5 steps for advising clients during COVID-19 crisis

Firms can follow a strategic approach to navigate truly advisory, and sometimes difficult, conversations.
By Samantha Mansfield and Jennifer Wilson

A global pandemic. Unstable financial markets. Social isolation. Product shortages in some areas while others are no longer deemed essential. Opportunities for emergency funding. If there was ever a time when clients needed your guidance, expertise, and care, it is now.

The time to shine as an adviser is right this minute. And, even though information is fluid and resources are lagging, your clients need you to be out in front, communicating what you know and what is still uncertain.

In this article, we explore five strategies to navigate truly advisory conversations with your clients to help them survive — and even thrive — during the COVID-19 crisis.

Step 1: Prioritize your outreach

You might feel the need to contact all your clients to check on their physical, mental, and financial well-being, but you have to prioritize your time. If your firm uses a client rating system, such as A, B, and C clients, then start with your A, or most important, clients first.

You might focus on your A clients by service line. If you do this, be careful to cross-reference lists to make sure service lines don’t overlap and cause you to reach out to clients multiple times. If you are organized by industry group, you may choose to have the industry leaders take the lead in contacting their A clients. Prioritizing by industry could help you tailor your messages, as some industries are seeing business boom in this COVID-19 era while others decidedly are not.

Step 2: Organize your outreach team

One of your challenges may be figuring out who should conduct the firm’s outreach to clients. You probably can’t reach all your clients quickly enough relying only on your partners, who likely don’t have the capacity to make all these calls in a timely fashion.

Consider having the calls made by anyone manager level and up. Look across the firm for knowledgeable professionals who may be under-used right now but have the skills to make these calls. Consider your non-IT consultants, auditors, business developers, key administrators, and high-potential future leaders.

Those making the calls do not have to be technical experts on COVID-19 support. They need to be good at asking questions, listening, and following up. When you know who will be reaching out, schedule a kickoff meeting to discuss the objective of your outreach — to stabilize the client community and help them during this COVID-19 disaster.

Step 3: Plan the call

If you’re undertaking large-scale outreach, develop a consistent approach for each call. Make sure callers have details on the many relief programs at their fingertips. We suggest operating with three objectives in mind. First, let your clients know that you care. Second, gather information so you know how you can best serve them. Third, share information that can help them move forward during the crisis. Ideally, these conversations will start with an outline something like this:

  • We’re checking in to see how you’re doing during this chaotic time.
  • How is your health? How is everyone in your family and your organization?
  • How is your business? What are the COVID-19 impacts?
    • If the client is in an essential business, they may still be gathering in person. If they’re not, they are likely dispersed and working remotely, or shut down altogether. This could impact the questions you choose.
  • What are the main concerns you have right now? Where do you see opportunities?
  • How can we help?

Once those calling have learned more about each client’s unique situation, all those involved will share applicable insights about what you’re seeing so far with the client. If a client’s situation calls for it, be able to quickly share links, forms, pertinent deadlines, resources, and services your firm has assembled to help clients.

Also equip your outreach team with stories of encouragement. There is tremendous hope and comfort in hearing stories of those who have successfully pivoted their businesses to avoid disaster. Sharing stories — especially stories in the clients’ industry — can spur innovation for ways your clients can retrofit operations to drive revenue differently.

Step 4: Courageously raise issues and ideas

As mentioned earlier, the pandemic is creating many “early losers” and a few industries that are winning, at least initially. After the questions have been asked, your people will find clients at risk of considerable loss who will need to discuss strategies to stem that loss. Your team likely will talk to clients about ways to scale up to meet COVID-19-related heavy demand for their goods or services and also how to prepare to quickly scale back down once the pandemic lifts.

For example, it seems that industries hit hard early in this crisis include hospitality, travel, entertainment, arts, restaurants, health clubs, beauty providers, and religious institutions. These organizations, and others whose businesses are negatively impacted by COVID-19, need support in reforecasting budgets, implementing tighter cash management strategies, evaluating the collectibility of accounts receivable, trimming expenses, and potentially cutting hours and pay by conducting a furlough or laying off staff to stem their bleeding. They may also be candidates for aid outlined in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136, and the Treasury/SBA loan programs (including the Paycheck Protection Program) and may benefit from your wisdom on which programs they should go after and when. Great advisers never shy away from these difficult conversations. A way to raise this discussion might be:

“We are seeing that others in hospitality have been hard hit initially. How have you been impacted? What stabilizing strategies are you considering through this downturn? How open are you to me providing you a few ideas to consider?”

Clients that are in the “losing” category could also use help considering pivots to their business model. For instance, a meat wholesaler that supplies restaurants may be hurting as restaurants close, but we’ve heard that some are shifting and repackaging their meat in smaller portions, then selling those portions directly to consumers, who order online and come to the warehouse for easy trunk delivery.

Sometimes, though, no clear business model pivot emerges, and difficult decisions have to be made to preserve the business, or the personal wealth of its owners. When necessary, skillful advisers raise the awkward and sometimes painful ideas of furloughs, pay cuts, or even closures.

Honesty and clarity are crucial to maintaining client trust and loyalty. Even if they don’t want to hear it yet, wanting to first come to grips with their circumstances, most clients will appreciate that your hard questions and difficult suggestions came at a time they needed to hear them and from a place of true concern for their well-being. And, if you have stories of clients who made difficult decisions and emerged better than they were before a downturn or crisis, share them.

You may also serve clients in the segments that appear to be “early winners” in this COVID-19 crisis, such as hospitals, health care supply chain, ventilator manufacturers, those in the food supply chain, paper goods manufacturers, technology providers, streaming services, cleaning companies, and anyone supporting remote work. These clients may be growing too fast to make strategic growth decisions. They could use help budgeting, forecasting, and identifying the right level of variable and fixed-cost investments to make. They may need introductions to others in your network to help them grow. Until you facilitate a thoughtful conversation with these clients, you won’t know all the areas your expertise and services could benefit them.

Step 5: Recap and follow up

Your outreach conversations with clients will not be one and done. There will be follow-up within your firm to get clients resources or additional information, scheduling future check-ins, and possibly delivering additional services to help them stay on the right path. After your initial call, write a recap of the call so everyone leaves the conversation with the same information and understanding, and identified action steps. For an outline to include in those recaps, click here.

Within the firm, hold a weekly meeting to share findings from these client calls so the firm gains intel to holistically plan the advisory and compliance services that will most benefit the clients. Externally, consider holding regular group videoconferences or webinars to keep clients informed, too.

Your clients need you now. Ask questions to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affects each one, and offer ideas for aid and innovation when they’re possible. Don’t shy away from delivering the important, and sometimes difficult, messages they need to hear. To effectively facilitate these conversations, be empathetic but not enabling, direct but not interrogating, and compassionate while empowering. Be the support, the truth teller, and the compass your clients need to help them find their way out of this storm. Begin your outreach today.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the pandemic, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.

— Samantha Mansfield is a Michigan-based consultant, public speaker, founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC, and a contract consultant with ConvergenceCoaching LLC. Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.

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