CPAs Have a Critical Role during Times of Change

by Erron Stark and Paul Epperlein | Jun 24, 2020
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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and workers are rethinking the way they operate and plan for the future. As we all filter through evolving news updates, businesses are evaluating how to navigate the coming months. Out of necessity, priorities have shifted. One constant persists, though: it is essential for businesses to include their CPAs in planning.

As CPAs provide key counsel during this global health event, they face the same business issues as their clients. In many cases, the solutions for both a CPA and client are similar. Michael P. Butrica, CPA, founder and managing partner of Butrica Ployd and Associates, suggests CPAs have already been developing the necessary skills.

“Right around 10 years ago, the needs of clients changed,” Butrica says. “They began to seek a CPA more proactive than reactive. … Clients wanted that constant contact to develop a strategy, then have a maintenance factor to adhere to that strategy.” Clients want to be able to explain what’s changed in their business, and have their CPA help them work on a new path forward.

Butrica continues, “When CEOs realized that they could bring their CPAs into their executive roundtable for proactive help and not just reacting to numbers that were already written, the game changed.” CPAs now have a powerful and essential role to play for their clients as a key adviser to help guide them through today’s unique economic environment.

Small Business Survival

Small businesses face many obstacles during a crisis. Relief isn’t ensured and public messaging isn’t always clear or is contradictory. Things change rapidly. For example, many banks implemented Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to provide relief to some small businesses, but many nonprofits have been unable to take advantage of the assistance provided by the program.

This underscores a larger issue for small businesses – they may not always have the experts on hand to help them. This is where CPAs can shine.

In the past, many small businesses would only visit their CPA once or twice a year around tax time. But CPAs have grown, and the businesses that recognize this can capitalize on their expansion into business advisory services.

Traditionally the realm of financial advisers, business advisory has become a rapidly expanding service offered by CPAs. In fact, CPAs offer a significant advantage during times like these.

  • Key perspective – While financial advisers are great at managing an investment portfolio, business owners are more concerned with growing their businesses to create wealth while also managing risk. As such, CPAs offer a unique perspective around that desire. As business advisers, they have a more contextual view of a client’s operations and goals.
  • Real-time guidance – CPAs can provide a more real-time look at what’s changing and help manage performance indicators and other data-driven parameters to help a business know if they are on track.
  • Risk management – CPAs provide unparalleled value in terms of managing risk, especially as business owners weigh their options over the next few months. A close working relationship with clients may have started as a way to make tax time easier for everyone, but CPAs across the landscape realize that their clients’ needs have increased exponentially through the crisis.

The Paycheck Protection Program

On April 24, the federal government initiated the PPP through the Small Business Administration (SBA) with a goal of assisting struggling small businesses. The framework of the PPP contains requirements to maintain employment levels and wages through June 30. Unlike other SBA loans, a PPP loan may be forgivable, but only if used to pay covered expenses such as payroll. These distinctions and critical requirements highlight why resourceful and informed CPAs matter. All clients need a CPA who is abreast of changes that affect them, real-time or not. For example, a client may need a CPA who immediately and confidently knows what’s going on with the PPP and what is the best path forward. A lack of understanding around the relief programs available can lead some business owners to think their best path forward is to cut staff and expenses, and take their chances later. Butrica points out that even the government is leaning on the knowledge of CPAs to help people through the process.

“The confusion around the PPP was brought upon us by the IRS trying to create an easy way for businesses to get the help they need during this challenging time by filling out a two-page application with simple calculations,” he says. “In reality, the calculations proved to be too complex for most small-business owners to grasp easily. In times like these, CPAs need to step up their game to help their clients adapt in this rapidly evolving landscape.”

Moving Clients Forward

A smooth economic recovery includes strong partnerships to help businesses navigate the days ahead. CPAs clearly provide value during times like this and beyond.

A few months ago, many CPAs’ advisory services entailed cash-flow-to-debt projections and money management. Today, the services may be similar, but they have taken on a different urgency. Clients certainly need those things, but instead of thinking how they’re going to increase goals, they need this advice to help guide them through operating expenses and doing business in an era of social distancing. How is that going to translate to the balance sheet? What should clients expect?

Transparent communications – For CPAs, it’s a time to share hard truths with clients. This is where the relationship between a CPA and client becomes critical. At some point, CPAs may have to help their clients through difficult, long-term planning discussions to help secure the viability of the business.

Communicating frequently with clients will maximize customer service while avoiding increased expenditures. It’s also a great way to optimize the time spent on widespread issues, and a way to identify where to streamline processes. For CPAs, making this practice a habit will provide benefits well beyond getting the economy back on track.

New approaches – It may be time for CPAs to change how they handle their client load. Most clients are all trying to navigate the same terrain, opening up opportunities for mass communication methods. Making videos, hosting webinars, sending out blast email newsletters – these are all things that help your entire client base understand what you know, when you know it.

How you proceed should, as always, depend on what’s best for your clients. Smaller firms in rural areas may be better served with informal get-togethers that are also streamed online, for example.

It’s a good time to make “what’s next” as easy as possible. For clients who received PPP loans or some other form of government assistance, the key piece of advisory work is to help guide how to use that money. There may also be some very specific record keeping involved where CPAs can offer guidance.

Change management – In a crisis, business owners are probably far more concerned about keeping their staff employed than keeping track of their business’s direction (other than down). CPAs armed with the right tools and supporting materials can become indispensable. Keep an eye on the long-term view of the business. Are there places where cuts are needed or costs should be eliminated? When the dust settles, clients who were positioned to survive will be ready to move forward. Others will not be as fortunate, and the reality is your client base may be reduced. Understand that your practice, not just your clients, needs to manage change.

Best Practices

Client-focused CPAs can take their trusted, honest financial guidance and build it up with powerful real-time data, predictive analytics, national benchmarks, compliance support, and industry-leading technology options. A trusted “one-stop shop” absolutely leads to better client relationships, which we all know leads to retention and future opportunities to implement a firm’s niche services.

Some key factors to consider during this time include the following.

Make long-term investments – While CPAs are absolutely critical right now, they will be challenged to do a heavy workload and then bill struggling clients for that support. CPAs who help clients navigate these complexities, protect their businesses, and assist in leveraging support opportunities will be rewarded with longer-term retention, positive ambassadors for future clients, and potential additional lines of service. Weigh your fees as an investment.

Run with the adaptations that have been made – CPAs have had to work on a virtual basis more now than they possibly had ever been comfortable doing. But being a confident and nimble resource for clients is a business virtue. Without on-site visits, dinners, or lunches, CPAs need to define what differentiates their virtual level of support and business continuity planning from the next firm.

Handle clients with care – As one business owner closes, another one may be born in the community. Invest in your relationships. Will the business owner whose restaurant went under call you back to resume operations or rehire you when they partner in a new venture? That depends on the interactions with your firm and how these old/new clients view the depth of your support.

Client accounting services will spike – With numerous trigger events for each client’s reentry to the marketplace and being fully staffed or operational, forward-thinking firms must plan for new or temporary hires to manage future workloads. Additionally, engagements that may appear “short-term” could turn into long-term agreements.

Looking Ahead

All businesses are facing hard decisions. CPAs need to work closely with their clients to help guide their decision-making and business planning. Be understanding and caring, but also be direct about the best path forward for each client. The same advice can’t be applied across the board: while a lot may be applicable to most, individual care and consideration matters too.

It’s also a time for resourcefulness. Clients need ways to sign documents electronically and pay online or through mobile payment processors. Virtual meetings are also important for keeping close tabs on things from a distance. It’s also critical for CPAs and their clients to stay ahead of essential tools to keep track of the changing tax and regulatory landscape.

Coming out of this crisis, clients will see the value of the advisory services provided by their CPAs. As an industry, work to position those same services provided for clients in the aftermath of this crisis as smart business services for years to come. The key is to be creative, insightful, and ingrained within your clients’ operations. Adopt services that make sense for you and your clients, create messaging to support clients, and consider next steps while navigating these challenging times. 

This contributed feature was written in April 2020 and reflects the latest updates and legislation to that point.

 


 

Erron Stark is division vice president, channel sales, at ADP in New York City. He can be reached at erron.stark@adp.com.

 

Paul Epperlein is vice president of channel sales at ADP. He can be reached at paul.epperlein@adp.com.

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