While the coronavirus pandemic has accountants scrambling to safeguard their people and keep up with new client concerns and legislative updates, the crisis has also given the profession the opportunity to learn some crucial lessons that can only strengthen accountants’ roles in an uncertain future. We asked a collection of accounting’s thought leaders to share what knowledge they are seeing practitioners glean — and what they should be learning — from this unprecedented time.
Lesson 1: Truly essential
One of the most reassuring lessons from the pandemic is the invaluable role of accountants, especially amidst all this volatility, according to our panel of leaders in the profession.
“Many people believe a crisis is a test of character, but it’s not,” said Sarah Dobek, president and founder at Inovautus Consulting. “A crisis instead reveals the character and skills you already have. I think the biggest thing firms are learning is how well they were really doing on certain fronts. Firms are learning a lot about the resiliency of their partner group’s mindset and the soundness of their vision and strategy for growth.”
“I think the pandemic has made two things very clear related to firms,” said Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO of CPA.com. “First, their services — in particular, their role as a trusted advisor — is highly relevant. Their clients are turning to them for critical business advice and support.”
“I believe CPAs and other accounting professionals have learned how invaluable they are to their clients and the community — something that has always been true but has been especially brought to light during the COVID-19 health and economic crisis,” said Ralph Thomas, CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs. “Our members have been tested in new ways, but they discovered the real value they bring to the table is helping clients navigate the unknown.”
Marc Rosenberg, president of The Rosenberg Associates, reports a similar takeaway, in “how much clients really appreciate their CPAs. Accountants have become lifesavers for their clients by helping them navigate the complexities of the government stimulus programs and generally providing advice, counsel, and solace on survival. This goodwill will play a huge role in firms’ recoveries.”
“The assistance with PPP and other stimulus solutions have given accountants the needed self-confidence boost to finally see themselves in this light,” said Angie Grissom, president of The Rainmaker Companies. “I have heard comments from clients like ‘My client will never see me in the same way again. He is grateful that I helped save his business.’”
Kim Austin, a business development manager for national accounts at Inuit, has heard similar feedback, including from one Intuit partner, Gabby Luoma of MOD Ventures: “A powerful quote from her message was, ‘Accountants are the first responders for small businesses through this.’ Firms are realizing that their clients need them, and are putting their trust in them to guide them through this.”
“We are needed now more than ever,” said Ron Baker, founder of the Verasage Institute. “We are not commodities, no matter what people mindlessly say. Just as the men and women in the medical and first-responder community are putting their very lives at risk to keep people physically healthy, CPAs will be needed to keep their customers financially healthy.”
“The other lesson that firms should be learning is how clients will truly value strategic insight,” said Todd Shapiro, president, and CEO of the Illinois CPA Society. “It was common for firms to be assisting a client in the preparation of their PPP application. Many firms proactively reached out to clients to advise them on alternatives to help their businesses survive and, eventually, thrive — all while not knowing if there would be compensation for their advice and assistance.”
“Our clients really need us in a crisis, and we have to have a lot of people on our team with the right advisory skills who are ready and able to handle client inquiries and provide solid advice or we risk not being able to help them all,” said Jennifer Wilson, co-founder, and partner of ConvergenceCoaching.
“Clients highly value their accountant as an advisor,” said Darren Root, co-founder and general manager at Rootwork and VP of market strategy at Right Networks.
Dawn Brolin, executive vice president of business development and compliance at Powerful Accounting powered by Out of the Box Technology, noted that clients and non-clients alike were waking up to the value of accountants. “People who typically file on their own realized they didn’t know what they were doing and were finally willing to pay for services due to the confusion around all of the rules,” she said. “The pandemic has taught me that you can never underestimate the importance of the accounting industry and its relevancy and its critical role in the economy.”
“I also think we have learned how to react and respond ‘on the fly,’” said Allan Koltin, CEO of Koltin Consulting Group. “When the CARES Act and/or PPP loan program came out, firms literally had hours to become the ‘resident expert.’”
Lesson 2: Move to advisory
The crisis has only crystallized the necessity for firms to embrace advisory services.
“Advisory really is the service that our clients value the most!” said Jim Bourke, managing director of advisory services at WithumSmith+Brown “During this time, if I can point to one area where our team members excelled, it was in guiding and advising our clients around their cash flow needs during this period of time. From dealing with clients with crushed revenue streams to those struggling to find a bank that was willing to process their SBA-PPP loan applications … now more than ever, we have learned it’s all about being that ‘trusted advisor.’”
“The opportunities for advisory services are huge right now,” agreed Jody Padar, vice president of strategy at Botkeeper. “There are so many services that we never dreamed of offering in ways we never thought of delivering them.”
“The biggest lesson I think firms should take away from this is that regardless of how their firm feels about ‘advisory services,’ their clients will be coming to them to advise them through tough times,” said Intuit’s Austin. “If a firm is not able to provide the type of help and guidance their clients need, they’ll be forced to look elsewhere for that assistance.”
And accountants must realize this demand will survive the crisis. “I think they should be learning to embrace change as a challenge to be better,” said Dobek. “We are seeing many firms take this approach and others that have yet to make that leap. I’ve heard a few comments around the move from compliance to an advisory, and some being happy they retained more compliance work. These firms are missing the bigger picture. The advisory work is what will help businesses and individuals make it through this pandemic.”
“Overall, the most important focus for firms should be realizing that this is a defining moment and time to deliver on the trusted advisor role with their clients,” said Asgeirsson. “Over the past two months, firms have been put in the center of advising their clients on how to manage the downturn and business relief. Over the coming weeks and months, they are going to support their clients on restart efforts and adjustments to their business model. This is a historic moment for the firms to help their clients. Clients will remember who helped them navigate through this time successfully.”
Lesson 3: ‘Remote work works!’
One of the most obvious opportunities to come out of the pandemic is the (long-awaited, for many) move to remote, flexible work. “The biggest lesson learned is that work-at-home can work,” said Randy Johnston, executive vice president of K2 Enterprises and CEO and founder of Network Management Group. “Stay-at-home orders forced everyone into this new work environment.”
Wilson agreed: “Remote work works! People are more productive than firm leaders imagined. Firm leaders realize they have to double down on technology to have maximum flexibility in the way they serve their clients.”
Hector Garcia, CEO of Quick Bookkeeping & Accounting, shared similar insight: “Embracing flexible work; not just ‘remote work,’ but different ways of being able to have team members work without interruption.”
“While firms have toyed with working remotely for several years, it has not been something that was widely done,” said August Aquila, CEO of Aquila Global Advisors. “The pandemic forced firms into doing it and they have found that it works. People who work remotely are more productive overall and have a better quality of life since they do not have to commute. Once the dust settles from the pandemic, remote workers will be the norm rather than the exception.”
“In as short as two days, many firms moved on-site engagements and critical administrative functions to 100 percent virtual environments,” said Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, executive director of finance thought leadership for the cloud business group at Oracle, and a past chair of the American Institute of CPAs. “Necessity is the mother of invention and this quote has never been more true. In a pre-COVID-19 environment, a completely virtual working environment would have taken many firms several more years, if ever, to implement.”
While the adjustment period is challenging, mastering new models can provide future benefits.
“Working from home was a difficult transition for some of our clients,” reported Jeff Phillips, CEO of Accountingfly. “But many firms have learned they can give staff this great gift of flexibility and still be highly productive.”
“Adaptation is not optional; it is essential for survival and firm leaders will see this as the new expectation,” said Grissom. “This includes the move to virtual workforces as necessary, the types of services offered, and the adoption and use of technology in their firms … The work-life blend is non-negotiable.”
Lesson 4: Embrace technology
Our panel emphasized technology’s vital role in a remote workforce, and in surviving post-pandemic.
“Difficult times magnify strengths as well as weaknesses. The efficient use of technology in a virtual environment is a primary lesson,” said Gale Crosley, president of Crosley+Co. “The tech world has been operating virtually for over 20 years. They’ve figured it out and we have only to peek over the fence for insight.”
“As time marches on and changes occur, so a firm should never put off for tomorrow what can be done today,” said David Bergstein, strategic account manager with the accountant and advisory group at Intuit. “Up until now, firms have been talking about taking advantage of technology, being virtual and collaborative, but were moving at a snail’s pace. Firms are now retooling at a record pace, trimming staff where they should have done it before, and utilizing technology that leads to digital movement of data and elimination of paper.”
“The pandemic has taught us the importance of true practice virtualization in that everyone needs to be able to work effectively from any place at any time,” said Roman Kepczyk, director of firm technology strategy at Right Networks.
As much as the experts lauded the profession’s ability to go virtual, some identified new obstacles to overcome in the transition. “Interestingly, as the huge impact of the pandemic on personnel’s work lives and their sanity (partners and staff alike) have become apparent, one of the biggest issues emerging is people lamenting over the lack of interpersonal interaction,” said Rosenberg. “The very people who demanded more remote work time now crave more face-to face-time. This is especially problematic for younger staff, who need more attention and guidance than more experienced personnel.”
“First, firms had to shift to a remote work environment. Many were prepared; however, many were not,” said Shapiro. “The need for technology, especially cloud-based systems, became a game-changer, and those who were cloud-based transitioned more easily. However, the degree to which clients were comfortable with technology also had a huge impact on the success of shifting to a remote work environment.”
Going forward, many of the profession’s leaders expect these new work environments to endure, ushering in other changes. “One lesson that I believe we are about to learn is that we likely have too much office space,” said Bourke. “Our firm, like many, has large physical locations in major cities. Yes, we have embraced the ‘hoteling’ concept and have even deployed technologies to facilitate that process, but will our staff be willing to come back to the new reality of social distancing, face coverings, continual cleaning of the work environment, the temperature checks, the unknown contacts made by the staff that sat in the space before them?”
“One of the biggest lessons will be how to reconfigure space and implement the new office reopening standards for social distancing, safety, building entry (scanning for a fever), and cleanliness,” said Koltin.
“Virtual meetings, audits, advisory services, and consulting engagements are here to stay,” said L. Gary Boomer, visionary and strategist at Boomer Consulting.
“Firms should be looking to not only get their practices and clients securely through the COVID storm but also be prepared to take advantage of the new work economy afterward,” said Kepczyk. “We saw with the rushed transition to WFH that security was not made a priority, so firms are just now catching up on policies, training, and technical remediation which cloud/hosted providers natively had in place.”
These efforts can also serve as a blueprint for future change management. “Now it is time to lead change,” said Ellison-Taylor. “If we have learned from iconic businesses that either is no longer here or have been dramatically impacted, we know that new disruptors are sure to emerge in the post-pandemic environment.”
As Ed Kless, senior director of partner development and strategy at Sage, put it, one pervasive lesson is, “Change is not only possible but often necessary.”