Extracting a Positive From a Negative: Opportunities for CPAs When a “New Normal” Arrives

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

There are two quotes that are apropos for the coronavirus pandemic. The first was coined by President Kennedy. He said, “The time to repair the roof when the sun is shining.” It was meant to think ahead to potential unforeseen crises and consider the precautionary measures to implement; to either avoid, or at least, mitigate, a major problem before it happens. For the coronavirus pandemic, the ship has already sailed on this philosophy because the government defunded the efforts to deal with a major health crisis (among other missteps).

The second quote is just as relevant even though it has often been applied to matter of politics: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” How does this apply to CPAs? Consider those practitioners whose practices comprise only traditional-service clients and who have never provided consulting services, or at least, provided very little. They will have to consider what other advice or services to provide as they try to hold onto their clients, who themselves will face financial hardship.

What’s a Practice to Do?

During this time of uncertainty, opportunities will arise for CPAs to help their clients. The roiling markets have put many small and mid-size businesses in a precarious situation. It is apparent that while the financial audit is one of the less “must have” services, it is still required.

But consider this: once the audit fieldwork is complete, the numbers verified for accuracy and anything unusual is flagged and explained, the financial statements are then delivered to the client. This can take as long as three months from the end of the client’s year-end.

The client is beginning the second quarter of its calendar or fiscal year, the time for identifying, implementing and assessing recommendations is now compressed. If the auditor’s recommendations could have been delivered sooner (by way of quarterly reviews) and a more innovative way of evaluating financial and non-financial activity, there is a good chance that the client might have employed more efficient processes resulting in better financial results.

It is what it is. But it can be something better. How?

Leave No Stone Unturned

CPAs, while conducting an audit, should also be focused on how to help a company to be better positioned for a quicker turnaround once the coronavirus pandemic has dissipated and the economy begins to regain its strength. To demonstrate the actions of a Trusted Advisor, CPAs should look at all the moving parts of the economy and how they impact their clients. It does not matter the size of the CPA practice; it only requires taking a wide-angle view of the market.

Because the return to “normality” will not occur all at once (some industry sectors will take much longer than others), CPA firms should look at potential opportunities.

Consider the area of corporate insolvency services. This covers turnarounds, valuations, workouts, bankruptcy and reorganizations; assisting debtors and trustees; and acting as forensic examiners and mediators and arbitrators.

Immediate opportunities for CPAs include helping with—

• Cash flow management to determine a company’s liquidity

• Working capital optimization

• Pension covenant advisory services which assesses the strength of the employer’s financial position and prospects, as well as its legal obligation to sufficiently fund the plan

• Employment, lease and supplier contracts to ensure there are no potential legal issues

• Court-appointed receivership services to make sure the winding down of a company is fair to creditors, while helping the client avoid bankruptcy

• Forming strategic alliances or joint ventures for a client with other struggling business(es); to leverage one another’s strengths and mitigate their weaknesses

Another service, if the right resources exist, is crisis communication. CPAs have always been encouraged to keep regular communication throughout the year with their clients — not just during the time of an audit or tax planning/preparation.

Consider communicating with your clients to help them to manage the relationships in their own supply chain; explain the potential pitfalls; instruct them how to respond to an unexpected turn of events; and develop a process for clients to keep their employees, suppliers and customers informed. If a CPA practice does not have the communication capabilities in-house, consider outsourcing this service to a firm that specializes in communications and public relations.

At some point, as a clearer picture emerges from the aftermath of the pandemic, more complex services can be provided, such as:

• Financial stress tests

• Key performance indicator monitoring

• Supply chain analysis

• Logistics analysis

• Inventory management

• Product planning

What We Think and Do

As important as crisis communication is regarding a crisis, CPA firm leadership should conduct a retrospective after the dust has settled; consider what went right, what went wrong and what gaps need to be filled in order to effectively manage a future crisis. For instance, was technology used effectively? Did engagement workarounds maintain the quality of the work? Did working remotely improve, maintain or worsen the efficiency of assignments?

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted our country to such an extent that many pundits compare it to World War 2. It is vital that we go beyond the business of business and consider the personal: the importance of family, community and sacrifice. So, the next time something as insidious and widespread as a pandemic occurs, we will be better able to balance our professional and personal lives.

Embrace this precarious time as a real learning opportunity to look at how we live, work and think in new and innovative ways. As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, use them to make lemonade.”

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.