Leveraging Low-Cost Technology to Attract the Next Generation of Clients
Providing services for current clients is often easier for CPA firms than recruiting new clients or tailoring existing services. Although CPAs should strive to meet the needs of their existing clientele, increasing efforts to attract the next generation of clients is vital for firms wishing to prosper in today’s environment. This article provides direction for CPAs seeking to use low-cost technology to attract the next generation of clients, with a focus on virtual meetings, social media, instant messaging, and shareable file storage.
How can firms attract the next generation of clients? This task can be daunting. Technology seems to move at the speed of light. In the United States, the general population is accustomed to receiving instantaneous access to a vast array of information sources. Bank balances can be obtained online or via an app in a matter of seconds. Need an answer to a question? Just Google it. Want food delivery? There’s an app for that.
Such technological conveniences are the norm for younger clients who can’t recall a time before the Internet. Generation Z grew up with technology and spends as much time on its smartphones as older generations spend watching TV (Business Insider, “Generation Z: Latest characteristics, research, and facts”). These younger potential clients may have a different set of desires and expectations than a CPA firm’s existing clientele, and it may seem difficult to meet those demands.
There are, however, many low-cost technology resources and tools that CPAs can utilize to reach the next generation of clients. Enhancing a firm’s quality of service and increasing client satisfaction should be the overall goal of implementing any new technology.
Virtual meetings are a great way to appeal to the next generation of clients. These meetings allow clients the flexibility of time and location. CPAs don’t have to be in the same room, or even in the same state, to meet with clients. If necessary, virtual meetings can occur at a moment’s notice. A recent advertisement from a leading tax software vendor touts this feature as a selling point. Brick-and-mortar CPA firms can offer the same service without incurring any additional costs. Consider one of the following tools for virtual meetings: Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype. CPAs can use any of these platforms to conduct virtual client meetings using smartphones, tablets, or computers (along with a webcam or integrated camera). In addition to video call functionality, individuals can share their screen, enabling users to discuss a tax return, review financial reports, or view other client documents. If desired, calls can be recorded when using Zoom or Skype to view at a later time. Group calls can be recorded to share nonconfidential matters that may be beneficial to several clients or even posted to a firm’s website or social media account.
Zoom’s free version allows users to conduct unlimited one-on-one meetings. Group sessions are limited to 100 participants and 40 minutes. Additional features useful for group calls include a whiteboard, breakout rooms, and group messaging. Participants using Zoom are not required to register for a Zoom account to take part in a call; they need only to click on a shared or posted link.
Google Hangouts and Skype have free versions that place no time limits on calls and allow individuals to have oneon-one meetings or up to 25 or 50 simultaneous participants in one call, respectively; users must register for their own Google or Skype account, however, to participate in the call. Both Zoom and Skype offer an increased number of simultaneous participants and additional features for a monthly fee. Existing Office 365 or Office 365 Enterprise users may already have Skype for Business, an upgraded version of Skype.
Utilizing every available platform is the best strategy for firms seeking to establish a social media presence and attract new clients. According to the Pew Research Center, the platform with greatest approximate usage by U.S. adults is YouTube (73%), followed by Facebook (69%), Instagram (37%), LinkedIn (27%), Snapchat (24%), and Twitter (22%) (“Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018,” Pew Research Center, April 2019). With such a wide variation in platforms, businesses that utilize only one of these may miss opportunities to reach new clients (see Exhibit).
U.S. Adult Social Media Usage, by Age
Because YouTube and Facebook, the most widely used social media platforms, have a wide range of age groups using the sites, these are the best platforms to use to attract a wide demographic. Instagram and Snapchat appeal primarily to younger age groups, especially 18–24. Conversely, LinkedIn would be the least effective way to reach for the 18–24 age group, as this is the lowest utilized platform in this age group by a significant margin. To have the most extensive reach and attract the next generation of clients, businesses need to know their audience and utilize multiple social media sites. It’s no longer enough to be active on only one platform. One time-saving tip is the seamless integration of Facebook and Instagram, which can allow for reaching a broad range of potential clients. Users can share one post on both platforms simultaneously by linking their accounts.
In addition to age differences, the frequency of use varies among social media platforms. U.S. adults using Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are likely to access the social media platform daily, with approximately 74%, 63%, and 61% of respective users reporting use of the platform one or more times per day. This frequency is even greater for users in the 18–29 (Gen Z) age group; more than three-quarters of users in this age category (Snapchat, 77%; Instagram, 76%) access those social media platforms every day. This demographic also has a high likelihood of return, with most users in this age category (Snapchat, 68%; Instagram, 60%) returning to these platforms multiple times per day. YouTube and Twitter visits are slightly less frequent, with approximately 51% and 46% of the same demographic’s users accessing the site daily (Pew Research Center, April 2019). Therefore, it would be in a CPA firm’s best interest to post at least once per day to maximize client out-reach efforts. Multiple postings per day allow businesses to appear frequently in users’ newsfeeds, staying relevant and competitive with other businesses that post to social media sites.
In today’s technology-rich environment, many clients want informal access to their CPA to discuss pressing issues or ask a quick question whenever it comes to mind. Online providers, such as Intuit’s Turbo Tax, offer “real CPAs on demand” (https://intuit.me/3vCkeT8). Although this may not be a practical or even desirable goal for many brick-and-mortar CPA firms, attracting the next generation of clients requires an almost instantaneous response time. Email and phone are excellent points of contact, but having a resource for instant messaging or live chat can shorten response times and foster client-practitioner relationships.
Although many businesses use instant messaging to communicate within the organization, two previously mentioned platforms, Google Hangouts and Skype, have instant messaging capabilities that can be utilized to reach clients. These platforms work much like text messaging, but communication occurs either through a computer or mobile app. This reduces the need to exchange personal phone numbers.
Another option is to use the built-in messaging features that exist within each social media platform. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all have private messaging features. Instagram and Twitter refer to them as DMs (direct messages) that can be sent within each platform. Facebook uses an independent app called “Facebook Messenger.”
Each of these messaging options provides benefits for clients and practitioners while eliminating the burden of maintaining a list of contacts or Rolodex of numbers. Regardless of which messaging application a CPA firm chooses, clients receive access to their CPA at a moment’s notice, and professionals have the flexibility to respond to these messages at their convenience from any location.
In addition to reaching their CPA quickly, the next generation of clients also wants the ability to conveniently retrieve and send items around-the-clock. Rather than emailing or physically mailing items, clients can upload them to a private shared folder. Not only is this convenient for clients—it is also beneficial for firms by allowing practitioners access to an automatically created, centralized repository of each client’s documents and associated items. Likewise, practitioners can upload items for clients to access anytime. Furthermore, remote file access can assist in long-distance engagements with existing clients.
The possibilities of what can be remotely shared are endless, and various functionalities exist. Taxpayers can upload snapshots of receipts to maintain a record of possible deductions. CPAs can share documents for clients to e-sign. Tax planners can be digitized for clients to complete and submit virtually. The most recent financial statements or tax return filings can be password-protected and uploaded for subsequent client access. Many accounting and tax software packages have client portals and file sharing capabilities that businesses may already utilize.
There are also other options to consider. OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google One are several popular cloud file storage and file sharing resources. At a fundamental level, all three do the same thing—store files, enable users to access files on multiple devices, and allow users to share files with others. They differ on several points, including pricing, storage capabilities, and sharing functionality.
All three platforms offer plans designed for individuals and businesses; the Sidebar lists each provider’s pricing and related storage capacity. Each service provides discounts for annual payment plans. Businesses can better determine storage needs by knowing that, roughly estimated, one terabyte (TB) can hold approximately 86 million Microsoft Word document pages (Kelly Brown, “A terabyte of storage space: How much is too much?”, The Information Umbrella, University of Oregon, July 2014).
All three platforms allow file sharing by entering recipients’ email addresses or creating a shareable link to distribute at will (e.g., via email, posting online). CPAs can grant different permissions to enable users to view-only or have editing capabilities. OneDrive allows users to set a password and an expiration date on shared files with their Office 365 plans. Dropbox provides these options as well as an additional feature for requesting files from individuals with a Dropbox Professional plan. CPAs should exercise care when using any file sharing service to ensure the confidentiality and security of client information.
Businesses must adapt to a constantly changing technology environment. Virtual meetings, social media, instant messaging, and shareable file storage are great tools for enticing new clients and furthering relationships with existing clients. Client security and satisfaction are two things to keep in mind when utilizing any digital platform. Integrating new technologies with current operations can enhance a CPA firm’s quality of service and increase the satisfaction of existing clients while attracting new ones.
Comparison of Popular File Sharing Providers
Cori Oliver Crews, DBA, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting at the Langdale College of Business Administration, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Ga.
Casey J. Colson, MAcc, CPA, is an accounting lecturer at the Langdale College of Business Administration, also at Valdosta State University.