can also ask people to speak who may not feel comfortable jumping into the conversation themselves.

Entertaining Won’t Be the Same

If your business development efforts had involved a lot of entertaining, you certainly need to pivot. Without knowing when we will once again attend sports or cultural events, find creative ways to have no-contact fun. Virtual scavenger hunts, motivational speakers, and wine tastings are some examples. If you have access to home addresses of your attendees, send items before the event (such as game pieces, gift cards for food delivery, logo items, or bottles of wine).

Find What Works for You

Virtual networking is similar to in-person networking in that you will want to try new things, attend organizations’ events, get attendee lists if you can, and follow up. Some things will work better than others. If you are an introvert, you may find virtual networking to be more comfortable than physically walking into a room and approaching people. As in-person networking events return, be sure to follow any protocol that your firm has in place. If firms are restricting travel and client visits, they may also prohibit in-person networking.

Ask for the Business/Referral

Closing a sale or getting a referral won’t be any easier in the post-COVID-19 landscape, but be confident in your abilities. Tell a prospect you want to work with them. Explain to the referral source that you have a goal to grow your book of business.

Just as we advise clients to plan for the future, we must do the same. We can’t wait for the pandemic to end before we continue our business development efforts. Everything we do today should be a step toward reaching our future goals. With a plan in place, you will be more assured of coming through this crisis stronger than before.

Cheryl L. Talerico is director of marketing at Sisterson & Co. LLP in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at cltalerico@sisterson.com.

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