Good customer service is a given in any industry. And in the accounting profession, connecting with your clients is more important than ever as they are looking for answers, guidance, and support. Their CPA and accountant is a person whom they trust, so it’s our job now to adapt to their needs and expectations.

To help us with this, I recently spoke with Ed Mendlowitz, Emeritus Partner at Withum. Ed has been one of my mentors and someone who I’ve always turned to for advice, so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to share his words of wisdom with my social media followers. We talked about what customers are looking for from their CPAs right now, what they’re asking for, and what Ed has been hearing from the industry.

Ed said that first and foremost, our clients are looking for reassurance from us. These are people who are really hurting right now, and they need someone who is knowledgeable about their fears to help and guide them, and lead them toward things they can do, such as applying for loans.

Now, as a front-line adviser to these clients, part of what that experience does to us is cause emotional ramifications. It can really wear on you, too. To sort of mitigate this effect, Ed reminded us that our job is to be realistic and not get upset, because then we can’t help anyone, right? If a client’s business has to close, then that’s the reality, but our job is more than that. We can help the person not shut down so their business can reopen in the future, if that’s what the reality is.

And speaking of reality, we have a reality to face, too. As accountants and CPAs, our net worth is tied to the firm’s gross revenue, which is hurting right now, too. What Ed has been telling clients is to cut expenses. When you can avoid it, don’t cut people – you’ve trained them, they know your business, and you might never get them back if you cut them now. But expenses – and we’re talking unnecessary expenses that go unchecked, maybe like ordering extra supplies or things for the office – those are the things that can be cut right now to save money.

Another piece of advice from Ed, as we’re looking at ways to cut expenses and manage a virtual world: if you have bad apples, cut them now. It’s not the same as cutting staff salaries across the board or laying people off. If you have people on your team who are underperforming, who have been for awhile, who aren’t adapting and didn’t try to advance themselves before this all happened, then it’s probably time to let them go now. The time to prove your value was six months ago, not today.

One of the challenges facing accounting firms right now is that the sudden shift to everything virtual is also changing client relationships. Many of us are “in person” people – we thrive on the face-to-face conversations and obviously we can’t do that right now. What Ed does is a great example of multi-tasking: while taking his daily walks, he calls clients or colleagues over the phone. And in that span of an hour walk around the neighborhood, he’s talked to three or four people. So as our industry is being forced into an all virtual setup, consider how you, too, can adapt to meet your clients where they are through creating new behaviors of your own.

The silver lining here is that this is forcing us to step boldly into the future. There are a lot of firms out there that still had their feet firmly planted on the ground, and now everything is in the cloud because it has to be. We’re in the middle of a huge culture shift and on the other side is automation, e-filing, virtual, you name it.

And when we think of this culture shift in terms of connecting with clients, they WANT us to be proactive. It’s so easy to get caught up in deadlines and tax season and all that, but our clients want and need us to be proactive and thinking of new ways to work with them and advance our profession.

For example, that means right now having a Zoom meeting while clients fill out the SBA loan applications. Do it with them. Or for them.

One of the problems with our profession is that too often, CPAs don’t respond, react, or try to change when things are good. Or maybe not even good, but status quo. They’re more interested in the technical side of things, but not the leadership side. Now is the time for CPAs to own their role.

There is no more room for the old role with our clients now. We own the role by calling our clients, by video conferencing with them, by being available, and by showing them that you care about what’s going on in their lives and in their business. And that’s not just partners; it’s everyone in the firm. All people need to own their roles now.

And speaking of owning roles, Ed and I also talked about billing. And fees. And how many firms that were still issuing bills late, who are now in a little bit of a pickle. Clients whose businesses are closed right now; they can’t pay their bills no matter how much we want them to.

Ed’s advice in these situations, don’t work for nothing, but be available to those clients. Another strategy is to price the engagement up front – which we at New Vision CPA Group have been doing for years now – but in the current environment, discount it maybe half. Or whatever works for your firm. But they need to pay the discounted rate now, not a month from now. Then you help them apply for SBA loans, so they have some cash flow.

Think of it like this: if you have a $500,000 practice and let go anyone who doesn’t pay, then let’s say you have $100,000 in revenue this year. But if you work for next to nothing for the clients who can’t pay right now, then a year from now you have your half-million-dollar practice back, plus your equity. So, we’re looking at the long game here. And like I’ve said in previous posts and interviews, there’s no rulebook for this, so it’s completely uncharted territory for a lot of CPAs and accountants. When we come out of this on the other side, let’s all seriously look at our time and billing processes. It’s such a problem for a lot of firms right now and it doesn’t have to be. But that’s a topic for another day.

What clients need now more than anything is help. Assistance. Advice. Eventually, they’ll still need tax returns, financial reporting, whatever. But for now, they need YOU. And the kind of down-to-earth financial wisdom and knowledge of their unique situation that only you can offer. What’s happening now with the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, and we have to shift our mode of thinking very quickly. We can’t think about what it was yesterday or what we would like things to be like. We need to see things as they are and respond accordingly.

Listen to the full recording below and find out what a baseball card has to do with Ed and what he keeps in his home office that’s special to him.

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