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charge clients during pandemic

Should Accounting Professionals Charge Their Clients During the Pandemic?


COVID-19 changed everything across the globe. While accounting professionals have, luckily, still found their services are needed, many are struggling to answer this question: Should you charge your clients or not, and, if so, what for specifically?

May 4th 2020
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COVID-19 changed everything across the globe. While accounting professionals have, luckily, still found their services are needed, many are struggling to answer this question: Should you charge your clients or not, and, if so, what for specifically?

To help industry professionals do right by themselves and their clients, AccountingWEB organized a town hall debate on Thursday, April 30, and asked five leaders from the US and Canada to openly talk about their thoughts surrounding this issue. Attendees to the Town Hall were also encouraged to ask their own questions.

So, what were the big takeaways from the discussion? Below is a summary, based on attendee queries on the issue at hand.

1. Offer Information, Not Services, for Free

Although the panelists had differing opinions about structuring pricing, they all agreed on one thing: In this time of crisis, it’s important to give clients the information they need to succeed for free. Panelist Shayna Chapman, CPA, CITP summarized many of the other panelists’ thoughts on the matter, stating, “Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of learning for this. Every day, something is changing. I can’t spread out costs for learning among my clients. Therefore, I’m not charging for explaining,” she said. “I called literally all my business clients and explained it (EIDL and PPP) to them, and then said if you need to ask me more questions or do any work for you, let me know. I didn’t charge them for the explanation. We are all on the same team. If I need to sit down and do real number work, then we need to have a conversation about where our chargeability begins.”

2. Accountants Can Continue Charging Clients for Providing Services

Officially, accounting professionals can continue charging for their services. Panelist Carl Peterson, Vice President of Small Firm Interests for the AICPA, explained, “From the very beginning of this whole PPP process, we have indicated you can charge for assisting your clients in evaluating what they should be doing. In fact, we encourage it.” To help guide accounting professionals through this time, he also noted the Center for Planning has published a special report discussing the services you may be offering at this time. In short, despite the pandemic, you’re still a front-line responder. “Clients need us,” he emphasized.

So, if you’ve been wondering if you’re prohibited from charging for assisting with preparation of the application at a minimum by the SBA, don’t fret. Carl continues, “Clients look to their CPA as their trusted business advisor, expecting the advisor to provide information and analysis of all of the options available. CPA advisory services, working with clients to identify which financial assistance, loan, tax credit, payroll tax deferral or other options are available are deemed to be outside the scope of loan processing application assistance.”

3. No One Has Stopped Charging Altogether

While the opinions on what and how to charge differed among the panel participants, none of them have stopped charging clients entirely, nor do clients seem to expect that they’ll receive work for free. Panelist Jody Linick, a certified bookkeeper and Pro Advisor, commented, “I sent out an email to all my clients and said, ‘I recognize this is happening. If you feel like you need to talk about this, let me know.’ Not a single client requested that,” she said. “I have had no loss of revenue. I haven’t applied for any of the programs.”

In fact, pushback from clients doesn’t seem to be coming from an expectation that services will be free. Instead, the panelists theorized that those accounting professionals who have experienced some resistance are likely not employing the value pricing practices, which is causing the problem.

More Takeaways

So, the question of whether to charge clients seems to be a moral one. Panelist Andrew Wall, CPA, CMA cited his commitment to treating clients as family (a sentiment echoed by the other panelists). He said, “Our approach has been to provide as much help and support as possible. It’s our primary goal. We’ve created a Facebook group for our clients. Circling back to [AccountingWEB Publisher and co-moderator, Andy North]’s question about obligations: we have three. Contractual obligations to our clients. Then, [we have] a professional one to be aware of what’s going on and to research information. This is where a big chunk of my time is spent,” said Wall. “Then we have a moral obligation to our peers and community to share this information.”

In practice, while the participants have mostly put a hold on taking on new clients, they are keeping open lines of communication with their current ones. A common first step has been to reach out to the people using their services and asking them to speak up if there’s an issue. Several clients asked to default on their payments until a later date, some panelists affirmed. Otherwise, they advised to draw a line between simply offering information and actually performing a service.

Panelist and business consultant Loren Fogelman advised, “This goes back to focusing on the best interest of the client rather than your own. What you don’t want to do is just lower your rates across the board. Talk with your clients, as Shayna[Chapman] was saying, on a case by case basis,” she said.  “Some businesses are ramping down but others are ramping up and might need you more. Maybe you just adjust it for this term, or maybe they have a payment plan. Then, there’s scholarship clients. You set up so many scholarship slots, and then the ones who need it can take it for a certain period of time and then they go back to their regular rates with you…. We came up with packages.”

Loren continued to note the packages included a “freemium,” whereby clients aren’t charged to get information, but the client does a lot of the work themselves to, say, get their applications together. Then there was a “medium” package, where a client will be walked through the application and the accountant takes care of other things on the back end.  She also counseled against agreeing to discount your services, cautioning it could make things tougher for you down the road when it comes time to restore your prices to their original level.

Naturally, many accounting professionals are concerned about liability, a topic that while not entirely centered around pricing, came up frequently from the audience. Specifically, accountants are wondering whether their free assistance could still result in clients taking action against them if the result doesn’t meet the latter’s expectations.

The clear answer seemed to be that while you should check with your professional liability carrier, this isn’t likely. Jody Linick added, “As we all know, things are changing daily. The AICPA has sent a list of requested changes to the Treasury Secretary and the SBA on 04/29/20. Hopefully, if those changes are accepted and implemented, there will be reduced confusion.”

So, if you’ve been charging on a case-by-case basis, rest assured most of your colleagues are doing the same thing. If you’re seeking resources to assist your clients and keep your costs down, you have several options. Shayna Chapman recommended following other accounting professionals on Twitter, while Carl Peterson noted the AICPA “maintains an up-to-date resource page covering the PPP process from application to requesting debt forgiveness,” as does the SBA.

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