Communications is critical component within every business and can either enhance or detract from overall productivity within a firm. Core communication skills are developed as people grow and most are comfortable with the communication tools they were introduced to and utilize during their career, especially those they use most often on a day to day basis with their peer groups. Current firm leaders most likely can recall “pink” phone message slips and playing phone tag with voicemail, and the majority have evolved to appreciate the benefits of email for communicating with clients and digital calendars for setting appointments. At the other end of the spectrum are the next generation of firm leaders that have recently entered into management and view those technologies as “old school” and somewhat archaic when compared to the real time communication capabilities of today’s social media and collaboration tools. Most emerging leaders are used to tools such as Skype, Yammer, SocialCast, and FaceTime which provide instant communication (and satisfaction) with miniscule bits of information. The reality today is that both current and emerging leaders need to learn to utilize the best of available collaboration technologies within the context of what is most effective to service clients. At the end of this article we list questions that current firm owners and future firm leaders can discuss to help optimize collaboration and to identify the optimum medium to do so. In reality, the correct answer to which tool to use depends on the firm needs at that moment and the expectations of the two parties that are collaborating which also includes communications with clients. Below we discuss why firms should make collaboration tools a priority and an overview of options to consider.
Why Collaborate: One of the key tenants of our Lean Six Sigma consulting is to objectively evaluate firm production processes taking advantage of advancements in technology and to determine the optimum processes to provide service to clients, while at the same time reducing wasteful practices. Firms waste a significant amount of time when there is not a clear understanding of what is to be done and when personnel do not have access to their managers to provide appropriate direction. When millennial staff communicate with different tools than their in-charges utilize (often the leaders of the firm), there can be a disconnect, which results in false starts, project delays, and re-addressing the same issue without complete information, resulting in wasted productivity for the firm. Current and emerging leaders must both learn to use the optimum collaboration tools that allow for instant communication and sharing of information.
Below are five sets of tools that will help improve collaboration within the firm and with clients:
- Unified Messaging: Originally called CTI (Computer Telephony Integration), unified messaging allows for voicemail and faxes to be delivered within email so that all communications are centralized in one location (usually Microsoft Outlook), which is accessible on smartphones and tablets, as well as our workstations. Unified messaging is still a critical collaboration tool as this is the way many of our clients prefer to communicate, and is the most convenient to them. Newer phone systems have the ability to link to Microsoft Exchange to deliver voice-mail as an attached .wav file and faxes can be delivered as attached files through fax servers built into today’s duplicators and web-based services such as J2 and Nextiva.
- Portals/Secure Email: Email has become a default method of transferring information between the firm and its clients. Unfortunately, email poses a security threat when sending confidential data and violates cyber-security laws in most states if taxpayer identifiable information is included. The solution for firms is to standardize on secure document delivery through encrypted email and portals. Email solutions such as ShareFile, CPA SafeMail, and FileGenius allow for encrypted email delivery that is easy for clients to utilize. Most of the major tax application vendors have integrated portal solutions that make it easy for staff to publish and deliver final tax returns directly to the client’s portal directly from their tax program with an automated process. Firms find that posting instructions and video tutorials on the portal help remind clients on usage and common questions such as passwords.
- Instant Messaging: Instant messaging tools such as Skype for Business (formerly Microsoft Lync), Cisco Jabber, and Spark, have status screens which allow staff to see the availability of their in-charge and to send a text message if they have a question. Getting an appropriate answer to an immediate question allows staff to move ahead with work and get it done right the first time (quality and completeness are key tenants of Lean Six Sigma standards). While some in-charges view random staff interruptions as disruptive, it is a primary responsibility of being a manager and rules should be set on being available to manage. Staff have long utilized standalone instant messaging tools on their own (think AOL, Yahoo, and other public messenger tools) but most of these tools have evolved as part of a comprehensive collaboration suite.
- Collaboration Suite: Collaboration tools today have gone well beyond instant messaging to include real time communications such as voice and video chat, screen sharing, and even the ability to take control of the other person’s screen to provide assistance. While instant messaging is optimal for quick questions, using audio and video allows for more complex discussions and interactions to occur more efficiently as our voice tone and facial expressions aid significantly with communications. Skype for Business, Cisco Jabber, and Google Hangouts are examples of comprehensive collaboration suites which firms might consider for internal use. Within the accounting profession, we find that the major application vendors are very Microsoft centric with an obvious preference for Windows and Office tools integration, which points to our recommending that firms adopt Skype for Business (formerly Lync), and provide ongoing training so all firm members become proficient at using all these features. For assisting clients with their needs, firms should have remote access tools such as Join.me, LogMeIn and GoToMyPC available that all staff are trained on and comfortable using.
- Knowledge Inquiry and Capture: The final set of collaboration tools to discuss are the knowledge capture tools that allow firm personnel to inquire others about their knowledge and to have a tool that consolidates all responses to that inquiry in a searchable format so it can be updated and accessed at a later time. Early adopters of Knowledge Management tools utilized Lotus Notes, Microsoft SharePoint and even document management. Recently, social networking tools such as Microsoft Yammer, VMware SocialCast, and SalesForce Chatter, have begun to make inroads into firms for this specific purpose as they are often easier and more cost effective to utilize. Departmental groups and industry segments can set up their own groups and firm personnel can join and contribute to the specific areas where they have input. This allows firm knowledge to be conveniently captured in a tool that requires minimal training and are available in the event that employee leaves the firm.
Improving firm and client communications by taking advantage of today’s collaboration tools will make the firm more effective and efficient and will bring together every member of the firm on a common platform. Firms should consider allocating time during the slower summer months to discuss the various tools that are available today and how they can be optimized for the benefit of both the firm and our clients.
Discussion Questions to Improve Firm Collaboration Between Current and Emerging Firm Leaders:
□ How would the quality of a client project improve if current and emerging leaders collaborate more effectively when an issue arises that is beyond their comprehension?
□ What is the most effective way for current and emerging leaders to collaborate on a project when they are working in different locations?
□ In what areas would it be helpful for the firm leaders to capture and share the collective knowledge and experiences for the rest of us to utilize?
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is the Director of Consulting for Xcentric, LLC and works exclusively with accounting firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which includes the results of the 2015 AAA Paperless Benchmark Survey.