Keeping clients informed during the COVID-19 crisis

By Cheryl Meyer

On March 16, 2020, well into the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, Bob Patterson, CPA, CGMA, owner of Patterson & Company CPAs in Louisville and Lexington, Ky., began talking with clients via phone at 7:30 a.m. Fourteen hours later, at 9:30 p.m., he had spoken with 31 clients, most of them restaurant owners in desperate need of a listening ear.

“[That] was the hardest day of my career,” Patterson said. “We were helping them understand their business cash flow and their break-even point. And while that is normal for us, they are concerned about survival, and that's a hard conversation for us.”

Patterson and other CPAs across the globe are doing all they can to help clients through what has become a devastating crisis for some. CPAs have become not only trusted advisers, but also counselors of a sort who can provide comfort to clients in need. We spoke with Patterson and leaders at four other public accounting firms of varying sizes to find out how they are helping their clients weather this storm.

Patterson & Company CPAs: This small firm, with 17 people on staff, including four CPAs, has 150 restaurant clients that make up about two-thirds of its revenue. Most of Patterson’s clients have been forced to close their establishment doors, and many have laid off workers.

“One of their biggest issues is they are losing good staff,” Patterson said. “They hate to see good people leave, but if they don’t have the cash, there’s nothing they can do.” Patterson has helped clients by talking with their landlords and insurance companies in the hopes of delaying payments in the near term. He has also aided clients in applying for U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loans.

Partly due to the revised July 15 filing deadline, tax returns have taken a back seat to coronavirus conversations. Patterson sends out daily updates via email to his clients, focusing on updates from federal and state regulators. He then speaks with clients if they need additional information. Communication with clients has largely been via phone calls, texts, emails, and Zoom meetings. His advice to CPAs is to ask a lot of questions and try to anticipate clients' needs.

Cerini & Associates LLP: Kenneth Cerini, CPA, the managing partner of his 50-person firm in Bohemia, N.Y., specializes in helping not-for-profit organizations, school districts, and health care clients, many of them government-funded. During this tenuous time, Cerini has been doing “virus consulting,” providing clients with updated data, including new financial rules and regulations and reimbursements affecting educational organizations, many of which are on lockdown.

“With the coronavirus and social distancing in place, people can no longer provide face-to-face services,” he said. “The governmental systems were not prepared for this, so they had to develop regulations on how to provide distance learning and teletherapy.”

What’s more, he noted, new rules have been coming out daily as to how services are to be provided, who can provide them, how providers will get paid, and other issues. Most of Cerini’s employees are working remotely and “focusing on the virus and the impact of the virus” — not on taxes or audits — as they attempt to help clients comprehend the changes, he said.

The firm provides webinars and continual updates on its website and sends daily email blasts to clients and friends notifying them about changing information, such as SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Cerini also sends updates via Twitter. He gathers data from trade associations, listservs, state government departments, and other sources and spends hours reading and on the phone. His firm has also set up a Facebook group so special education providers can communicate.

His message to clients: “We’re here. If you have questions or concerns, reach out to us.” His advice to fellow CPAs: “The more you can push information out and help people navigate through the system, the more stickiness you will have with your clients.”

Frazier & Deeter LLC: This 400-person firm, with nine U.S. offices and one in London, works with startup and small businesses, individuals, and billion-dollar corporations. Fortunately, Frazier & Deeter was prepped for working remotely prior to the coronavirus crisis. “The technology investment we made is really paying dividends now,” noted Atlanta-based Seth McDaniel, CPA, the firm's managing partner.

Most of the firm’s clients, too, have quickly shifted to working from home, but clients in a few industries, such as hospitality, are struggling. As a result, Frazier & Deeter’s accountants are communicating almost daily with clients via email, phone, and Zoom and trying to sort through the plethora of information flooding their own inboxes.

Frazier & Deeter is also “sending pre-recorded webinars with answers to the most-asked questions, so that clients can attend on their own time,” McDaniel said. “We’re trying to personalize that communication with clients, instead of bombarding them with things they’ve already seen in the media.”

The firm also launched a coronavirus webpage and a task force, led by a tax partner and former banking executive, to help staff a client hotline. The hotline provides clients with answers to questions and helps them figure out which direction to go during this challenging time.

McDaniel’s advice to CPAs and their respective firms is to “be focused and personal in the information that you share,” he said. “Make sure it’s meaningful.’ His firm's message to clients: “We’re going to get through this.”

EisnerAmper LLP: Approximately 1,900 people work for this large firm, headquartered in New York with offices throughout the country and the world. In early March the firm named its COO, Robert Levine, CPA, as the point person to handle operations and internal communications for COVID-19.

Nearly all EisnerAmper employees are working remotely now, and the firm is taking a three-pronged approach to connecting with clients, Levine said. Most importantly, partners are reaching out to clients to help with government loans and other assistance programs, federal and state tax programs, liquidity planning, and other tasks. Second, EisnerAmper maintains a “coronavirus hub” on its website that offers a list of articles related to COVID-19, updated data from regulators, and links to state and government agencies. Third, EisnerAmper’s CEO, Charles Weinstein, CPA, CGMA, has sent several mass emails to clients about the firm’s accounting work plan, its remote workforce, and its digital filing portal.

Levine advises CPAs and firms to offer “bite-sized communication” so as not to overwhelm people who are already stressed. He also said it’s meaningful when partners reach out to clients.

For clients, EisnerAmper’s message is: “First and foremost, talk to us,” Levine said. “Everybody is in this together.”

DMJ & Co. PLLC: This 90-person firm, with offices in four North Carolina cities, serves individuals and businesses such as dentists, restaurants, trucking companies, and others. Most recently, the firm’s wealth management division has been especially busy, addressing stock market and investment worries, said managing partner Michael Gillis, CPA/PFS, CGMA.

Business clients are primarily interested in the coronavirus stimulus bill and how it may assist their workers. “They are looking for ways to help their employees,” Gillis said.

DMJ has seen a huge uptick in client communication and is sending out daily e-blasts and connecting regularly with all of its clients via phone, email, and social media. The firm is gathering its information from Treasury announcements, research databases, and state agencies such as the North Carolina Department of Revenue. The firm also posts information on its website.

DMJ wants to communicate to clients that it will provide the most current information possible on changing tax and business developments. Gillis’s advice to fellow CPAs is to increase the amount of communication to clients as quickly as possible.

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

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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