Peta Tomlinson, journalist

As an accountant in a small Australian practice, Stacey Price is used to guiding her clients along the occasionally rocky road of small business.

Coronavirus threw both adviser and client into uncharted territory. In the harrowing first weeks after business lockdowns were announced, clients called her back-to-back unburdening their fears, anxiety and frustrations.

The pandemic has undeniably taken a toll on accountants, who, as well as providing professional services, suddenly found themselves playing the role of counsellor.

‘We were not immune to any of it – our business was equally impacted – but we had to be strong for our clients,’ says Price, founder of Healthy Business Finances in Ballarat, a city in the state of Victoria.

One morning, exhausted and overwhelmed, ‘I sat in the shower and cried,’ she recalls.

The pandemic has undeniably taken a toll on accountants, who, as well as providing professional services, suddenly found themselves playing the role of counsellor

For small practitioners like Price, it would get worse: 12-hour working days became a blur of taking or returning every single client’s phone call, comprehending the government’s daily announcements, and dealing with her three staff members’ stress, as well as her own.

What helped get Price through was her established support network. The online groups she belongs to offered a channel for talking with other business owners, mentors and friends.

‘Having honest conversations, no matter how hard they are, gives comfort,’ she explains. ‘You might not get answers right away, but just having a safe space to hold those conversations helped.’

Emotional support

Early on in the pandemic, CF Chong FCCA also found himself providing reassurance. ‘When the lockdown came suddenly, in March, we had a lot of clients call us up and ask about the things they needed to do,’ says the principal at Kuala Lumpur-based CF Associates, who heads a team of six.

‘In some cases, we helped them to analyse their accounts, providing numbers where they could potentially cut, or project what their future financials might look like,’ he says.

‘Sometimes they knew what was going on, and just wanted a professional accountant to brainstorm with them.’

Some clients, especially those in instantly impacted retail businesses, needed emotional support. ‘We didn’t charge them for that – we considered that to be an additional service to our clients,’ he says.

Sometimes clients just wanted a professional accountant to brainstorm with them. Others needed emotional support

Tips for SMPs

Michael Croker, CA ANZ tax leader, Australia, offers some practical tips to help SMPs manage their own cashflow in tough times, and position themselves for future growth:

  • Schedule a time-out from helping clients during the Covid-19 emergency to consider how your own business survives the pandemic
  • Review your firm’s current letter of engagement and determine if it needs amending – and alert clients to any changes you make
  • If asked to agree to a fee discount, make it dependent on payment upfront or quick payment
  • Onboard clients to your firm’s preferred business software platform
  • Take the opportunity to boost your firm’s profile by actively seeking word of mouth recommendations and testimonials
  • Review the relevance of your current client service offerings and promote new or Covid-relevant services (eg business turnaround advice)

In some cases, Chong even reduced his own fees to keep his clients afloat, adding that ‘trying to stay positive’ as an adviser seemed to help as well.

Digital boost

In Singapore, Mohammed Nasir Sawal ACCA, founder and director of NAS Chartered Accountants, focused on providing practical support to clients, consulting on how to cope with their cashflows, access the grants available and redesign client processes so that staff could work from home.

Despite the extra workload, the practice was already using cloud-based services, which made it easier for Nasir and his team of three to do their jobs remotely. ‘We actually received more enquiries during the pandemic,’ he says.

Support grants from the government have also helped his own business to survive financially.

More than ever, says Nasir, the pandemic underlined the role of digital solutions in streamlining processes to improve efficiency.  In the post-Covid ‘new normal’, he believes it will make sense to retain some work from home flexibility and hold more virtual meetings ‘as these are more efficient and less costly to the business’.

Calm advice

Lara Camage and Liya Chitty, who run CC Chartered Accountants in Auckland, New Zealand, say their first weeks were spent ‘just helping clients calm down’, and work though immediate issues such as accessing wage subsidies. ‘This was all unpaid, because how could we charge when we were all facing such a situation,’ Camage adds.

While the wage subsidy ‘definitely helped’, clients still had to worry about rent and other fixed monthly costs such as phone, power and software costs that don’t stop.

The partners’ practice is well set up for online systems including Xero, and with clients in various places in New Zealand, they were already used to managing remote work.

‘Supporting clients to do more in this space is something we are now looking at,’ Camage says. Teaching financial resilience so that small businesses can withstand some bumps – including being careful about the types of debt they take on – is another avenue the partners intend to pursue.

Despite the extremely stressful journey that the firm and its clients navigated together, Camage believes ‘a lot of us came through better than we thought’.

She adds: ‘Yes, people lost revenue but gained time with families and some time to destress. I think it has made people realise how important some of those things are – not just work.’