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5 ways small accountancy firm owners can survive and thrive the tsunami of work brought by COVID-19

by Apr 6, 2020Leading yourself and your staff

We are speaking to our members pretty much every single day in our daily ‘positivity’ group calls and our fortnightly group accountability calls. One theme is coming out time and time again. They are now exhausted and are working long hours and not taking a break at the weekend to cope with their clients needing help and reassurance right now. So in this article, I wanted to share with you some thoughts on how to get through this difficult time caused by the Coronavirus, but also how to look after yourself and your team when you don’t have the time.

Think like an elite athlete: Self-care needs to come first

Just consider the life of an elite athlete for the moment. They have a regimented routine which they follow to the letter. They are supported by experts to help them be at their best when it really matters. A large part of their routine is all about self-care. From sleeping correctly, to eating correctly to ensuring their mind is also in tip top condition. All this careful routine helps them to deliver in the moments which really matter. Now contrast that with what we do in the business world. We put our workload first, de-prioritise self-care and penny-pinch when it comes to having the help of experts. Is it any wonder that we as accountants often fall ill and struggle to get through these times of peak workload? Just pause and reflect for a moment, did you fall ill during your busy season or in Feb? I’d be surprised if you hadn’t, as most small accountancy firm owners find busy season makes them ill. In fact one of our members is celebrating that this is the first year she has not had bad tonsilitis during the months of Jan, Feb or Mar.

I think the point I really want to make here is that if you are your team are going to come through the Coronavirus Crisis with your health and sanity in one piece then, it’s absolutely key that you change your prioritisation of what is important and urgent right now.  Only when you are looking after yourself can you be working at your best and taking the right decisions. And of course, with a virus circulating which is killing many thousands of people around the globe and no vaccine available yet, there has never been a better time to put your self-care first.

So, what does this mean in practice? It means getting your diary out and putting the stuff you need to put in to make sure you can be at your best. And then, and only then, putting in the client work. For example:

  • If you are going to get a good night’s sleep (essential for well-being) at what point do you need to stop working and start winding down?
  • When will you add in exercise into your day? And can you put in more exercise than just your 1 hour of permitted exercise outside per day? E.g. home workouts?

If you want some more tips on self-care then read these articles:

Triage your clients

I suspect your phone has been red hot in the last 3 weeks and your email inbox has been stuffed full with clients desperate to speak with you. We are also hearing from our members how they are finding some clients are coming back with the same questions again and again hoping for a different answer. Perhaps now that most of details for all the economic stimuli are being understood you can see an end to the constant need to be speaking with clients? Or maybe the real work of careful and detailed cashflow forecasting for a load of your clients is now dominating your day?

Let’s be brutal here, not all of your clients are worth saving. Some of them were limping along with a bad business before the crisis. I call these the ‘dead ducks‘. Or perhaps they were the client who used to take up far more time and emotional energy than the fee they paid your firm warranted. You do have a choice. You and your firm don’t have to help every client. Particularly if they are asking for huge amounts of work without wanting to pay for it. Nor do you need to help every prospect who appears and who is desperate but doesn’t have the money to pay for your firm’s services.

Your clients, right now, need to be prioritised. In our (virtual) members’ day we took them through a process to do this. We suggested they split their client list into 4 groups; very vulnerable, vulnerable, will take an impact, will get through without a problem. Then for all of the “very vulnerable’ clients they took a commercial decision whether these clients were going to survive regardless of any help they provided. And then based on this decision how much help they gave the client. For example, payment holidays, cashflow forecasting for free or a minimal fee…

Build a support team around you

Comment from an AMC member in our private facebook group

These are unprecedented times. (How many times have you read that or said that in the last 3 weeks?) There are real similarities with how the global recession which started in 2008. But also some major differences, such as how it started and the likelihood of businesses bouncing back. But the people who have traded through recessions and economic tough times are the ones to have in your corner right now. You’ll find they are not panicking right now. You’ll also find that they have probably done all the things you are just getting around to right now.  And they may even be buzzing with positivity right now. We are finding that the members in the club who have traded through a recession before and experienced tough times are pretty happy right now. They are loving being able to get in and help their clients with real stuff that makes a difference. But also they know there will be an other side to all of this. Their positivity is infectious, and they are helping so many of our other club members in our daily positivity calls, in the club facebook group and in our fortnightly group accountability calls.

Like our members I have built up a very small but very trusted inner circle right now. They are our accountant and finance business partner, Graeme from Empower By Cloud. I never realised the many recessions the Aberdeen Oil and Gas industry has been through over the years would be helping me personally right now. But that’s Graeme’s background as a Finance Director and also more lately as a turnaround specialist. He’s been a great source of advice and checking in regularly on us. Along side Graeme is Annabel Kaye and Christopher Head from Irenicon and KoffeeKlatch. Annabel has been in my inner circle as a very close friend and advisor for many, many years. But her and Christopher have been constantly on hand in the last 2 weeks helping our members with getting to grips with their team working from home, plus very valuable insight into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and what they can and can not do in relation to employment law. They have provided for our members and their clients resources to help with conversations and file notes for employees being Furloughed. There are also the members who have been taking the time to check in with me personally. To make sure I am OK. And thank you Naveed Mughal, Nicky Larkin and Paul Miller.

All of us are on an emotional roller coaster right now. I am pretty sure you will have had some or all of these thoughts over the last few weeks:

  • How many of the direct debits wouldn’t get paid this month?
  • How can I get my parents to stay home and safe?
  • Will I have a business in the next 2 months?
  • Will I have to make some staff redundant to survive?
  • How am I going to cope with work AND the kids at home?

One of the best ways of coping with these anxious and fearful thoughts is to pick up and phone and speak to people. I know I have, and felt much better as a result.

Delegate or outsource stuff to help yourself and your team

Example of the stuff we are providing to our members

Within the club we’ve accidentally become a critical part of our members’ marketing and communications machines. We listened to the help they needed and have been writing emails and providing content for blog posts and social media for them. This is giving the time they need to spend with clients and their team, safe in the knowledge that they are keeping their clients informed about what help is available. Our updates which we are providing to our members are also helping cut down the number of phone calls they are receiving from clients.

Now you may not be a member of the club, but who can you use to help you with these kinds of tasks? You know, the ones which take you ages because numbers rather than words are your thing. Perhaps you have a team member who is good with this stuff? Maybe one of your freelance clients would do this for your firm for a small fee? Our members are finding (using our materials) that the love they are getting back from their clients is immense. They are also winning new clients as a result of this very proactive approach they are taking with their clients.

It’s not just the client communications and content for them. How about upping the amount of outsourcing of clients’ compliance work you need to get done? Remember you don’t need to do everything in house. Your clients really don’t care (normally) about who does the work along as their data is held securely and the work is done to a good standard and way before any deadlines come looming.

Look after your team

With your team now probably working from home, cracks in how well the team is managed and lead will be beginning to show. Your team will be considering their future with your firm. After all, in a time of massive upheaval, this is a very natural thing to do.

This article about how to support your team from burning out in busy season is true for now as well as the more traditional busy seasons. Just as you are on an emotional roller coaster, so are your team. They need your love, now more than at any time in the past. For example they may be coping with any of the following:

  • Trying to work AND keep their kids occupied
  • Worrying about the health of their parents and over loved ones
  • Loneliness for self-isolation
  • Working from home for the first time with minimal supervision

To support your team right now, means:

  • More communication, whether by phone or a team chat channel via Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack etc
  • More quick phone calls to check in to see how a team member is
  • More group calls to check on the progress of the workload and how people are doing right now
  • More talk about non-work stuff – you and their colleagues may be the only people they are speaking to right now
  • Listening out for team members who have gone quiet
  • Having 1 or 2 daily operational huddles via a conference call with all the team (click here to download a standard agenda and for tips about how to run these  email required)