Social distancing, office shutdowns, and remote working sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic have meant much of the human contact that helps build business relationships has been eliminated. These changes create challenges for CPAs looking to identify prospects and gain new clients.
But CPAs are proving every day that it is possible to be resilient and overcome these obstacles. What follows is advice from fellow CPAs on how to retain and attract clients during difficult times.
Maintain contact. It is very important to keep in touch with clients, and physical distancing should not result in less communication. Todd J. Koch, CPA, partner in Minnesota's John A. Knutson & Co., said it is possible to have more productive conversations now than in the past. There are many new issues to talk about because of the pandemic, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136; Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans; cash flow planning; and federal and state tax changes, he said. People are especially receptive to hearing from their accountants to help navigate it all. Many of the rules are continually changing, and accountants can provide valuable and timely new information.
Communications can be done by phone, on video calls, or via informational emails. Koch encourages tailoring emails to individual clients by focusing on what will be of the most interest to them. There may also be situations where mailing letters is appropriate.
Matthew Wilson, CPA, CGMA, and Maya Ivanova, CPA, CGMA, partners at Wilson Ivanova CPA Inc. in San Bernardino, Calif., have been able to continue having some in-person discussions with social distancing and wearing masks. "Because we are a smaller firm, we have always been very hands-on with our clients, working in their offices with their management and staff," Wilson said. "We are continuing to reach out to them for no other reason than to check in with them and listen to their stories and experiences, both good and bad."
Use technology effectively. Koch believes every "touch" with a client can develop the relationship and using technology can increase the number of interactions possible. CPAs can keep in touch with clients through social media and by offering podcasts or webinars on topics of interest. It is important to translate what you were doing in person to a virtual interaction, said Dawn Patrick, CPA, Georgia West Regional Market Leader for Cherry Bekaert in Nashville, Tenn. "People want to stay connected right now," she said. "It can make it easier for everyone by reaching out more frequently in shorter bursts of time, like 15-minute check-in calls."
Koch uses Zoom to keep in touch virtually but recommends online meetings be treated the same as face-to-face meetings. "It's important to be prepared for the meeting, because it shows," he said. "Turn on the camera so you can see facial expressions and to make sure they understand." He advises CPAs not to feel pressured to have all the answers because they are on camera, as long as they are clear about what they do and do not know.
Wilson and Ivanova ask clients what their communication preferences are in advance. They have some clients that prefer video calls and others that prefer in-person meetings, either in the firm's conference room with social distancing or at the client's office or job site — as long as they feel safe in doing so. Wilson warns that people can get Zoom fatigue and be worn down by too many Microsoft Teams meetings. "Don't rely on technology to replace the human touch," Wilson said. Although firms are relying more on technology and working remotely in general, and particularly amid the pandemic, Ivanova hopes this does not become the new norm.
Help clients adapt to change. Businesses are going through unexpected changes at a rate they have never experienced before. Clients are facing tough decisions about business shutdowns, letting employees go temporarily or permanently, new government programs, and new tax issues that include retroactive application. CPAs can help them prepare and react. Although the pandemic is unprecedented, past economic downturns and recessions can offer valuable insights into current issues.
"As a trusted adviser, we are letting them know what has happened in the past, and we use our experience based on what we have seen in the past to look ahead to what may happen, to help them anticipate changes and be more prepared," Koch said. "We don't have a perfect crystal ball, but we can help them put together a better picture using the crystal ball we have along with the insights they have about their business."
As a small firm, Wilson Ivanova was able to shift to assist clients with new issues raised by the pandemic. The firm dedicated one person to PPP who served as the single point of contact to support both clients and many different lenders on gathering and submitting client data and on the program's requirements, including loan qualification criteria. They sent a letter to more than 30 clients to share accurate information and clear up misinformation. "Because of how proactive we were, some of our clients referred us to their peers," Wilson said. "We were able to gain substantial amounts of new business, not just for PPP purposes."
Because small business owners have put so much of their time and money into their businesses, those businesses, which often involve friends and family, become a part of them. Koch advises CPAs to help clients focus more on the situation and less on their emotions amid difficult decisions like business shutdowns and employee terminations. Talking through their expectations and sharing the potential outcomes can help business owners see more clearly. In the end it is up to clients to make the decisions, but they can make better decisions based on CPAs' advice.
Such conversations can be helpful to firms as well. "Controllers and owners want to talk about their businesses and how things are going, and we are able to learn from them how they handled systemic issues and use their insights to help our other clients," Wilson said.
Develop a plan for finding new business. Just because there may be fewer networking events and opportunities to meet with prospects face-to-face right now does not mean those tasks should be neglected.
Patrick encourages CPAs to have a strategy for how to continue business development activities differently but effectively. "There are no more two-hour networking lunches. But everyone should still spend that same amount of time on business development and building relationships through virtual activity and not lose those hours," she said. Her firm encourages partners and managers to spend at least 30 minutes a day on business development, by looking at referral contacts' LinkedIn profiles and social media posts and reaching out to them.
She also advises CPAs to follow up on seeds that were planted with prospects before the pandemic. "Most business development professionals say it's almost easier in some ways to make things happen now, because scheduling videoconferences is easier than setting up future meetings or lunches," she said. "There are fewer conflicts, and everyone is kind of captive."
Patrick advises CPAs to use their existing network and contacts as a bridge to new ones, rather than trying to cultivate new relationships. She recommends asking existing connections on LinkedIn to introduce you to others you identify as interesting prospects. For more tips, the AICPA produced a podcast episode on how small firm practitioners can network remotely.
Patrick also recommends CPAs use existing professional relationships with banks and law firms to create online networking events that can help each group identify new prospects. "We call it speed-dating. We create a session and invite everyone, make introductions, pair people up into breakout rooms so they get to know each other one on one, and then regroup at the end to share information," she said. The goal is to make contacts and then continue the relationships after the meeting. The bankers and attorneys have gained new clients that are clients of the CPA firm, and the CPA firm has gained new clients that are clients of the bankers or attorneys.
Ivanova and Wilson have also been successful in leveraging relationships with their clients' bankers, lenders, attorneys, and insurance agents to find new clients. They also received introductions to prospects from friends and other CPA firms that did not have the expertise Ivanova and Wilson had in areas like navigating the PPP program. Because they were proactive about providing new information about PPP, government programs, and tax deadline changes to clients, they got many good referrals and gained new clients this year. "We have heard from companies whose accountants were not servicing them and had gone silent on them, rather than reaching out to tell them about these changes, as we are," said Wilson.
Overall, with flexibility and planning, CPAs can continue to provide good client service and grow their business despite these unusual and uncertain times. "Make sure to use this opportunity of unprecedented change to allow you to have an unprecedented opportunity to develop relationships with clients," Koch said.
AICPA experts discuss the latest on the PPP and other small business aid programs during a virtual town hall. The webcasts, which provide CPE credit, are free to AICPA members. Go to the AICPA Town Hall Series webpage for more information and to register.
The AICPA's Paycheck Protection Program Resources page houses resources and tools produced by the AICPA to help address the economic impact of the coronavirus.
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.
— Maria L. Murphy, CPA is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.