Time to reflect – and plan

In the April, we spoke to practices about their approach to managing clients and their practice in lockdown. We revisited them after two months to find out what happened and how they see the next few months shaping up.

Bruce Burrowes, founder, Kingston Burrowes

How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

I think we basically got it right. A great deal of effort has gone into talking to our clients, maintaining communication, talking about the changes, the funding available and supporting clients. We’ve had two clients cease trading but they voluntarily shut their business down – otherwise everyone else is still on board.

Big changes were made to how our people worked. It has been a bit more settled but now it’s about getting back to work, the ‘new normal’.

We now have three offices rather than four – but that was part of a long-term plan to better manage our operations – and included moving into a new, bigger site in Cheam. The plan was for this to be live just before Easter, which got delayed to the end of May – not because of the build but just because the desk manufacturer closed.

 

What is now on the agenda moving forward?

Well, now it’s about getting clients back into the flow of managing regular compliance tasks such as accounts and tax returns.

Our personal tax team has the self-assessment stuff in hand. On companies, it’s about trying to keep ahead of things; VAT, accounts have to come in. If you delay accounts because the information hasn’t come in, you don’t get that time back. So it is being mindful about letting clients know we’re still here and work needs to be done – it’s a similar message for our own team.

The huge thing, though, is getting people back into the offices. That is the same for us and clients. Where they’ve asked us for legal, human resources and health & safety advice, we have contacts we can refer them to.

Our biggest challenge is getting people back in – they must realise that face-to-face is so important, either for day-to-day tasks or managing clients. I’ve realised that even as government guidance relaxes, there has to be a mindset among people that they want to come back to work… if you don’t get that they won’t come back. Clients will have the same problems. Conversely, some people can’t wait to get back in.

 

 Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

This is normally my planning and budgeting time – so the coronavirus has taken that out a bit. We are involved in helping with funding and have had a few more enquiries on that front – something for me to consider.

From a tech perspective we’re in quite a good position; our investments in IT paid off. The investment allowed staff to be productive at home. We have a good understanding of both the applications we need to run, plus the hardware requirements. It has not been without challenges – such as dealing with ad-hoc IT issues remotely – but we’re on it.

The most immediate client-facing tasks will be around helping sort through and manage their Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) claims.

 

Brendon Howlett, operations director, Wood and Disney

How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

It’s been well beyond the norm. We’ve had to speak to insolvency practitioners and lawyers and be brutally honest with some businesses. It went as good as it could, I guess. We felt as a team that our focus should be purely on client communication: calls, ‘hand-holding’, listening and sometimes just simply being there. We were, in tandem, sifting through the deluge of information from the government and various accounting bodies to understand what options were available. We had daily calls with a good number of our clients, others on a weekly basis.

As practitioners we’ve had to sacrifice our time. I’d justify it as an investment. Clients have been understandably coming to us for help – and we are the people they should come to. It does reach a point where it’s not sustainable as pro-bono; we have to operate as a business, too.

Furloughing helped as there was a lot of work to do and it was more straightforward to bill for while easily demonstrating value.

 

 What is now on the agenda moving forward?

We’ve said to our team that we understand the majority of our clients will be able to continue with a retainer – but that might dry up after that…so use the information we have on them, plus the extra communication, as an opportunity to understand what’s going on. Opportunities will come from helping clients move on and grow. We also know they’ll talk about us to other people – and we’re picking up some other work where their accountant has either let them down, or they haven’t heard from them.

Early on we did our cashflow budgeting and impact on our firm. We have also looked at our clients and undertaken a ‘z-score’ methodology, looking at their balance sheets and grading them. Then it’s the more serious discussions about ‘where your business is now’ and devising strategies to come through this.

Generally, we’d look at it as almost a given that clients we’re working with will want to grow. Some will struggle – it won’t necessarily be ‘the end’ for them but we need to do something about it and do it quickly. This coronavirus has sharpened the focus on tracking survivability.

 

Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

It’s going to be a tough few years. We’re quite a lean team at the moment and our focus will be on looking after existing clients and attracting new ones. Communication will be crucial and will remain at a high level.

We won’t focus solely on compliance services – there has to be more advisory work. We also want to grow our practice, so will need to keep the sales funnel working. We would like to think referrals will keep on coming but you can’t guarantee that or predict.

We have been able to build emotional connections with our clients… now’s the time to strengthen those connections through stepping up our digital marketing.

 

Alastair Barlow, founding partner, flinder

 How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

Uncertainty was at the fore. We had no idea how our clients were going to draw back from us, or react with their employees. We were expanding and had just taken on two new team members, so we on-boarded them during the lockdown. With expansion in mind, the team knew we were unlikely to furlough anyone ourselves; it would be more a case of not hiring anyone else for the time being.

While our use of tech is high, we realised it would be stressful working from home for a prolonged period, so we tried to make it as comfortable and health-focused as possible – such as using a proper work chair rather one in the dining room.

As we’re London-based, we made a decision pre-lockdown to go fully working from home. If team members got ill travelling in and shared it with everyone else, it would have been disastrous. I think the move was pretty much seamless – MacBooks at home and phones as well – internet-enabled comms channels are already fully used. It has, however, been far more prolonged than we hoped for.

As such, some WFH situations can’t really continue – so we’re looking at co-working spaces nearer the teams’ home where possible.

From a mental health and wellbeing perspective we run ‘self reflections’ on a Friday. Our people opening up about what’s on their mind and how they feel. We also hold weekly Pulse surveys with questions, which help us gauge an overall sense of where we’re at.

From a client perspective we ranked them according to a number of metrics, including cash, exposure to sectors or supply chain and so on. We spoke to them all but with an understanding of their overall risk exposure. It took several weeks for things to unfold and understand the general direction they were heading in.

Our pricing model is flexible and based on consumption… if it increases we will increase fees – if things change adversely or are on pause then we’ll strip back where required. Of course, if we’re strategically advising a client on cash management, then we’d say that cutting our fees would be a false economy.

 

What is now on the agenda moving forward?

 Things are mostly settled with loans in place – we’ll see a greater than average fall of businesses in the overall economy due to repayment issues in the medium-term. Many of our clients are equity-backed, and we think there will still be enough investment around.

One thing we’ve seen slow down is the volume of clients changing accountants to come to us. We’ve picked up a couple of big clients but in a period of uncertainty many will keep as many certain things in place as possible.

We’re seeing more businesses unfurlough, and expect that to increase from the middle of June.

I don’t think rushing people back into the office is our thing – in fact, our lease was ending and we decided against its extension. Our people say they want roughly a 50/50 time split between WFH and being in the office. So we may look at leasing where we can take a bigger room if we have everyone in on a Monday, for example. We won’t do a big bang – we don’t need to take the risk.

We are all, however, missing human contact and interaction. While we leverage tech, we really try and send people out to be embedded with clients; whether it’s on their advisory committees or attending board meetings. Such rich, strategic, interactions are difficult to replicate.

 

Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

In terms of our service solutions, which revolve around client-centric problem solving, one thing that may be on the agenda is more governance and risk management offerings. It has surfaced a little bit more in the eyes of clients – and some of our team can already deliver it.

Generally, this situation has brought to the fore the concept of advice: what clients really value is speaking to accountants rather than receiving a set of accounts.

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