insight magazine

Are You Ready for COVID-20?

In the midst of reckoning with COVID-19, strategic thinkers are taking notes for the next crisis. By Natalie Rooney | Summer 2020

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In the early days of 2020, RSM US LLP’s leadership team was carefully monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic. The firm quickly set up an incident response team to share information. A second team, representing every facet of the firm’s business, was formed to gather input and provide updates to firm leadership and the board. On March 17, the firm went 100 percent virtual.

In late April, yet another team was formed, dedicated to reopening offices. “We wanted a comprehensive approach to protect our employees and get them back into offices in a safe, productive environment,” says RSM Chief Operating Officer Bill Gorman.

At Wipfli, the management team made the decision for its workforce to work from home over a weekend. “We were able to get people working from home with essentially the snap of a finger,” says Brian Blaha, CPA, growth partner and industry leader, and a member of the Illinois CPA Society’s board of directors.

Having strategic crisis plans in place and a solid technological footing were critical to both firms’ ability to move quickly. Although the existing plans were designed for natural disasters, the general framework guided leaders as COVID-19 took shape. “We scaled our plan across the organization and adapted as information became available,” Gorman says.

LEADING WITH INFORMATION

Communication, both internal and external, proved critical as businesses went virtual. Gorman describes getting into a “communication cadence” with partners and employees, and Blaha says his team relied on video and conference calls to help with clarity of work.

At Wipfli, daily calls addressed the firm’s internal communications with employees and external communications with clients. The goal was to drive current and prospective clients to the firm’s website, a strategy that worked almost too well. “Our website traffic went off the charts,” Blaha says. “People were thirsty for regulatory and legislative information.”

Teams worked overnight to update the website each time Congress released new information. The fast turnaround led to an unexpected outcome: new clients. “If you get information out ahead of your competitors, prospective clients see you in a positive light and are eager to connect,” Blaha explains.

LEADING WITH HUMANITY

When information about the CARES Act was released, Gorman says RSM made it a point to ensure “caring” was front and center in all client efforts: “At RSM, we speak openly of our values, culture, and behaviors, and every decision we make is grounded in those values. We asked, how can we care for our clients? What do they need?”

At first, clients needed guidance to navigate the regulations flowing from Congress. RSM modified and enhanced its technology platforms and then launched a COVID-19 resource center addressing five critical issues: federal programs; liquidity; supply chain; workforce; and security, privacy, and technology.

“We put our shoulder behind making sure the resources were there so we could help care for our clients and solve their problems,” Gorman says. “It wasn’t about getting a sale or delivering a product. It was about helping clients get through this pandemic.”

But these firms soon discovered there was a lot of opportunity beyond the regulatory and legislative issues.

Clients who were also suddenly shifting to remote work needed technological help even more than they needed regulatory advice. “The dynamic of how we were talking to our clients changed overnight,” Gorman says. “Now, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were. Where that pendulum ends up will be an incredible journey.”

The next natural step became helping clients rethink their strategic plans and imagine a different future: What could their businesses look like in a post-pandemic world?

“A crisis highlights deficiencies,” Blaha says. “Many clients are taking the time to think strategically and address gaps and opportunities that have come to light. After this, our technology team will be even more critical in helping clients remain relevant in a digital world. Changes were coming anyway, but COVID-19 accelerated the time frame.”

Gorman adds many companies have realized how quickly they can actually adapt: “There are clients who are developing new long-term objectives and adjusting their business models to be in a position of strength as we come through this.”

LEADING FOR THE FUTURE

Blaha says technological investments over the years were key to the firm’s quick transition to a work-at-home environment. “As painful as it might be, invest in your technology,” he advises. “You need to prepare as if this isn’t the last time this will happen. The technology will pay off, not just in how work will be done, but also in how you communicate with clients.”

In a post-pandemic world, the shift to advisory and consulting services from tax work is even more critical. “Clients are moving to do-it-yourself tax platforms,” Blaha says. “If tax prep is a chunk of your business, it will impact your revenue stream. Think through how you’ll diversify. There are opportunities to come out stronger. Those who adopt a mindset of continuous improvement will weather this crisis, as well as future crises, better than others.”

Wipfli saw sales numbers drop a week before Illinois’ shelter-in-place executive order went into effect. “But we jumped on it right away because just like production, we needed to be into service extensions and new clients,” Blaha says. “New clients told us their existing providers hadn’t reached out, and we had proactively contacted them. It shortened our sales cycle, which was a learning moment for us. Look holistically at all aspects of your go-to market strategies. Don’t just be in client delivery mode in times like this. Focus not just on production but also on building your pipeline.”

Gorman suggests taking time to evaluate and understand your position in this new normal. Does the post-pandemic environment change your focus on an industry or service element? Is there an investment you need to make to be faster at those services? How do you use that investment to help clients? How do you turn what you’ve learned into a position of strength? Who stepped up as leaders so we can position ourselves for the future? As an advisor, how do you differentiate yourself by increasing the depth of value to clients?

"We’ve been in crisis mode,” Gorman says. “Now take the opportunity that comes from what we learned about ourselves to reflect. Regardless of firm size, CPAs are so important for the integrity and objectivity their advice brings. This is the time to really position ourselves to be helpful and valuable to our clients.”

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