Coronavirus: The Accounting Excellence response
Now more than ever, businesses need a proactive business adviser to guide uncertainties thrown up by the coronavirus outbreak. 2019’s Accounting Excellence small firm of the year winner tells Richard Hattersley what they have done to support clients through the economic turmoil.
No accountant can honestly say they were fully prepared for the uncertainties thrown up by the country going into lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why Paul Layte, the founder of Next Level Business (NLB), stuck to his ethos throughout the crisis of “it’s better to be on time and imperfect rather than late and perfect”.
Before the Prime Minister formally announced it, Layte anticipated that a lockdown was looming, so he decided to get his firm through the cycle of change first and quickly. As a 100% digital firm, the team were able to throw their widescreen monitors in cars and they were quickly back up and running at 95% working capacity from home.
So by the time everyone else went into lockdown, NLB was ahead of the curve and thinking how they were going to support their clients.
Business Resource Centre
“The profession is highly leveraged with one accountant looking after a number of clients,” said Layte. “Inherently you’re always fighting a losing battle if everyone wants to talk to you at the same time. COVID-19 flipped the leverage: most clients now want to talk to you all at the same time.”
Early on, Layte realised he had to work out how he was going to communicate to clients. “The only way we could do the best for everyone was if we created a single place of truth for everyone and guide people to it and only deal with questions once we got down.”
NLB knew that it needed to respond similar to how it managed Making Tax Digital, so revived its Business Continuity Resource Centre for COVID-19 to minimise the impact on the firm and manage the influx of client questions and emails.
“We had to let people know what is happening now. Our resource centre gave did that. It gave clients multiple ways to talk to us and it leveraged our time so clients felt like they have our support without us responding 100 times to the same email.”
NLB set up out of office emails during the day to direct clients to the resource centre first and then advised they call and book a meeting if their question wasn’t answered there. This has meant their phone has not ringed off the hook and the amount of COVID-19 emails in their inbox has remained minimal. As a goodwill gesture on Any Answers, NLB has already offered fellow AccountingWEB readers the opportunity to use the resource centre material to help their clients.
Creating the online resource centre was stage one in the firm’s three-pronged approach to managing the virus. For the next stage, the firm invited clients to join a WhatsApp group. Clients could then have quick access to advice from the firm and are kept abreast of the latest government announcements in real-time.
But the firm still found people wanted to talk a lot. So the firm decided to host a COVID-19 coffee morning webinar every Friday as an opportunity for those clients. Layte also used Loom to record videos on the updates and get the information out to clients quickly.
“We’ve been able to explain technical aspects of concepts or support rather than one-to-one discussions or 10 calls a day. It wasn’t possible to leverage that on a one-to-one basis.”
These three strands dealt with 80% of enquiries, which enabled the firm to focus on the other 20% of enquiries. And rather than answering the same questions, the firm has leveraged its time to deliver personalised COVID-19 reports to every client, which gives them a personal rundown of what government schemes they are and not eligible to claim.
The firm created automation internally to produce the reports using information inputted by the client managers. “If you’re a client and get your own personalised report, you don’t have any further questions,” said Layte.
Technology has been fundamental for the firm in its agile response to the crisis. Having a basic but nimble Wordpress site was invaluable in hosting the resources and allowing Layte to edit as new guidance emerged.
(Find out what it takes to be an Accounting Excellence award-winning firm in this podcast with flinder's Alastair Barlow, who swept the board at last year's bash)
And being a digital firm, Layte already heavily used a lot of reporting tools for banks, such as Spotlight Reporting and Futrli. Having his clients’ information at his fingertips, he was able to swiftly provide March month-end information on a call with Lloyds bank to secure a CBIL loan for his client under the revised scheme.
“Just being able to provide information to owners and stakeholders like banks quickly and do forecasting has been essential for clients to support businesses with cash during this time,” he said.
This is just another example of the firm’s advisory approach which will help clients see the opportunities beyond the crisis. As most firms are focused on managing the crisis, Layte is trying to move his clients into the acceptance phase of the grief cycle.
“In acceptance, you’re looking for options and new plans,” he said. “The quicker you can get to acceptance, the quicker you can get to opportunities that the crisis has presented to your business.”
Braced with the knowledge that the fallout of the virus could affect businesses for 18-24 months, Layte has already nudged clients into thinking about what they need to change to be a success. He’s already spoken with clients about opportunities such as acquiring weaker businesses in the future or pivoting their business.
A great reflection on the profession
In a recent client email update, Layte reflected on the challenges he faced by previous crises such as 9/11 and the financial crash. He used these lessons to inform his approach to the current crisis. He learned to focus on leverage and time, and be proactive and not afraid to be imperfect in his quick response.
Unquestionably, accountants have felt the pressure over COVID-19 and have at times been overwhelmed by client calls and emails. But for Layte, these challenges will change the profession for the better, whether that’s accelerating digitalisation by 10 years or the mobility of the workforce.
But more so, the current challenge shines a light on the accountancy profession and the need for businesses to have a good accountant to speak with.
“Never has an accountant been in so much demand. 15 years ago bank managers would have been called but now accountants are one of the last people standing to support small businesses – it’s a great reflection on the profession.”
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