Networking in a new world

Shutterstock_1726119376Amid continued business uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic caused, CPAs have successfully moved their professional lives to a virtual environment. But while they may have learned that it’s possible to conduct business interactions online, maintaining personal connections with clients, referral sources and other key contacts can be more challenging. Virtual networking can be done, though, if you follow these tips.

Focus on the personal

Since there may be no client visits or lunches and networking events, CPAs must be proactive to maintain contact. Be sure to go beyond work concerns in client conversations and take some time to find out how they’re doing, advises Amanda Gessner, CPA, at 24-person Schmitz-Holstrom in Bismarck, ND.

If there are indications of problems, such as a client who seems stressed or distracted during an online meeting, take time to show you care about any challenges they may face.

At the same time, it’s important to communicate strategically. With clients bombarded with information, CPAs should be aware of how much contact people may need or want. Customize your outreach based on their business situation, their levels of anxiety and other relevant factors. 

Use technology for casual contacts, too

Although face-to-face contact can keep relationships strong, will digital options work for informal conversations?

Jeff Wilson II, CPA/PFS, CGMA, was not originally enthusiastic about virtual happy hours. The founder of the seven-person W2 Group LLC, in Upper Marlboro, MD, Wilson questioned the merits of socializing while sitting at his desk and staring at a screen as people talked over each other.

Wilson recently used virtual happy hours to maintain close ties with a networking group of fellow accountants and other contacts. He’s seen how well they can be managed. Leveraging the functionality of the platform you’re using can enhance the experience. For example, use Zoom breakout rooms so people can have more in-depth conversations.

Expand your reach

Sarah Bilant, CPA advises getting involved with your state CPA society and discovering what virtual networking options it may offer. She also suggests contacting people with whom you may have lost touch, including former networking group acquaintances or even college friends, or starting online networking groups. Bilant is a manager at the 10-person Elliott CPA Group Inc. based in Santa Rosa, CA, but works remotely from Nevada.  

Consider the advantages

Many see online options as a temporary fix for client or referral source contact. You may succeed and enjoy it more if you see ways it can improve networking.

Given the distances between Gessner’s firm and some of its clients, for example, digital contact can reduce travel costs and allow more face-to-face interaction. Bilant, who lives in a town of fewer than 8,000 people, is excited to possibly to expand her network significantly, well beyond her immediate area.

Online networking may also be valuable for introverts. Rather than stressing about initiating a conversation or being uncertain what to say during a client or networking meeting, they can schedule online meetings and prepare notes to use while working in a familiar environment.

Be a resource

As technology becomes a lifeline for clients, CPAs can add value by helping more traditional individual clients and organizations grapple with operating in the new environment. At his firm, Wilson offers advice to clients and other CPAs in his networking group on how best to harness their digital options.

Show the true you

CPAs have a reputation for being great with numbers and data, but Bilant says that this is a good time to show that you are multifaceted. One way to do that is by sharing some personal interests on social media or the firm website, which can help deepen your connections.

Whatever digital networking choices work best for you and your clients, the good news is that it’s still possible to maintain or build strong relationships with clients and other key contacts.

Erin K. Carson, PMP, Manager — Young Member Initiatives, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants