How the Covid-19 Pandemic Accelerated the Evolution of Accounting Firms

by Patrick McNeill

I love talking to customers and I’m fortunate to be afforded that opportunity in my role at Auvenir. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic those conversations seem to naturally turn to the adjustments accounting firms are making to survive, and in many cases thrive, under uncertain circumstances.

In just over a year firms have had to reinvent how they manage their practice, their staff, and their customer relationships. No critical area of the business has remained untouched by the transformation in the world around us, and the stakes have never been higher because only those that make the right adjustments will survive.

While we all long for things to return to normal, most people agree that many aspects of their business have forever changed. Let’s look at how some of those changes are taking shape.


Business and Technology:

Stay at home orders that forced us into remote work arrangements benefited firms that had already invested in cloud technologies. For others, using virtual private networks to access critical applications on firm-run servers lost out in terms of speed and efficiency and had a much harder time adjusting to the new reality.

I’ve always been fascinated by the traditional growth model of small accounting firms that was predicated on remaining within a one-hour drive of their customers. Rather than take a 20-person firm and build it to 40, they open another small firm in the next town and build it up to 20, then rinse and repeat. This made sense when reviewing print documentation was so critical to the work.

Advances in technology have been eating away at the model for some time now, and there is simply no denying the advance of the virtual firm. Smart money firms are embracing the opportunity to serve clients without the geographic restraints of the past and finding their customers like it just fine that way.


Will you be adding new virtual customers this year as a strategic goal?


Your Team:

We’ve all heard the old refrain, look after your staff and they will look after your customers. Accounting firm employees remain the lifeblood of the business, the connection from your firm to your clients. Attracting, motivating and retaining top talent is more important than ever. The virtual genie is out of the bottle and it’s a safe bet that most staff will continue to work from home through 2021, and perhaps beyond as the model for how and when we work continues to evolve. Managing and motivating your people virtually presents a unique set of challenges. There are many resources available online for how to inspire your staff with a mix of practical and fun. Here are just a few ways Auvenir is managing virtual work:

  • Zoom fatigue is real. Make sure meetings are well planned with a proper agenda and only required people are on the invite 
  • Staff need to be informed and engaged. Run virtual town halls and events for both business and fun
  • New employees need extra onboarding. Review and add additional sessions for new staff. Who’s going to teach them all the unique acronyms you use?   


How are you inspiring staff virtually?


Client Relations:

Probably the most important change during the pandemic is how you communicate with your clients. You’re not just “checking-in”, many of them have had their businesses turned upside down and your role as a trusted advisor is more important than ever.

You need to up your “emotional intelligence” game. For this, it’s helpful to look at the work of someone like Daniel Goleman, who wrote a book by the same name. The five components of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill, with the latter two being most pertinent to the current environment.

Empathy is the ability to read people’s emotional make-up and understand how that drives behaviour. You need to tamp down your instinct to “sell something” and really listen. There is an incredible opportunity to deepen your relationship here in understanding how the pandemic has affected your client’s business, and how you can help. Clients will always remember the people that supported them during tough times.

Social skill is defined as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, and the ability to find common ground and rapport. You want to be a true partner and help support your client to think longer-term. Use your industry expertise to give them ideas on how to bounce-back stronger. Get them thinking about opportunities for innovation in the current environment.  


What practical advice are you providing to your clients?


Few people could have imagined how significantly the pandemic would change the world of business but many now agree that some elements will never return to the ways of the past.

For the accounting profession this requires a business transformation to cloud technologies, virtual work, and new relationships with your clients. Critical self-reflection and innovation in these key areas will lead to great opportunities for you to thrive.