How to be effective when consulting from a distance
EDITOR’S NOTE: This project comes from associate partner Jeff Rodgers, Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) consultant.
In the last eight years, NuFocus Strategic Group associate partner Jeff Rodgers estimates he has pumped more than eight million dollars back into Atlantic Canadian companies.
He has accomplished that by helping innovative firms take full advantage of tax incentives available through such programs as Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED), National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC–IRAP) and the Aquaculture Innovation & Market Access Program (AIMAP).
What is amazing is that sometimes he never actually meets the company he is helping.
This case study focuses on Coris Information Systems Ltd. of Newfoundland, a firm he describes as “incredibly innovative” software developers.
Coris was creating new programs and wanted to take full advantage of available tax incentives under the SR&ED program. But they were an information technology company, not experts in the effective use of these programs. So they looked outside of their company for help.
Deborah Cooper, chief financial officer for the firm reached out to Jeff, one of the foremost experts on this program in Canada.
Today she speaks highly of how Jeff has contributed to the company’s success, and he praises her innovation and creativity.
What is interesting is that while the two have been working together now for three years on tax incentive programs, they have never actually met. All their conversations take place over the phone or email.
Not only is it harder to ensure accurate communications by phone as opposed to visiting a business client in person, but the nature of Jeff’s work means that technical and financial matters need to be thoroughly explained. Jeff also has to ensure that each client’s confidentiality is protected, since innovation, research and inventions can be highly competitive and worth a great deal of money in the long term.
It is hard, but not impossible, says Jeff, who has handled this challenge with a number of clients. He has worked out a system.
“I record the conversation so I can refer back to it for clarification later. I also make notes. When we are talking technicalities in innovation, I write down the specifics and get the client to spell all the words I am not familiar with.”
Half of the science Jeff is exposed to is completely foreign to him, but he has to ask enough questions to really figure out what the client does, so he can in turn determine which tax incentive programs could be beneficial to them.
Jeff says the basic thing he needs to expedite the process of distance communication is highly-developed people skills.
“I really think people skills are the most important thing for a business like mine,” he says. “If I can build a level of comfort over the phone with my clients, then I have succeeded. Communication can take place on many levels and as long as you are talking, you can work it out.”
He says the biggest problem is to avoid “business speak” or the use of jargon specific to one industry or another. When a client uses it, he has to work hard to gently bring it back to terms he and everyone else will understand.
“The old rules don’t apply anymore; you have to be able to communicate with whatever mobile device is at hand. You have to find ways to break through any communication barriers.”
Each client is unique
Jeff’s success and ability to pump back millions in secured tax incentives to innovative Atlantic Canadian companies stems from his dedication to ensure that no client gets any kind of formulaic response.
“People think because you are dealing with numbers and tax issues that it could all become a formula, but it can’t if you are to succeed,” he explains.
“Each one of my clients is unique and I personally get excited about the developmental work they are doing. I have to look at each one uniquely and really understand where opportunities exist for incentives,” he explained.
Clients respond to customized approach
Deborah Cooper says Jeff’s approach really works for her.
“I have never met Jeff in person but we have gotten on great for the past three years. He’s very clear in outlining what is required of us and I believe we’ve been effective in delivering what he needs to handle our account.
“Anytime that an email wouldn’t cover it, I could give him a call and vice versa. I feel like I know him even though we have never met in person. He’s been quick to get back to me on all requests and I have never waited longer than a couple of hours before hearing back from any phone call or email.”
Importance of tax credits for innovative work
Deborah says the SR&ED incentive that Jeff’s consultancy handles for her firm is critical for their operations.
“Being a small information technology (IT) company, we sometimes have to wait months before a project is complete in order to get paid. Having the incentive money has been a great help during those times.
“We do not have the time or resources to complete these forms or research such incentives so it’s great that Jeff can do this for us. It’s really important for companies like ours, especially startup companies, to be aware of these grants as well as aware of the fact that there are companies like Jeff’s who can help us prepare these applications.”
Deborah says she would definitely recommend a consultant like Jeff to anyone in her line of business, regardless of where they are living or operating.
“The distance hasn’t hindered any of this process. I haven’t heard of any other programs that may be of assistance to us from Jeff, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ask if the need arose.”
- The reality of today’s work world means many clients must be handled by phone, emails and other modes of communication rather than face to face to face meetings. Developing tools and techniques that ensure you understand what your client needs and respond to it quickly is vital for your success as a consultant.
- Companies involved in research and innovations and the development of unique programs should explore available tax incentives to support their work. Consultants such as Jeff Rodgers can study your business and determine if there is the possibility of reclaiming some of your tax dollars with incentives under such programs as Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED).