Whether you’re only considering going virtual, new to the (virtual) neighborhood, or a seasoned veteran, it’s a good idea to make sure your firm is taking the necessary steps to succeed as a virtual firm.
Virtual firms are a different animal from their brick-and-mortar counterparts and require a unique approach. Before we discuss how this approach translates into practical steps, let’s first define what a virtual accountant is and how it differs from a brick-and-mortar accountant.
What’s a virtual accountant?
Simply put, virtual accountants provide their services online rather than in person. The reason they can do so effectively is thanks to cloud technology.
The common traits of virtual accounting firms are that they:
- Don’t have physical offices.
- Share information and documents online.
- Can work from anywhere with their staff and clients.
- Communicate digitally or via phone with clients and team members.
Cloud technology and the pandemic drove virtual accounting into a hyper-evolution, forcing accountants to adapt quickly. Though some firms gradually returned to the old model, a recent survey found that 14% of firms have an all-remote staff while 21% run on a hybrid model.
Benefits of a virtual firm
Going virtual comes with some undeniable benefits. Here are the main ones:
- Low overhead costs. Say goodbye to renting and maintenance costs of an office.
- Low startup costs. The average startup cost for a brick-and-mortar accounting firm is $19,815. You can save a significant part of it by going virtual: all you need is a computer, online access, and accounting software.
- Larger client and employee base. When acquiring clients or recruiting new talent, you're no longer bound by geography.
- No more commuting. Getting to and from the office every day can add up to hours a week. Now you can dedicate this time to growing your firm or working on your guitar picking technique.
What’s the difference between remote, virtual and cloud accountants?
There’s no difference! Virtual accountants are also interchangeably called remote or cloud accountants, but as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name? Virtual, cloud, and remote all mean the same thing. The important thing is virtual firms are different from brick-and-mortar firms and require a mindset adjustment and a change in old habits.
Here are some steps to ensure your virtual firm is on the right track.
Create a standardized onboarding process for clients
Onboarding a new client can be a bigger challenge for virtual firms for several reasons:
- For a client, communicating with a remote service provider they’ve never met before can be a stressful experience.
- It can also be the client’s first transition from a brick-and-mortar firm to a remote one.
- More tech tools are involved in the accountant-client workflow, so even tech-savvy clients may require a broader learning curve.
On the other hand, the onboarding process is extremely important: It’s the client’s first impression, and as they say, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Additionally, standardizing your onboarding process will save you time on each client onboarding. When you create the process, keep the following principles in mind.
Keep it simple for your client
Your client came to you because they want you to make things easier for themselves. It starts with onboarding. Create an onboarding process that is straightforward, coherent, and as short as it can be without compromising your professionalism and their needs.
Set expectations and put them “on paper”
From day one, your client has to understand what services they're getting, what the fees are, and their responsibilities when working with you. And it definitely should be in writing to prevent any future misunderstandings.
There’s nothing more frustrating for accountants than having to deal with scope creep, and there’s no greater adversary to client retention than frictions and conflicts on who-does-what. An ironclad engagement letter helps to solve both issues.
Use tech to help with onboarding
Onboarding software is perfect for virtual accountants, as it:
- Simplifies your client’s experience and makes you look more professional.
- Helps with the initial data collection.
- Streamlines the process and saves you time.
- Automates parts of the process (like sending out reminders).
Different accounting client management software offer onboarding solutions, like Ignition and Karbon. Some apps also focus on the proposal and engagement letter stage, like Goproposal. With a little research, you’ll find the onboarding software to fit your needs best.
Invest in security
The benefits of cloud technology - remote online access - also open the door for security risks. Remote firms are more likely to be exposed to phishing attacks, viruses, and malware.
But security risks for virtual firms are not bigger than in brick-and-mortar ones; they’re just different. And so are the security measures: just as you’d invest in safes and locks to protect sensitive financial documents, you need to take precautions that will help keep your firm and clients safe. For example:
- Invest in anti-virus, firewall, and malware protection software designed for businesses.
- Keep your software up-to-date at all times.
- Integrate education and training sessions for your team and clients on cyber safety.
- Use approval levels and limit team members’ access to only the client accounts they’re supposed to handle.
Reframe your marketing perception
Going virtual also requires an across-the-board change in how you market and present your firm and the services it offers.
Start from your website
Your website is one of the most powerful tools you have for marketing and client acquisition. It’s your online storefront, where potential clients learn about you, your abilities, and its services.
Naturally, it would be best if you made it clear that you offer virtual services. But the “how” is just as important as the “what”. Clients want to know how it will work and what to expect from you, especially those who are new to virtual accounting.
Take Latitude Bookkeeping’s website as an example. One of the (many) reasons it’s great is because it explains the process of when a client starts working with them. Clients can also schedule a meeting on the website - no need to call, email, or fill out an online form - just click on a calendar date and schedule a meeting. The underlying message is brilliantly clear - “we’re going to make your life easier in any way we can”.
That’s what your website should be about: not only an explanation but a demonstration of how you provide your services.
Make online marketing a priority
Brick-and-mortar firms rely heavily on geographic proximity when they’re trying to acquire new clients. Virtual firms are free from this barrier. However, it means that a shift of focus from geography-based to online marketing is in order.
Building an effective online marketing strategy is a broad and complex subject that requires expertise, and you should consider getting a pro to do at least some of the heavy lifting for you. But there are some basic steps you can do to get started without a lot of prior knowledge:
- Increase your online presence. For example: open a Facebook page, get listed as a business on Google, and participate in discussions on social forums dedicated to business owners seeking financial and accounting advice.
- Maintain your activity and engagement. The more you establish your online presence, it’s more likely people will reach out, comment, and interact. Respond promptly, politely, and comprehensively to interactions. It’s an integral part of your marketing efforts and directly impacts your brand’s reputation.
- Register to online directories. Online professional directories are a common resource for business owners looking to find an accountant. Quickbooks, Xero, and Gusto all have well-established directories and are the perfect place to start.
- Know your audience’s platforms. Different types of business owner demographics use different types of social media. Restaurants are strong on Instagram. Designers have a larger presence on Pinterest. If you have a specific niche you’re trying to establish, you can focus your efforts on the social platforms relevant to that niche.
Learn, learn, learn
The topic of online marketing is far too broad to cover in one section of an article. It’s also dynamic and changes all the time. The more you learn about it, the better results you’ll get in marketing your firm. Here are some helpful resources to start with:
- An online course from AICPA on marketing (that also earns you a CPE credit!).
- An article on digital marketing for accounting firms.
- A recorded webinar from Insightful Accountant on digital marketing and acquisition basics for accountants.
Get tech tools that are not only the best but work best together
Going virtual means putting most aspects of your firm’s workflow on your tech stack - getting documents, obtaining signatures and approvals, managing AP/AR, reconciliation, and more - it’s all done with different tech solutions.
A tech solution can do amazing work as a stand-alone and still stunt your workflow if it doesn’t get along with the rest of the band. That’s why when you choose any software, one of the first things to look for is how well it integrates with your accounting software.
Melio, a bill pay management service designed specifically for accountants, bookkeepers, and their SMB clients, offers seamless integration with QBO (both Online and Desktop), FreshBooks, and more. Check it out right here.