A number of accountants are asking similar questions:

  • “How much work do I need to do for free during the virus crisis?”
  • “Is it ok to charge clients for giving them advice at this difficult time?”
  • “I want to help those clients that need advice, but I don’t want my practice to collapse”

I recommend that you start by thinking about your business and the services you provide to clients.

Your practice must survive. There is a limit as to how much work you can do for free. Only you will know what the limit is. But I strongly recommend that you think about this and keep it in mind.

If you are like many of the accountants I have spoken with you will be really keen to help your clients in their hour of need. Of course you do. How awful it would be if we didn’t care about our clients or only thought of them as a means to generate more fees at this time when they most need our help and support.

I have long advocated a simple breakdown of your work focused time to ensure that you allocate sufficient to each of the following activities each week/month:

  • Billable work – compliance and advisory work that will result in fees that clients will pay.
  • Marketing activities – relationship building time spent with clients, prospects, networking and other marketing focused time.
  • Skills development – keeping up to date, learning how to be a more effective and profitable accountant.
  • Administration – what YOU need to do to keep the practice running – including documenting systems and processes and ensuring they are followed.

You might now want to add a 5th category of ‘Charitable work’ – being that which doesn’t generate fees but which is quite different from your more traditional marketing activities.  How much of your week do you want to make available for this? And how much time can afford to make available for this?

A day? Two days? 3 evenings? I’m not suggesting how long would feel right for you and your client base. I’m simply suggesting that you should set some limits – to protect your mental and physical health (beyond your social distancing, self isolating and quarantining).  If you over-stretch yourself and your practice suffers unnecessarily, you will be less able to help anyone else. And you may be unavailable when clients most need your help, support and advice.

I’ve seen a number of pro-active messages from accountants who are keen to help their clients – but who are also evidently being professional and business like. They are  showing they care and that they want to help but equally it;’s clear they are keen to remain in business and to prioritise billable client work. They are also managing client expectations and limiting how much they will do for free.

Another approach has been to simply send out a series of emails with links to official guidance. I tend to think this can be seen as a lazy approach, especially if you fail to add any words of insight or advice.

The alternative is to help clients only as and when they contact you. In effect to play it by ear and, consequentially, to disrespect your plans and priorities.  This approach also risks disappointing clients who you effectively encourage to have unrealistic expectations as to how much help you can provide without charge.

AND this also risks having a negative longer-term consequence.  If you fail to manage clients’ expectations as to how much advice you will give them for free, then what chance you will ever be able to secure decent fees for providing clients with advice?

DO NOT kid yourself that the current crisis is a special case and that all normal business practices can go out of the window. You are not being fair to your clients,  to yourself or to your colleagues. The current crisis is being shared by everyone one. But even when it has passed your clients will need advice in the future – just as businesses have in the past.

Indeed clients are only prepared to pay for advice when they perceive this will be of value – and typically this means it is of immediate help. Most often this will be when clients are facing difficult choices, decisions and opportunities. Without drawing direct comparisons – these situations are like mini-crises for your clients. You need to ensure they know that there are limits as to how much you can do without charge in such situations.

Whatever the nature of the crisis or the advice, you need to first find out and understand a client’s specific problems, difficulties and challenges. And you need to help them recognise the negative impact (financial, strategic, emotional etc). Only then can you provide specific potential solutions and identify the positive impact that the client will receive if they follow your advice.

My advice(!) is to provide generic advice about the crisis to your clients without charge, if you have yet to do so.   You might also designate a specific time each day/week for a zoom/video call when clients can join you for updates etc. And you might make some time available for clients to access your specific advice within the constraints of your ‘Crisis support’ package – without charge. Or you may want to take the opportunity to  schedule calls with each of your clients over the next week or so. I’d let them know asap if you are planning to do this – so they don’t feel left unloved before they get your call.

Whatever you do, remember that it’s all about showing clients support and that you care about helping them at this difficult time.