- Accountants have a crucial role in focusing clients on the basics and helping them access government support.
- At times, accountants are acting almost as counsellors to people who are seeing their life’s work threatened.
- Australian clients will be rushing to submit their April BAS payments as a precursor to accessing government support.
Accountancy firms are trying to protect their clients from the worst of the pandemic’s effects. And, like many people in business, they are finding their resilience, flexibility and leadership being tested as they respond to unprecedented drops in income.
David Smith FCA, a former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (now CA ANZ), works as a consultant to accountancy firms through his business Smithink. He remembers Australia’s 1990-91 recession and says this current episode makes that “pale into insignificance”.
Insolvency practitioners, he notes, are “frantic”.
Debra Anderson’s accounting firm, Anderson Tax & Consulting, has a range of small business clients; she also serves on the Australian government’s Tax Practitioners Board. Recently she has noticed mentions of suicidal clients among the posts on accounting forums.
“I don’t recall the last time I heard that kind of thing on one of those boards, but they’ve been coming through quite a lot over the last week and a half,” she said in late March.
Accountants have a crucial role in guiding clients through these extraordinary circumstances.
As a first step to solving problems, Smith suggests focusing clients on the basics. Many firms are dealing with the same issues: “I've got all these expenses and all of these commitments, and my revenues have disappeared.”
He recommends firms do modelling “to actually determine how bad the situation is, to help the client run through their expenditure and see how they can trim it.”
Accessing government payment
Practitioners also need to help businesses access government assistance, but both Smith and Anderson agree that as new announcements come one after another, accountants have struggled to deliver advice that is specific enough for clients.
Says Smith: “We've got so much going on, so much change, and new announcements, new packages from the government, virtually every week. It’s nearly impossible for accountants to keep on top of this, let alone anybody else.
“A lot of the clients are thinking: ‘Look, this is just all too hard. There's so much stuff coming at me. I'll just ring my accountant; they’ll know what I should do.’”
(Get up to speed by reading Coronavirus relief measures in Australia and Breadth and depth of NZ coronavirus response applauded.)
Accountant as counsellor
In many cases, accountants are becoming counsellors to people who are seeing their life’s work threatened. “People are leaning on their accountants during these times,” says Anderson. “We are the central point of their financial lives.”
As a result, she finds herself facing the same pressures often faced by psychological counsellors. “People are letting it out on people that they shouldn’t be,” she says. “I've actually had to turn off my email because it’s been so overwhelming and people are so stressed.”
With the situation so fluid, firm answers can be hard to come by. And some clients react badly to the answers they do get. Anderson reports responses such as: “This isn’t fair; I’ve been paying tax.”
How to help when you’re worried someone is suicidal
If you believe a client or colleague may be suicidal, you can and should take practical steps to intervene.
- Read and act on these guidelines from mental health group SANE: How to help when someone is suicidal
- Urge them to ring the Lifeline counselling service on 13 11 14 (in Australia) or 0800 543 354 (in New Zealand).
Some firms find themselves confronting HR questions they’re not used to solving. Anderson had one catering industry client close down operations and put all their staff off. Now, she says, the client wants to go to the bank as quickly as possible seeking funds to pay out employee entitlements. But such returns take time to process.
For the first time, Anderson has found herself fielding client questions that stretch the limits of legality. Her client base is “always happy to abide by the laws,” she says.
“Yet even some of them are now saying, ‘OK, how can I get the most out of this?’ Because nobody knows what’s coming. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, never mind six months from now.”
Anderson expects the pressure on accounting firms to grow even further come April, as clients in Australia rush to get their BAS paid, a precondition to accessing many government payments. But she also sees an opportunity. “This is our time as a profession to really help our clients,” she says, “and really be their heroes.”
“This is our time as a profession to really help our clients, and really be their heroes.”
Your COVID-19 Resources hub
This dedicated hub is regularly updated to ensure members are equipped to navigate the serious long-term economic and business impacts from this pandemic, including the latest updates on available government packages, guides for your practice or business and support to maintain your mental health and wellbeing.Read more
Coronavirus (COVID-19) resources
Coronavirus (COVID-19) presents challenges for businesses. Find out more about the disease and its impact on workplaces and businesses.Click here for essential weblinks
7 key points to discuss with clients during COVID-19 shutdowns
Share this COVID-19 business checklist with clients to help them navigate these uncertain times.Read the COVID-19 business checklist
Coronavirus relief measures in Australia
Sydney-based Raul Valois CA sent his clients this handy summary of the assistance available during the COVID-19 emergency.Read more
Breadth and depth of NZ Coronavirus response applauded
A quick summary of what’s available in New Zealand.Read more on NZ COVID-19 business relief
10 emerging business impacts of coronavirus
Find out how coronavirus is affecting businesses in Australia – and what to do about it.Read more
7 critical tips for leading teams from home
The global jump to working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic will test leadership, communication skills and empathy.Read more
COVID-19 Is it time to pause or close up permanently?
With the COVID-19 shutdowns biting, clients are looking for advice on whether to press pause or exit a business entirely.Read more
Guarding against cyber-attacks while working from home
Remote working will help curb the spread of COVID-19, but firms must also protect their staff from computer-borne viruses.Read more
We’re headed for recession but how far will we sink?
A key difference between the predicted recession and those of the past is this one hasn’t been caused by an economic shock.Read more
Mental health for CAs in challenging times
Your clients are anxious, all your family is working from home, and the beach is shut. How do you stop yourself panicking?Read more
Mental Health First Aid Guide for Chartered Accountants
Guide on how to help a colleague or client who’s showing signs of developing a mental health problem or is in crisis.Read more
Engaging with people experiencing mental health problems and financial difficulties
This mental health first aid guide explores how to help a colleague or client who’s showing signs of developing a mental health problem or is in crisis.Read more