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Corporate responsibility and inclusion

New Normal levels playing field for women in business development

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

There is a consensus that the coronavirus has brought on permanent shifts in work patterns, away from working in an office and instead, toward remote working. And one potential outcome from this change could be a more equitable environment for women. (In fact, it was one of 13 predictions on the future of work.)

Remote working enables the permanence of long-term flexibility that can allow women to remain in the workforce after they have children. Moreover, men will desire greater flexibility in how they work because they too will enjoy spending more time with their kids, the article says.

Increased workplace flexibility also means long-term changes in how relationships are built both internally and externally, and with it, the pathway for advancing in professional service firms within the tax and legal industries. Indeed, these shifts create opportunities for women because they are expanding pathways of success for women lawyers beyond the traditional advancement paths, says Lucy Bassli. Previously, young attorneys that hoped to forge relationships with senior partners had to rely on in-person coffee chats or impromptu stop-by-the-office meetings in the hope of securing good work assignments. Externally too, the ability to craft better client relationships also increase because business development is no longer limited to the old expectations of business getting done on the golf course or at after-work dinners and drinks, Bassli notes.

These previous methods of business development were a hurdle for some women partners in the tax and legal industries as some found it difficult to balance evening and networking activities with family obligations. By and large, the style of client development has not changed, but the new manner of interacting remotely has been normalized.

Lucy Endel Bassli

“In the new normal, remote networking and business development levels the playing field for all,” says Jennifer Wilson, partner & co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching.

Interestingly, women partners in the tax and accounting industry have been building their books via initial outreach to prospective contacts through social media for a while, but because men dominate the most senior ranks of the accounting and legal industries — women make up just 24% of partners and principals at CPA firms, and 20% at law firms in the US — men’s manner of client development had become the norm. “ConvergenceCoaching is not advising women to do anything differently in their post-COVID business development approach,” Wilson suggests. “Their more remote initial outreach steps that we’ve always encouraged, which can be more efficient than in-person, are now more accepted as the norm than they were before social distancing began. After the crisis passes, this remote networking technique will be seen as a more accepted approach.”

Client development tactics

Because COVID-19 has made it extremely difficult for small and large businesses — the majority of CPA firms’ clients — proactively picking up the phone to check in with clients has now become a critical relationship-building technique for both women and men.

Jennifer Wilson

At the same time, a difference in how it’s done has come to light. Women, for example, often have a natural inclination to create deep relationships, and they have reported that they often open these conversations by asking their clients how they are coping with the uncertainty of COVID-19 both professionally and personally. Lori Morales, a partner at the CPA firm Calvetti Ferguson, for example, described how she spent almost an entire week of unbillable work “touching base with my clients, seeing how they were doing.” She said the majority of the discussions centered on her checking on clients’ efforts to gain access to the Paycheck Protection Program, the government program to assist small business with forgivable loans to keep their employees on the payroll when the stay at home orders were initially given. “It was literally, reaching out and making sure that people were okay,” Morales says.

Deepening relationships with existing clients — Most women CPAs and lawyers have a long client list, and keeping up with those you have contacted and those you haven’t, with increased frequency, can be overwhelming during this crisis.

Developing a tracking system is highly recommended. Wilson recommends dividing your clients into three categories — A, B, and C. “Make sure you touch the A-clients live every two to three weeks,” she explains. “And when news is breaking, reach back out via email every week or so with an update on your side and to request one from them.” In fact, when news that would impact them occurs, offer to have a phone or video call to discuss the client’s situation.

Lori Morales

For those B-clients and C-clients, Wilson suggests inviting them to group webinars and communicate with them via group emails. While the frequency of live phone calls and individual email may be less frequent, you can adjust that depending on your client volume.

Another way of deepening relationships with existing clients is to contact them casually. You don’t always need a “business reason” to reach out to clients, Wilson says, adding that one good tactic for showing your personal side and creating opportunities is to let go of your “all-business persona, and offer to meet for drinks or lunch via video from home, just as you would if you could connect in person.”

Forging relationships with potential clients — To work on building your book with new clients during this difficult time, many of the same tactics are advised. Lead with humanity in developing these connections by revealing your “at home” persona. Get to know prospective clients as people and find out how they are doing in the crisis, Wilson suggests. Listen intently and be curious about their current situation to better look for ways to add value.

During the process of getting to know them as a person via video chat, offer information that would be helpful to their business, such as asking “what they’re hearing from others and what strategies your firm is employing to help other clients with the same challenges,” Wilson says.

No matter whether you are reaching out to existing or potential clients, checking in to make sure they are healthy and safe, while taking the opportunity to discuss their challenges and offering to help are the most important communication tools you have during this time.

Above all, be yourself. “There is nothing longer-lasting than a business relationship based on mutual appreciation for each other’s authentic selves,” Wilson says.

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