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The way forward: Embracing the opportunities Covid-19 has brought

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From Accounting Today: The Covid-19 pandemic has been good for the accounting profession. There is no denying the business opportunities it has brought, as companies across the U.S. — and the globe — scrambled to get through a financially difficult year, with the help of accountants. The challenge to firms now is to harness the opportunities that arose through the crisis, and carry them forward to the future.

A survey conducted by Sage Intacct of its Accountant Partners during the height of the pandemic last year revealed that firms were responding to the new, uncertain reality in various ways — adding free or paid services based on new client needs, cutting spending in some areas but investing more in others, and of course adopting technology at a rate faster than ever before.

“The survey was done during the eye of the storm, and very little was known about where the pandemic would go, and the political landscape was roiling,” explained Kevin Cumley, senior director of the Sage Intacct Accountants Program. “In the last few months, once firms realized it wasn’t the end of the world, and things weren’t going to fall off a cliff, business actually increased for the majority of the partners surveyed. COVID worked as a driver of and accelerent for client accounting services.”

For firms that chose to increase spending, particularly in marketing and technology investments, the benefits were clear. “Some of the growth was staggering — there were firms that saw 100 percent year-over-year growth,” Cumley said.

This is not to knock firms that chose to be conservative and cut back on spending. Verticals matter, and firms that serve primarily hospitality clients, for example, had a different experience than firms who serve health care or financial services. But no matter what verticals a firm serves, and what choices a firm made during the pandemic, there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of the past year. Here are some opportunities firms can embrace going forward.

Lend a helping hand

COVID-19 certainly brought revenue-creating opportunities, but firms also recognized the opportunity to be of aid to their clients without charging for extra services in certain areas, such as providing assistance in applying for PPP loans. These in turn can lead to further revenue-generating opportunities down the line, and create room for firms to build out consultative services.

The SIAP partners surveyed experienced an uptick in advisory services, providing help with business terminations, restructuring, turnarounds, and cash flow — services directly in the wheelhouse of most firms. Several respondents said their clients had gained a new appreciation for the value of their services.

Add new services

Early on during the pandemic, firms that pivoted quickly to meet clients’ new and evolving needs did well. For example, 88 percent of SIAP partners began helping clients navigate the CARES Act, PPP loan program, and other types of government aid.

To help clients weather the financial storm, more than 7 in 10 (71 percent) offered cash flow forecasting and management, while 42 percent offered human resources or payroll assistance, and 44 percent provided tax change consulting services and tax management.

One way to harness this ongoing opportunity is to simply talk to clients about the challenges they’ve faced since the pandemic began, and then offer to help solve them.

Firm services during pandemic CARES Act PPP chart
Use remote work to your advantage

The top concern of partners surveyed was impact on revenue (57 percent). Close behind were concerns about maintaining the morale and productivity of their remote staff (51 percent).

As companies become increasingly comfortable with the remote model, the market for accounting services is no longer limited to businesses located right down the street. The more that accounting firms perfect the work of their remote team, and master the digital tools they need to succeed, the better positioned they’ll be to seek new opportunities.

Invest: marketing, tech, and workforce

Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents said they were employing cost-cutting strategies as a result of the pandemic, and another 53 percent said they were reducing budgets and revenue plans. However, they’re also investing in areas that will help them maintain a competitive edge.

Some areas where firms are making investments include marketing, technology, and adding to their workforce.

The pandemic has spurred opportunities for accounting firms in part because many small businesses that never used an accountant started to seek out one. Another area of high growth was related to mid-market companies moving to an outsourced accounting model.

“COVID-19 forced many larger sized organizations to scale back their administrative groups, including finance and accounting staff,” said Cumley. “Firms were able to step in quickly to fill that important role with CAS engagements and ensure their clients had real-time access to mission-critical financial information when it was needed most. And of course, marketing makes it easier for these opportunities to find you.”

The pandemic also boosted cloud and other technologies by accelerating their adoption. Investing in the right technology can help firms manage an influx of clients without adding more staff.

On the other hand, adding staff can be very beneficial if the influx of new business is large enough. This can help scale new services faster.

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Embrace automation and cloud software

Survey respondents said they are using the remote work shift as an opportunity to automate processes that will make them more efficient and add more value to their services.

The other side of this equation is that clients will be making similar moves. Many respondents said their existing clients have become more open to automation during the pandemic. Several said they were moving legacy clients to cloud-based systems and helping them adopt digital, remote workflows.

The year 2020 saw tech adoption grow by leaps and bounds. The task now is to remain in the new mindset of digital accessibility, and for firms to consider systems they may not have before: going fully paperless, living in the cloud, and automating as many processes as possible.