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How CPAs Can Play a Critical Role During Times of Change


As we filter through evolving news updates, businesses are evaluating how much support legislative relief programs can provide and how to navigate in the coming days. Out of necessity, many priorities have shifted, but one consistent theme persists -- it’s more essential than ever that businesses turn to CPAs.

Jun 1st 2020
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As CPAs look to provide key counsel during this global health event, they are still facing the same business issues as their clients. 

Why Small Businesses Need CPAs Right Now

While traditionally the realm of financial advisors, business advisory has become a rapidly expanding service offering from CPAs. In fact, CPAs offer a significant advantage during times like these.

  • Key Perspective: While financial advisors are great at managing an investment portfolio, business owners are likely far more concerned with growing their businesses to create wealth while managing their risk.  As such, CPAs can offer a unique perspective around that desire as a business advisor since they have a more contextual view of a client’s business, as well as their goals. 
  • Real-Time Guidance: They can also provide a more real-time look at what’s changing along with help with managing KPIs and other data-driven parameters to help a business know if they are on track. 
  • Risk Management: Additionally, CPAs can 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.

Understanding the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)

The big-picture aim is to keep the economy moving, people need to work to make this happen. It’s why the PPP is especially important for those small businesses—and a great example of why CPAs are, too. Unlike other SBA loans, a PPP loan may be forgivable, but only if used to pay covered expenses, like 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 program and their best path forward. A lack of understanding around the relief programs available to them can lead some business owners to think their best path forward is to cut staff and expenses, then take their chances later.

Provide Transparent Communications

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

Communicating frequently to clients is a good exercise in maximizing 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 else you can streamline your process. 

Again, for CPAs, this all lasts well beyond the economy getting back on track.  The diligence must last through this year and into next tax season.

Offer a Tailored Approach

It’s also time for CPAs to change how they handle their client load.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we are in this together.  Clients are all trying to navigate the same terrain, which makes it a good time 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 town-hall style get-togethers that are also streamed online, for example.

CPA firms should also, when available, task staffers with focusing on helping clients figure out next steps. Because the process for applying for a PPP loan is so streamlined, and the approval guidelines are fairly standard, it may be advantageous to have one person guiding the process as much as they can. 

It’s likely clients will need unique attention at some point in the process, but more general queries and concerns can be handled differently. It’s a good time to make “what’s next” as easy as possible, too. 

Engage in Thorough Change Management

CPAs should consider what will be needed when it comes time for clients to show their work.  Business owners are probably far more excited about keeping their staff employed than keeping track of the proper paperwork, but that’s where a CPA, armed with the right tools and supporting materials, can become most useful.  For CPAs, the same concerns ring true. 

How does this alter the long-term view of your business?  Are there places you need to cut back or costs that should be eliminated?  When the dust settles, it’s possible your client base may be greatly reduced.  Your client’s concerns are always yours, too, in this regard. It’s just far more critical at this point in time.

Best Practices for CPAs in the Current Environment

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

Some key factors that all CPAs should consider during this time include:

Make Long-Term Investments: While the CPAs role right now is absolutely critical, they will be challenged to do a heavy workload of supporting while unlikely billing for that support.  Clients whose CPA’s help them navigate these complexities, protect their businesses and assist in leveraging the US Governments support, will be rewarded with longer term retention, heavy ambassadors for future clients and likely a great deal of additional lines of service into those clients. 

As Clients Adapt, CPA’s Will Too: Gone are the routines, and a new norm must be learned.  CPA’s need to work virtually more than ever now, along with being a confident and nimble resource for their current and prospective clients. There are no onsite visits, no dinners or lunches to be had and all customers are asking themselves “am I truly getting the support I need right now?” 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 is born and the community ties are deep.  Invest in those 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 answer is completely up to the firm and how they view the ROI of your support.

Client Accounting Services (CAS) Services Will Spike: With numerous trigger events on the horizon with each client’s “re-entry” to being fully staffed or operational, forward thinking firms should consider new or temporary hires to manage the upcoming busy season.  Additionally, engagements that may appear “short term” will unlikely be as short as they think and may likely turn into a long-term engagement.

Are you PPP / CARES Fluent?  While the relief is available, the race is on to comprehend the new legislation and react correctly to the benefit of the deserving client’s business and employees. 

Looking Ahead & Resources Available

All businesses face really hard decisions and CPAs need to work closely with their clients to help guide better decision making and careful business planning.  It’s a time to be understanding and caring, but direct enough about the best path forward for each client. The same rules can’t be applied across the board throughout the process; while a lot may be applicable to most clients, individual care and consideration matter, too.

It’s also a time for resourcefulness and clients need ways to sign documents electronically and pay online or through mobile payment processors. Virtual face-to-face meetings are also important for keeping close tabs on things from a distance.

During this time, 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 environment, clients will fully see the value of the advisory services provided by their trusted CPA. As an industry, we can work to properly position those services to clients in the aftermath of this event for years to come.

 The key for CPAs is to be creative, insightful and deeply ingrained with their clients’ day-to-day operations. Utilize services that make sense for you and your clients, create messaging to support those clients and consider next steps while navigating the changing times we’re all in now.

Paul Epperlein, ADP's VP, Channel Sales co-authored this article. The original article appeared in the Pennsylvania CPA Journal.

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