insight magazine

Overcoming COVID-19

Savvy CPAs are finding innovative ways to help their clients and communities through an unprecedented crisis. By Annie Mueller | Summer 2020

Overcoming Covid

While the economic upheaval of a global pandemic affects everyone in different ways, there’s one feeling shared by all: uncertainty. For CPAs who hope to offer clients strategic insights, responding to the pandemic is about more than helping them make decisions about what is happening now. A wise response requires looking to the future— sifting through scenarios, weighing potential outcomes, factoring in the unexpected, keeping up with continually changing guidelines, and assessing best options for each unique situation. Oh, and trying to survive—then recover.

While the strategic advisory role of a CPA is often seen as a bonus to the core services they’re trusted to provide, in uncertain times, having a trustworthy partner to help make these tough decisions is an essential need. These five CPAs and their firms grasped that need instinctively, and have found smart, safe ways to be there for their clients—even when “there” often means anywhere but together.

Navigating New Knowledge—Virtually

cm-300Curt Mastio, CPA
Founder, Founder’s CPA

Curt Mastio doesn’t view what he’s doing as a special service; it’s part of being a good CPA. “I’ve noticed during this time how important that advisory aspect of a real CPA is to my clients,” he says. Mastio, who is also an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University, started Founder’s CPA in 2015 to work primarily with startups. He notes that entrepreneurs and new businesses frequently do not or cannot allocate much of their budget to accounting needs and often end up using an automated service. “That seems okay until you’re in the middle of an uncertain situation like we all are now,” Mastio says. “There’s so much value in having a real, live CPA on your side helping you decide what to do next.” 

That’s exactly what Mastio and his firm have been providing: help, advice, and expertise in unpredictable times. “Most of our clients don’t have an accounting or financial background,” he explains. “So even as federal and state resources, loans, and other options become available in response to the pandemic, it’s a lot to navigate the options and know what applies. We’re doing our best to fill that knowledge gap.”
Filling the knowledge gap means stepping up without physically being there, so Mastio and his team at Founder’s CPA regularly send emails, host webinars, and meet virtually with clients. “A lot of this is talking through various scenarios so our clients can make the most informed decisions possible even with so many unknowns and variables,” he says. Additionally, his firm has created an online resource guide, which is regularly updated to help clients stay informed about developments impacting their unique businesses.

Mastio encourages other CPAs to do the same in their own way. “One complaint I’ve heard is that there’s not enough communication,” Mastio says. “It goes a long way when you respond and make sure your clients know you care. Let them know you’re here and you want to help.”

Being the Therapist on Call

tj-300Tim Jipping, CPA, CGMA
Owner, Journey Advisors & CPAs

For many CPAs right now, being there for clients means facing difficult truths with them. “We work primarily with service-based businesses,” says Tim Jipping. “In these businesses, when you go from running at 100 percent to 5 percent overnight, it’s painful to watch.”
Clients now need much more than tax preparation or typical financial planning. “There’s a bit of therapist, technical advisor, and friend in the mix of advisory services now,” Jipping stresses. “All of a sudden, we’re having tough conversations about whether to lay people off, what to tell employees, how to handle vendor relationships, and even how to close down a business. And I say, ‘We’ll help you figure it out.’”

Jipping’s firm, though only two years old itself, has handled the disruption to business-as-usual with agility. “Our firm was built for this. We were already on Zoom and using automated systems. We’re experiencing the benefit of being up-to-speed with current technology,” Jipping says. Right now, he is focused on providing up-to-the-minute information for his clients. “We work with clients across the country, and the situation is wildly different from state to state. What helps is to keep clients as updated as possible on what we know. We send emails less frequently but we’re very specific with them. We say things like, ‘As of 10 a.m. today, this is what we know and what you should consider.’”

The dual challenge for clients is dealing with an economic shutdown and ensuing regulations while also looking ahead to what might come next. “We’re trying to navigate what new regulations might be and how consumer expectations might change,” Jipping says. “It’s a day-by-day thing.”

The most important piece in supporting clients now is to be there and be honest, Jipping emphasizes. “This is an opportunity to build long-term, deep relationships. It’s about being a partner,” he says. “Be a fellow human who’s going through this same weird journey at the same time. Be honest even when it’s tough to be optimistic. Then help them think about the future and keep looking ahead.” To survive long enough to look ahead, many businesses must do things differently now. “Food and beverage and hospitality companies who aren’t trying new service methods are going to really struggle and may not make it through this,” says Joshua Lance. “Our experience in virtual work is helping us help our clients reframe the situation and find ways to do things that are not traditional but still work.”

Crafting Cash Flow Solutions

jl-300Joshua Lance, CPA, CGMA
Managing Director, Lance CPA Group

To survive long enough to look ahead, many businesses must do things differently now. “Food and beverage and hospitality companies who aren’t trying new service methods are going to really struggle and may not make it through this,” says Joshua Lance. “Our experience in virtual work is helping us help our clients reframe the situation and find ways to do things that are not traditional but still work.”
The Lance CPA Group is a fully remote and virtual CPA firm, which enables Lance and his team to provide exactly what their clients— particularly those in the food and beverage and hospitality industries—need during this time. “Our craft brewery clients are figuring out how to change up their operations,” Lance explains. “Most operated tap rooms and are now trying to pivot to offer to-go, deliveries, and other options they weren’t focused on previously.”

Making a big change in operations is no small feat, especially while adjusting to restrictions, keeping employees and suppliers safe, and handling inevitable cash flow challenges. “Our goal is to be proactive in addressing the needs of our clients,” Lance stresses. “Some of our brewery clients have found that the new methods we’ve suggested are good alternative revenue sources that may be worth holding on to, even when they can resume business as usual.”

To further support their clients, Lance and his team offer informational videos and daily virtual office hours. They also set up an online community offering real-time help. “With our craft brewery group, we set up a Slack group and invited all our brewery clients, plus others in the brew space and other breweries,” Lance says. “We’ve been able to share information, and it’s rewarding to see people who are competitors in this space coming together to help each other.”

Helping clients during this time, Lance says, is about taking time to think creatively and solve problems with them. “You don’t have to have all the answers,” he explains. “No one does. Your clients need you to get in the trenches with them and let them know you’re in this together.”

Learning About Legislating Livelihoods

jh-300Jim Hogge, CPA
Partner, Eck, Schafer & Punke LLP

Having a trusted partner in the trenches can make all the difference for clients struggling to keep their businesses alive. “As a firm, we have done our best to reach out to as many clients we can by calling or emailing specific information to them,” says Jim Hogge, who is providing as much help as possible to all asking for guidance.
“Since the start of the pandemic, my focus has shifted to staying on top of new legislation and the related guidance that is continually being issued,” Hogge explains. “The main challenge is communicating with all the clients that can use the government assistance. Some are closely monitoring legislation but others, unaware of their options, risk missing the help and information they need.”

COVID-19 has been devastating to many of Hogge’s clients and friends—even clients with businesses deemed essential that can stay open are struggling to do so. With schools closed, many employees have children at home, but no childcare options. “The businesses that are still working are having difficulty finding staffing,” he explains. “They are doing their best to just hang on.”

Hogge and his colleagues are focused on helping their clients understand their options and make wise decisions. “I’m proud of the way the firm has pulled together to help our clients,” Hogge says. “We understand that clients are scared about their livelihoods and are trying their best to keep their businesses going. We’re here to do whatever we can to help as many clients as possible. This is an overwhelming time, but we will all get through this together.”

Offering Strategic Insight

bw-300Brad Werner, CPA, MBA
Partner, Wipfli LLP

Helping clients get through a pandemic requires a new kind of strategic approach. “In the past, our consulting efforts have been aimed at helping clients grow,” says Brad Werner. “Now, with sustainability, strategic planning, and cash management as the top priorities, our consulting services have taken a different form.”

The same, but different: While there is “still demand for core services,” Werner says, “there’s a hunger for immediate strategic business advice. CPAs who are ahead of the game in communicating current trends and proactive strategies are going to see opportunities emerge. If you are helping companies and individuals sustain and thrive through these trying times, that’s an opportunity to build trust you cannot buy.”

Clients facing business challenges and complex situations is, of course, nothing new. What is new are the amount and type of challenges. “Clients are in triage mode to compensate for the shroud of uncertainty facing their businesses in the near-term,” Werner says. He helps clients focus on four key strategic areas: enabling productive remote work environments, managing and enhancing cash flow, minimizing losses until normal operations can resume, and understanding how to best apply provisions from the CARES Act and other emerging federal, state, and local assistance programs. To help clients navigate these areas, Wipfli created an online COVID-19 resource center. “I’m actively consuming as much content around those topics as I can,” Werner says. “All it takes is one good idea that you can share with a client to make all the difference.”

Even in the best of times, reminds Werner, most businesses rank their accountant as their most trusted business advisor. In times of uncertainty, that advisory role becomes even more important. “It is the obligation of a trusted business advisor to be thinking of ways to help clients manage their businesses more effectively,” Werner says. “You’re doing your practice and your clients a disservice if you’re not actively reaching out to discuss their business issues and strategies that might help.”

As an industry, the accounting profession relies on accuracy, attention to detail, professionalism, and solid numbers. In a crisis, however, other factors come into play: the bond of humanity and shared experience. These CPAs have found that it’s not about knowing it all or having all the answers. It’s about being in the uncertainty together, and together finding ways to navigate challenges as they arise.

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