“When can I stop supporting clients that aren’t going to make it?” This was the tough question I was asked last week by an accountant who has many clients whose businesses may not survive the COVID-19 crisis.

Like many other accountants she has always been supportive in the past when the odd client has hit hard times.

The analogy I would draw is with the NHS that can normally (just about) cope with urgent cases but which currently needs extra help. The NHS has limited resources – as do you.

We know that the number of people who will need urgent medical care is likely to exceed the NHS resources normally available. This is why additional beds and capacity have been created so that the NHS can cope with, what is expected to be, unprecedented demand.

In the same way it is sadly all too possible that the number of business failures among your client base will exceed your ability to support them all – assuming that you also want to ensure that you keep your practice afloat.

I am thrilled to have seen so many messages online and in my inbox showing how helpful and supportive many accountants are being at this difficult time. Those I have spoken with have said the same.

I’ve also heard predictions about how many small businesses are at risk of going bust in the next few weeks. It’s heartbreaking. I’d love to think that none of those at most risk have accountants. Sadly I think that’s overly optimistic.

If you are like most accountants you have had the odd client go bust in the past. Fortunately it’s quite rare so accountants often invest time and effort helping such clients even though they won’t be able to pay any fees if the business does ultimately fail.

In the last week I’ve heard from accountants who seem to think the current situation is analogous with a financial recession. One said that they didn’t lose any clients then and, as before, the accountant will do anything to help their clients avoid being forced into liquidation. The accountant intends to handhold those clients who have no other option.

Another accountant told me that they will do whatever it takes to ensure their clients don’t lose everything they have worked hard to build over the years. They want to stay by their clients’ side in this fight, not running scared in the opposite direction.

I’d be disappointed if that wasn’t a common instinctive reaction. But equally the sad likelihood is that you won’t be able to do this for all of your clients who need such help in 2020.

No doubt the temptation will be to wait and see. To do what you can for as long as you can for as many clients who need your help. I’m sure I’d want to adopt the same approach.  But we have the example of the preparatory work being done to ensure that the NHS has increased capacity to cope as more and more people succumb to COVID-19.

Clearly we are living in unprecedented times.

Questions

How many struggling clients can you afford to help for free? How do you prioritise? Do you put the future of your own practice or your own mental health at risk?

At some point, sadly, you may be forced to decide that you need to stop spending time trying to help clients that aren’t going to make it through to the other side. I don’t envy you. It would be a horrible decision to take. I’m sure you will do everything you can to avoid having to do this.

But PLEASE respect yourself and your practice. If you over-stretch yourself you risk giving poor service and advice to your ongoing clients, you risk your own cashflow and you risk your own mental health.

So here are my key tips to help you decide when to stop supporting clients that seem unlikely to make it through this unique period of time.

1 Review

At least once a week, as things stand, step back and take stock. Consider how many of your clients are at risk and what help they need.

Set realistic expectations and just be as honest as you can with the clients who need your help. Some will have to make do with generic advice and then be left to their own devices. You may be their longstanding accountant but you need to look after your business too. And you’re not a charity – though you have done the best you can for as long as you could to provide help and support without charge at this difficult time.

Each week review and decide which clients you can afford to continue spending time advising on a bespoke basis.

2 Resist

Resist the temptation to take on new struggling clients from other accountants who aren’t themselves providing proactive support and advice. This means checking how prospective new clients are coping at this time, before you agree to take them on as a client.

The simple fact is that you probably cannot afford to risk working for strangers for free. That’s what happens when you only charge for work after you’ve completed it. Can you afford to do this (especially with new clients) in the current business environment?

3 Be clear

Your phone calls and generic messages to all clients are presumably just part of your standard proactive support at this difficult time.  Obviously you want to help as many as you can. Equally you need to be clear how much, if any, ongoing specific advice for clients is free of charge.

One accountant told me what they are doing after identifying specific business advice issues for clients. At present this is largely focused around reviewing cashflows, business projections and related advice about how to survive, access support funding and so on.

The accountant quotes a fee for the work (so there are no surprises). In the current climate the only change they are making is to offer extra credit.  Invoices are being issued showing that payment is due in 3 months. The accountant is telling clients they will review the position at that time.

This offer is only being made to good clients who can trust that the accountant will not pursue payment if the business has no funds. And the accountant is taking a punt that they will be able to arrange sufficient finance to enable the client to trade out of the crisis and to pay their fees!

4 Limit

Be clear with each client who needs your help that there has to be a limit as to how long you will be giving free advice.  Perhaps your current level of generosity will be reviewed at the end of April. Do ensure you send clients a clear message when your approach to providing free business advice ends.

5 Beware of setting precedents

You need to be realistic but you also have to respect your own business! You must ensure that you have enough time to run your practice and to service those clients who can still afford to pay you for your work.

The more free advice you give – especially to those clients who only pay you for a basic compliance service – the more difficult you are making things for your practice to move to a business model that relies on you charging for the provision of advice to clients.

Final tip

I have never been a fan of 30 day payment terms. Now, more than ever, you are taking a huge risk if you extend to clients more credit than is necessary. My own business terms have always requested payment by return.  How many of your clients need 30 days to process and pay your invoices? Could you at least shorten your terms to 14 days or even 7 days? If a client cannot cope with this perhaps they should go on your list of clients who need advice on better managing their business cashflows. This might also be a hint that they may not make it through this crisis.

Closing thought

I sincerely hope that the number of business failures among your client base doesn’t rise to a level that puts an unbearable strain on you and your practice.