8th April, 2020

5 easy ways accountants can shine in the time of coronavirus

In this article, Rob Pillans shares his thoughts on why accountants are becoming increasingly important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and provides advice on how they can demonstrate this value to clients.

When I was a young chartered accountant at Price Waterhouse I worked in the UK for a ‘busy season’. Back then I was struck by how highly regarded a CA was.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally reflected on the evolving reputation of accountants and been a little disappointed.

I know surveys of business people will regularly show the accountant as the most ‘trusted advisor’, yet it seems to me the understanding of what accountants do and the contribution they make is still relatively poor.

COVID-19 could change all that.

Much of the support being provided by the Federal Government in this crisis is being provided through the ATO. And who is it who typically helps businesses and individuals with their ATO relationships? It is, of course, accountants.

Below are my suggestions for how you can shine at this time.

1. Communicate proactively with clients

Sending an occasional email to share information about the government support and saying ‘contact us if we can help’ is not going to cut it.

My own accountant (for some years I have not trusted myself with my own tax and other matters) rang me to say thinking of you and wanted to tell you about some things that could help you.

We had a really useful conversation. He also said he was on the phone from 7am to 7pm every day working his way through his client list.

I’m a small client and reacted very positively to him taking the time to contact me.

I expect your clients will react the same when you call them. Particularly if you demonstrate that you’ve thought through their situation and have specific ideas for improving it.

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2. Communicate often and in different ways

Different people absorb information in different ways and most of us need to be exposed to information multiple times to absorb it fully.

The options (as I see it) are:

  • Email
  • Phone call
  • Video call
  • Pre-recorded video
  • Live webinar

My view is these all have their place.

If I could only choose two, it would be email and video calls. Emails allow you to provide detailed information that your clients can re-read as many times as needed.

Most firms will be sending templated emails rather than personalizing them for each client. That would take too long to be done at scale. It is then the follow up video call that allows each client’s specific circumstances to be discussed and by seeing their face you will know if they understand or not.

It’s just so much more engaging for the client. You may have some clients who are not comfortable using video or just don’t have the equipment so in those cases a phone call will be appropriate.

READ: How bookkeepers and accountants can manage this shift to working from home

If you do all of your communication via email you are missing an opportunity both to fully engage with your clients but also to ensure they truly do understand what they can do to help themselves.

I’ve noticed recently a few accountants recording videos to explain the support available for clients. I think this is a really good approach to combine with email. You send an email with a written explanation and invite your clients to watch the video, which they may prefer.

There’ve been quite a few live webinars being run in the last few weeks and this is a one-to-many approach which could be useful. In my view, this is no substitute for one-on-one interaction.

Yes, the one-on-one takes longer, but I’m convinced that’s what will enable you to shine.

In these tough times, you put in the extra hours to look after your clients and they will reward you with loyalty.

3. Use plain English to explain things and give practical advice for each client’s circumstances

When you’re an ‘expert’ on a subject it can be very easy to forget that your audience (your clients) will not have the same level of understanding as you and may not even understand some of the words you use.

Tailor your words for each client based on their level of knowledge and also their particular circumstances.

READ: An accountant’s overview of the JobKeeper scheme

I think it is also a good idea to do a quick summary at the end of the conversation of the agreed actions that the client and you will be taking and by when. This significantly reduces the chances of a misunderstanding (“Oh, I thought you were doing that…”).

4. Think long-term relationship, not transactional relationship

It’s fair to say that most accountants typically retain their clients for a period of many years.

There are multiple reasons for this and one of them is probably that clients perceive changing accountants as a big deal. Something that is hard to do. A bit like changing your bank, dentist or doctor.

But, just because they stick around does not mean you’re looking after them well.

In the current crisis there’s already been plenty of online discussion about whether you should charge your clients for the extra work you are doing to support them at this difficult time.

READ: How to help clients through the COVID-19 crisis

The answer for me is, ‘It depends’. It depends on the relationship you have with each client and the extent of the work you may do to help.

My accountant had a phone call with me for about 15 minutes and that was all I needed. I would suggest that for cases like mine, charging would not be the preferred approach.

If you take this approach to the calls you do with clients, then tell each client up front: “in case you’re worried, I am not charging you for this call…”. Your clients will thank you.

Some of your clients will likely expect to be charged or even insist on it. If you’re doing a lot of work for them of course that is a reasonable expectation. Doesn’t mean you can’t give them some extra value in recognition of the trying times.

Just about everyone is affected and we’re each taking a bit of a hit to do our bit.

5. Show empathy

It’s been said many times that the COVID-19 pandemic is both a health crisis and an economic crisis.

What this means is that it is a people crisis. Human beings across the globe, including your clients are being impacted in ways that most would have considered unimaginable only a few months ago.

Your job as an accountant is to do everything you can to help the client manage their business and financial affairs in the best way possible to minimise the impact.

In these crazy times it is also to be human and show empathy. The Collins Dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own’.

It’s a key way to show we care. The irony perhaps is that in reality you are going through many of the same things as your clients.

Just be careful to ensure the focus of the conversation is the client and not you. It’s all about the client.

What I’d like to see happening after this crisis passes (and it will) is people at barbecues and other events telling their friends how amazing their accountant was and how much they helped them. And I want them to be talking about you.