There’s little doubt that the disruption created by coronavirus (COVID-19) presents challenges to businesses. And with the latest lockdown measures in place, they may well be reaching out for help at this difficult time.
But how can your accountancy practice offer support to your clients at this time of uncertainty?
By putting a series of steps in place to support your clients and offer value, not only will you be able to help them, you’ll also be able to position your practice and your team as trusted advisers.
In this article, we share some pointers that will help your clients. Plus, there’s advice from accountants on what they are doing to support their client bases.
Five ways to support your clients
Julia Wedgwood is the product manager for accountants at Sage and a familiar face within the accountant community.
Here, she suggests several things your practice can do to give your clients the support they are looking for as they tackle challenges due to coronavirus.
1. Provide the right knowledge
Understand what client knowledge of some areas around the emergency coronavirus government legislation might be limited – and be prepared to fill that gap.
For example, with the Job Retention Scheme being extended until December 2020, furloughing staff is an option that’s back on the table. But businesses may need to gain knowledge of employment and contract law to make sure things are done correctly.
Accountants may already have this knowledge and, if not, they’re better placed to learn about it than the client.
2. Offer clarity around financial support
Help your clients understand what financial support is available to them, and that measures are at their disposal, such as the Job Retention Scheme, the forthcoming Job Support Scheme, loan and grant offerings, and HMRC’s Time to Pay.
It’s a good idea to segment your client base based on who is likely to require more help, or who may need certain kinds of funding or support from the initiatives announced by the government.
You might even create group video meetings with these clients, or webinars, to discuss what they can do.
Coronavirus and your business
We’ve gathered information and resources to help navigate this situation, including tools and webinars, to help you understand what financial support is available.
3. Support with loan applications
Be prepared to offer the support clients need to get through grant or loan applications. You may need to provide key financial reports for them, for example.
Some of these applications are going to be vital for their continuation in these trying times, and is therefore vital for them remaining as a client for your firm.
4. Provide technical support
With in-person client meetings on hold for now, your clients will be working with you remotely to go over their financials. If they need support with their cloud accounting software to do this, you’ll be in a good position to help them.
By providing support around this area of remote working, you could offer a valuable service to your clients. Any help you can offer will be undoubtedly warmly received.
5. Communicate regularly
Ensure you keep in touch with your clients so they don’t feel abandoned. Some of the conversations you have could be more emotional than usual, and will certainly cover different topics.
But your ability to provide an overview of a company’s finances and to apply this to the emergency offerings from the government and elsewhere has never been more vital.
Tips from accountants working with their clients
We spoke to two accountants to see what plans they have in place and to see how they’re handling the disruption with regard to their clients and their own practices.
Along with Wedgwood, Larkin and Smith share some tips you can use at your practice.
1. Be there for your clients by listening and offering advice
“My practice as a whole is making sure that we’re talking to all of our clients,” says Larkin. “We’re finding every single possible way to ensure that their businesses can survive the next 18 months.
“Personally, I’m splitting my time between doing that with the clients and also providing different webinars and guidance to the business community. We’re also lobbying the government on behalf of small businesses.”
Basic and common-sense measures are needed, says Wedgwood, but it’s not always the case that they’re in place.
She adds: “I’ve seen a few instances where the accountants are saying the office is closed. But is that the right way of phrasing it? Most are still functioning. Think about it.
“Do clients have mobile contact numbers, so they’re able to get in touch with you? Is the main office number diverted?
“Accountants are used to working in offices. However, what’s called for is a whole change in environment. So make use of the resources and support that’s available to help. But keep in touch. Find ways to help.”
This has not been a problem for Finlayson & Co, which has taken a proactive approach.
“We’re being there for our clients,” says Smith. “We’re engaging with them by email and our Facebook page daily. We’re keeping them up to date with what the government has put in place and assisting where we can with loan applications and any details required for grants.
“It’s unchartered territory for us all but being able to help clients provides a good feeling during these troubling times.”
Clients are likely to need help with knowledge of the government schemes put in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, many of which have caveats attached.
“From clients comments, they are very appreciative of our efforts,” continues Smith. “We’ve even had non-clients contact us because of our streamlined advice on social media.
“We’re offering telephone support even outside of work hours, so if they’re struggling processing grant applications or help with accounts to access a loan, we’re there for them when needed.”
Larkin adds that her firm began taking an advisory role when the seriousness of coronavirus became clear.
She says: “The first thing we asked them was: ‘Can you diversify?’ For example, some of the restaurants are now doing home delivery services instead and things like that. There are hotels offering beds temporarily to NHS staff. Because we’ve all got to just help each other.”
2. Enable home working for you and your clients
“Being in the cloud has made the change to working from home seamless,” says Smith. “It means the outbreak had almost had no effect on what work we can do.”
All that’s needed for cloud software is some kind of computing device. For most practices, this might be a laptop, but it could just as easily be a tablet computer. Of course, a standard desktop computer can also be used.
For those practices not yet in the cloud – or perhaps not fully – there are other solutions.
“We’ve got clients that are on desktop apps,” says Larkin. “A virtual desktop is the solution.”
A virtual desktop lets you access a desktop PC from outside the office by viewing its screen as if you’re sitting in front of it. Microsoft Windows 10 comes with this feature built-in.
The technology that’s in place today means you and your clients have the tools to keep moving. And you can maintain social distancing too.
She says: “If you’ve been sending payslips out, distribute them online. If clients are in the habit of dropping off receipts, get them to take pictures and send them to you.
“We have the automation tools there ready and waiting. Rather than sending out invoices and quotes, get them to generate the documents electronically and distribute them electronically.”
Wedgwood adds that some of the chartered institutes are using video conferencing for their branch meetings. There’s no reason why your practice can’t do this too when meeting with clients.
She says: “Free video services are available but remember that some of these are less than secure. However, Microsoft Teams is a great choice and comes as part of an existing Office 365 subscription, so you will almost certainly find you have what you need already.”
3. Help in the short term and look to the future
According to Wedgwood, practices are likely seeing high client demand for short-term guidance. Much of this will be non-revenue generating but there’s never been a more important time to be responsive to client demands.
She adds: “There’s obviously an immediate need to help clients keep trading and to reassure them.
“They need help with the pressure on working capital and relationships. They need help with forecasting cash flow.”
Larkin says: “The first thing has to be creating a cash flow forecast to ensure clients can see what gaps they may have. Then they can work out how to fill it – for example, via loans, upfront payments, or diversifying.”
Conclusion on supporting your clients
The concept of a trusted adviser has never been more relevant. As your clients seek guidance during difficult times, offering support to help their businesses keep moving is vital.
By going the extra mile to provide the assistance that your clients – both existing and new – require at this time, not only will you be helping them to get through times of uncertainty, you’ll also give your practice the best opportunity to keep thriving both now and in the future.
And your role as a trusted adviser will be there for all to see.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in April 2020 and has been updated for relevance.