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 |
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
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
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.”