When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in the United States, accounting firms needed to quickly figure out how to help their clients navigate the unprecedented crisis.
Samantha Mansfield was one of those clients. She had just started a consultancy in the Detroit Metro area when the pandemic threatened to derail her new business. She credits her CPA, Steven Woronoff, with helping her by first determining if she qualified for relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136. He then advised her as she pivoted her strategy to keep her business growing.
“It was just an amazing feeling to know he was taking the time to make that kind of effort for a firm of my size,” she said.
The care Woronoff demonstrated during the pandemic was not unusual. From participating in the AICPA virtual town hall series to staying updated on guidance from the IRS, CPAs across the country, in firms of all sizes, worked days, nights, and weekends sharing knowledge and coaching their clients through the crisis.
Here are some of their stories, in their own words.
Helping clients survive, as told by Robbin Caruso, CPA, CGMA, a partner at Prager Metis, Cranbury, N.J.
When COVID-19 hit, our firm quickly established a crisis committee along with a legislative committee to analyze new legislation and pandemic relief measures to better help our clients manage their businesses as going concerns and address urgent liquidity and other concerns.
For instance, we have a significant number of clients who are entertainers, and we also work with restaurant owners. These clients were severely impacted when theaters, concert venues, restaurants, and other facilities were shuttered. Our team worked with them to develop creative ideas for how they could continue their business services. We helped them establish virtual entertainment platforms, takeout meal programs, outdoor dining, and other viable solutions. We also assisted clients with renegotiating their rent contracts with landlords where appropriate.
Our clients had a lot of questions about the various new tax laws and complex relief programs established, and one of the first things we did was prepare presentations to provide much-needed guidance on the new tax topics and how to best benefit from the relief programs under the CARES Act. We also worked with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association to share this critical information with the entire business community and through newsletters and on social media. The IRS has started providing many of their documents in multiple languages, so we have been able to share important information in seven different languages to serve a diverse audience. And we reached out regularly to our team members, who were primarily telecommuting, providing necessary resources and assisting them in being connected with one another and to effectively and efficiently serve our clients during this crisis,
I think we have all collectively learned a lot this year, finding inner strength, resources, and capabilities that we may not have been aware we had, and we’ll be better moving forward in handling other difficult situations.
Providing support and advice, as told by Tony Bultinck, CPA, a partner at Watermark Group, Indianapolis.
I still recall March 16, 2020, the day our firm’s partners met in the office conference room to assess the pandemic and the potential impact on our clients. We sent our employees home and began interacting with each other and with our clients through Zoom meetings and phone calls. As of June, we have resumed working in our office and meeting with our clients in person.
Most of our clients are privately held businesses owned by individuals or small groups. If they have questions or concerns about strategies to deal with the pandemic, they don’t have anyone in their organizations to turn to for help or advice. When the economy began shutting down, we called and emailed them, asked how they were getting along and if they had any questions or concerns. We offered to help and kept a dialogue going. I think it was therapeutic for them to talk with us. Many of our clients are entrepreneurs or second- or third-generation business owners who take pride in being self-reliant, and they were skeptical about how the CARES Act could help them. We spent significant time educating them on how the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) works and advised them to use the relief money to support payroll and keep their people employed. We helped about 70 clients, using the Microsoft Teams screen-sharing function to walk them through the PPP application process from start to finish.
I believe we saved our clients from being in tough financial situations, and the AICPA played a big role in that through their weekly town hall series on Thursday nights. They shared information with CPAs all over the country about PPP, tax credits and deductions, and government assistance programs that we could share with our clients. On Fridays, we would email one or two vital pieces of information from those town halls to our clients.
We recognized our clients were under tremendous amounts of stress, and we just tried to help them take steps to get through the pandemic. I certainly was taking calls on weekends, even Sunday nights at 9 p.m. I think this work helped galvanize our client relationships because we helped each other and made it through this pandemic together.
We have always had strong client relationships, but going through a crisis like this has made those bonds even stronger.
Becoming an information resource, as told by Dixie McCurley, president and co-founder at Trusted CFO Solutions, Atlanta.
We are an outsourced accounting and finance department with many clients in hospitality, restaurants, and private-equity companies with multiple entities. As their trusted business advisers, we put together a task force immediately after the shutdowns and reached out to our clients, the business community at large, and anyone else on our mailing list.
We offered to help them file their PPP applications so they could get their funds in as quickly as possible. We also launched a website with PPP information and created a Facebook group for posting announcements. We set up free 30-minute consultation sessions over a two-week period to educate people on what was happening with the economy. We offered nominal fees to help clients file applications, assist with cash flow planning, and do break-even analysis. We also created tools for anyone who wanted to file their own applications and do their own planning and analysis, and we gave them away for free. We consider ourselves the professionals, and a crisis like this is what our firm is built for. We went above and beyond for our clients when they needed us the most, and we got great feedback from them. We believe we’ve created clients for life.
Taking a team approach, as told by Julie Killian, CPA, shareholder at Clayton & McKervey, Southfield, Mich.
Our clients are privately held companies that are entrepreneurial in nature, and when the pandemic shut down most businesses, our firm had an all-hands-on-deck meeting to develop ways to help them. We assembled teams consisting of shareholders and managers. One team became experts in COVID-19 relief programs. Another team was tasked with monitoring legislation and keeping our firm informed of changes as they rolled out.
Our marketing and business development team put together hourlong online presentations about new laws, legislation, and relief programs. In addition to our clients, we invited the public to participate by advertising the presentations through email blasts and on social media. We conducted the sessions every Wednesday for eight weeks with about 250 or 300 participants each week. Roughly half of them stayed for an additional hour of questions and answers. Our shareholders never left the presentations until they had answered every question. It was humbling to see how our clients were so focused on saving their businesses and helping their employees get through this time. In some ways, it was a rewarding experience, although I would not wish another pandemic on us.
Serving as a frontline resource for clients, as told by Ben Smith, CPA, CGMA, president and CEO at Estep * Doctor & Co., Muncie, Ind.
We have a smaller firm, with 17 employees. Our clients are a mix of high-wealth establishments, small retail businesses, restaurants, small manufacturing companies, and farms. We also represent a hotel group with 27 properties. Some of our clients have done well during COVID-19, some have struggled to keep their doors open, and others fall somewhere in between. We assigned the different types of relief programs to various professionals in our firm, and we have been gathering as much information as possible. We reached out to clients we knew would be impacted and helped them apply for grants and loans. I helped one client process 27 separate Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) grant applications for each of the hotels in her group. If a client has a question we can’t answer, we have relationships with other professionals in town who can help, so we structured a collaborative effort among clients’ attorneys, bankers, insurance professionals, and financial services providers to help them receive the best service possible. We have also spent a lot of time trying to stay on the leading edge of the rules that are constantly changing and keeping our clients informed. We have tried our best to be a good frontline resource for them.
Expressing empathy and compassion, as told by Gabrielle Luoma, CPA, CGMA, co-founder and CEO of MOD Ventures, Tucson, Ariz.
Our firm works with a lot of health and wellness organizations such as spas, gyms, and other small and medium-size businesses. We helped clients navigate their applications for the PPP and employee retention credits. If our clients had vendors they couldn’t pay, we helped them draft a model vendor letter to negotiate payments. We also set up a COVID-19 resource center on our website, and we continue to post new information to it. We are also continuing to follow up with our clients to make sure they have the information they need to make good decisions. Most of our clients have survived so far, but they are still having a tough time. For us, it is about being kind to them and having empathy and compassion for what they are going through. It makes them feel better to know we have their backs.
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.
Visit the COVID-19 Resource Center for information and tips.