Two years ago this month, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136, was signed into law. The provisions of the CARES Act included the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a forgivable loan program administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration that was aimed at offering much-needed financing to smaller businesses, sole proprietors, and the self-employed, among others, to cover payroll and other essential costs (see the sidebar "PPP: By the Numbers").
CPAs found themselves front and center in the effort to keep small businesses afloat during the pandemic as they helped clients apply for PPP loans and other business relief programs, put the financing to the best possible use, and gain loan forgiveness. As they did so, clients came to see just how much value their CPAs brought them.
In the pandemic's first 100 days, "10 years of relationships were built," said Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO of CPA.com. "There were dire circumstances for these businesses, and they called their economic first responders, their CPAs." Since then, "we've seen a permanent shift in how small businesses see their CPA firm," he said.
Here, we take a look back at the tumultuous rollout of the PPP, how it led clients to view CPAs as essential business partners, and how CPAs can build on the relationships with clients they built during the pandemic.
'Economic first responders'
The first days of the PPP were an anxious time for firms and clients, said Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA, vice president—Small Firm Interests at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA. In the final weeks of what would have been the busy season in a typical year, clients shut down or went remote, and "many weren't sure they were going to survive," he recalled. To add to the confusion, the facts and circumstances of numerous cases didn't necessarily fit into the early PPP rules. "Clients needed money right away, but regulators had not yet published all the information that firms needed to help them apply for relief," Peterson said. "The pressure on firms was unbelievable."
CPAs look back on that period as stressful and challenging. When the program was first introduced, "the phones didn't stop ringing with clients looking for guidance," said Tony Khait, CPA/PFS, the CEO and president of 33-employee firm Eco-Tax Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. After the individual tax deadline was extended, Khait told his people to shift immediately to the PPP and other business relief needs. "That gave us breathing room," he said. He held Zoom calls every morning with the entire firm to keep them up to date on new PPP developments.
Chad Allen, CPA/CITP, partner and director of audit and attest services at nine-employee firm Hutchins & Haake LLC in Overland Park, Kan., dealt with a large volume of clients who worried that the available PPP funds in the first round would run out before they received any money. "That's where the real stress came in," he said. Combined with the frequent changes in guidance, that uncertainty "made for a total nightmare for us, for the clients, and their banks," he said.
Gwen Young, CPA, remembers the demand for PPP help coming in three waves at her firm, Young & Wadlington PLLC in Lexington, Ky. The first wave began immediately after shutdowns started, with clients who were well informed about the program and had made initial contacts with their banks. For them, "it was a race to get in line," said Young, a partner at the firm. The next wave of clients had initially decided they had enough funds and cash flow to operate for a couple of months, but as the pandemic wore on, they, too, realized they needed help. As months passed, the firm also began to contact a "third wave" of clients who may have been uncertain if they were eligible or had other misgivings about the program. Some clients had been unable to get loans from large banks with which they didn't have strong relationships, so the firm successfully redirected them to smaller, local banks.
Despite the stress and uncertainty, CPAs' efforts assisting clients with the PPP were well worth it, Khait said. The PPP loans "were a lifeline that saved many small businesses," he said, likening CPAs to "financial doctors." Allen said that at the end of the PPP process, "we felt we had helped clients relieve their anxiety, knowing they had someone in their corner who can help them. That was a really cool feeling."
Clients gained GREATER appreciation for CPAs
During the rollout of the PPP, a sense of urgency and need for quick thinking helped bring clients and CPAs together. "CPAs were able to get more deeply involved and understand their small business clients' situation," said Lisa Simpson, CPA, CGMA, vice president—Firm Services at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA.
Many clients, in turn, realized that CPAs were the professionals who were best suited to help them manage the chaos that 2020 brought. "Firms were there for clients when they needed them," Peterson said. "They were helping clients get financing and offering advice on how to change their business models temporarily or even permanently."
Over time, that led to a change in clients' appreciation of what CPA firms could offer them.
"Small businesses were in a panic about PPP loans when they couldn't get banks on the phone and needed help," said Lesley Kelly, CPA, partner at DarverKelly LLP, who opened her firm in July 2019 in Greenville, S.C. "Being available and empathetic with our existing clients having these issues in 2020 led to referrals to new clients as PPP loan issues continued and evolved in 2021."
"We've spent years telling people we could do more than compliance work, that we understand business, too," Allen said.
It took the PPP to open many clients' eyes, however. Because of it, "they realized we were good at understanding the whole picture," he said. "They saw we could be tremendously valuable, and many indicated that they couldn't have navigated the pandemic without us."
Young's firm had always positioned itself as an advisory firm that would collaborate with clients to help them meet their goals. During the first months of the pandemic her firm, like many others, had conversations with clients about whether they would survive and how they should revise their short- and long-term goals. "COVID opened the door to deeper discussions," she said. "If you listened to clients, you could identify ways you could assist them."
Grow the role you play in clients' businesses
Though the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect everyone, many businesses are now on a surer footing than they were two years ago. Thus, now can be a good time for firms to build on the goodwill they created during the early days of the pandemic and make clients aware of the advisory role they can play, Peterson said.
Firms can accomplish this with personal conversations during busy season and on their websites and other communications. "Your message should be that you are an advocate who can help small businesses be successful," Simpson said. (See the sidebar "Tools for Enhancing Your Advisory Services.")
"CPAs need to be proactive in asking clients what keeps them up at night," she said. "Ask what the clients' goals are for the next few months or years."
Allen recommended focusing on services that aren't in most small businesses' wheelhouses, such as budgeting and forecasting. At his firm, for example, "we tell the clients, 'These are all the things that we can do. What do you need?'" Allen said.
Offering value billing can also help firms demonstrate the value their advisory services — including client advisory services or CAS — bring to clients. Allen's firm, for instance, is in the process of transitioning clients to subscription-based billing. They are billed monthly throughout the year, can select from a menu of services, and are allowed to make unlimited phone calls for advice. This approach knocks down barriers and allows clients to see their CPAs as an extension of their management team.
"Once that happens, they are less likely to resist change and less price-sensitive because they can see the value," he said. Clients can recognize the benefits to them of knowing their regular monthly fees, gaining new customized insights, and having greater access to firm members.
Young's firm, which uses both subscription-based and value billing, as well as hourly billing, has regular meetings with clients, asking open-ended questions to understand their pain points. "You need to be in real time with clients, since it's difficult to give good advice six months later," she said.
When reaching out to clients about advisory services, start small by identifying the best targets first, Allen suggested. As part of that process, it helps to define the ideal client, he said. Narrowing your target in this way can make it easier to standardize processes and focus training and practice development.
Firms may also need to educate staff more about business advisory services and develop the soft skills they require, Peterson said. It should already be clear which staff are best suited to handle these services based on their ability to step up and take on new challenges during the past two years, he said.
Following their experiences with gaining PPP and other relief, firms are also well positioned to play a strategic role in helping clients understand their financing needs and gain access to capital, Khait said. After handling applications manually during the first round of PPP funding, Khait's firm was able to streamline its work using the CPA Business Funding Portal, a cloud-based financing platform developed by CPA.com in association with fintech company Biz2Credit. The portal was intended to help CPAs assist clients in securing government-backed business relief, such as PPP loans. By using the portal, "we could handle all the paperwork and then just send it to the client to sign," Khait said. Over the PPP period, CPAs used the portal to help clients process around 40,000 loans and obtain over $1 billion in business relief.
In fall 2021, a business term loan option for CPA firms' small business clients was added to the portal, and plans are in place to add working capital and commercial real estate loan options.
A force for good
CPAs should remember that their firms were a force for good during an economic crisis the likes of which has never been seen before, Simpson advised. "They should be proud of that," she said. "Remember what you were able to do during an insane time, how you adapted and learned new approaches, and asked the right questions that kept small businesses afloat."
PPP: By the numbers
Number of loans
Total number of loans made: 11.45 million
Applications filed for forgiveness: 9.41 million
Number of forgiveness payments made: 9.29 million
Amount of money allocated by Congress for the PPP: $953 billion
Total volume loaned: $790.8 billion
Amount sought in forgiveness applications: $680.8 billion
Amount forgiven: $668.6 billion
Average loan size in 2020: $101,000
Average loan size in 2021: $42,000
Sources: Office of the New York State Comptroller, "The Paycheck Protection Program in New York City: What's Next?"; and U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), "PPP data." Figures are for 2020 and 2021 combined and are accurate as of Jan. 9, 2022. U.S. SBA, "Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Report." Figures are for approvals through Aug. 8, 2020. U.S. SBA "Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Report." Figures are for approvals through May 31, 2021.
Tools for enhancing your advisory services
Below are some useful tools firms can use to help them offer advisory services to clients, and to expand upon the advisory services they already offer.
- The PCPS Trusted Client Adviser Toolbox (available to PCPS Section members) can help firms shift their focus to advisory services. Its resources include a sample engagement letter and tools that can assist with client evaluation, client meetings, pricing and overcoming pricing objections, ongoing engagements, and more.
- The CPA Business Funding Portal (paid subscription required) is a cloud-based platform that accounting firms can leverage to process and fund term loan options for their small business clients.
- CPA.com's Client Advisory Services (CAS) resource page offers tools and learning opportunities to help firms grow and develop their CAS offerings, including workshops, case studies, and the CPA.com and AICPA PCPS Client Advisory Services (CAS) Benchmark Survey, which shares CAS best practices, including steps to move to value/fixed-fee billing.
About the author
Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or
"7 Tips for Starting a Client Advisory Services Practice," JofA, Aug. 1, 2021
"How CPAs Helped Save Businesses During COVID-19," JofA, Aug. 1, 2021
"CPAs and the Historic Paycheck Protection Program," JofA, June 21, 2021
"A PPP Loan Forgiveness Update and One CPA's 2021 Reflection," JofA, Dec. 21, 2021
"The 4 Pillars of Starting or Growing a CAS Practice," JofA, Oct. 21, 2021
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