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Designated as the United Nations Micro-, Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises Day, June 27 comes with added significance this year. In every jurisdiction, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) continue to suffer disproportionately from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while SMEs have always relied on and had strong relationships with their accounting advisors, the pandemic affirmed and strengthened those relationships.
Small-and medium-sized practices (SMPs) are key business advisors to their SME clients, as this past year has shown. SMPs continue to guide SMEs—helping them remain solvent, connecting them with government programs, providing emotional and practical support and otherwise advancing their efforts to stay in business. All of this while also navigating their own sea of change.
To gauge how the pandemic has altered the range of services SMPs have delivered, the ways SMPs have responded to the new dynamic and the most important issues facing firms everywhere, IFAC informally gathered perspectives from nearly two dozen SMPs representing a diverse mix of countries. The following takeaways paint a picture of the current state of SMPs and their critical importance—particularly to small businesses—under these unique economic circumstances. They also offer a window into how SMPs can turn pandemic pain points into positive long-term transformation for their own practices as they continue to safeguard the critical role SMEs play in communities around the world.
1. Remote work models and mental health issues create an opening for more transparency and support
“Flexible, hybrid, agile working is here to stay.” – SMP Managing Partner, United Kingdom
When asked to name the most urgent concerns they face, SMP leaders overwhelmingly pointed to a variety of issues arising from remote work arrangements. Among the most prominent were adverse effects on employees’ and clients’ mental health.
For firms that weren’t already predominately remote, the new work arrangements strained tech budgets, employee culture, client relationships and productivity. Firms have had to take extra care to maintain a collegial work atmosphere and to keep clients responsive. In jurisdictions where employees are returning to the office, decisions about which pandemic measures to keep and which to do away with have become difficult. SMPs have had to adapt to employees’ general preference for remote work and the firms’ desire to boost productivity and restore a degree of normality to the workplace.
These challenges led many SMP respondents to identify mental health as a significant concern—for their clients as well as their employees. Several firms reported that clients’ anxiety and mental burnout have created an additional work challenge. Several accountants said it was important for them to remain calm and reassuring as they ran through clients’ financial options, and to keep their focus on the task at hand. One accountant in the United Kingdom described the need to “be there almost as a friend.”
The emotional toll felt among SMEs and SMPs has, in many cases, had the unforeseen benefit of forcing SMPs to invest in recalibrating their business operations and in finding balance in their work environments. The opportunity and demand to put in place more intentional mental health resources and more transparent cultures to talk openly about fatigue and burnout is unmistakable and invaluable.
2. Accountants’ indispensable support elevates the profession’s significance among business leadership
“SME requests have greatly changed. The role of the accountant has moved from simple advisor to that of a hand-holder, steering clients through challenges in finance, reporting, and risk management, that were never [before] contemplated.” – SMP Managing Partner, United States
Many governments have offered financial support packages for small businesses during the pandemic, but the disbursement of funds has been complicated by ever-evolving, often convoluted rules and eligibility requirements. In response, SMPs have become de facto facilitators, deciphering legalese, directing clients to suitable programs, assisting with applications and effectively navigating them through the entire process.
An accountant in Germany recalled taking extra steps for a small business owner. “I have a client who operates two truck stops,” he says. “Because of his mixed sales (fuel and food) he did not qualify for government subsidies.” As his client tightened its belt, he kept a watchful eye on new legislation. When an amendment was passed that made his client eligible, he got to work: “Very quickly I managed to do all the paperwork with the application of the subsidies, and he received a huge amount of money to get through the rest of the lockdown.” An accountant in Tunisia also described the need to stay abreast of the latest COVID regulations and be able to communicate them both clearly and quickly to clients.
SMPs have become their clients’ guides beyond their usual scope, underpinning the role of SMPs as drivers of business strategy and long-term value creation. While this can certainly raise the need for closer attention to ethical considerations, it has also reinforced the fact that accountants are an integral part of economic resiliency. The profession can use their hard-earned trust during this crisis to broaden their role and continue to provide a wide range of services to support the leadership and decision-making functions of any business.
3. As SME needs grow, so do the opportunities for SMPs to serve as the trusted advisor
“The best way to build and maintain trust with our SME clients is through a consistent communication, focusing on the effective needs of the client and trying to reinvent, through innovative and "out the box" solutions.” – SMP Managing Partner, Brazil
Some SMPs dread the financial wakeup call that has and will continue to come when government support runs out. Understandably, accountants are concerned that clients’ financial troubles could affect their own cash flows. Others point to a long-time fact of working with SMEs: many small business owners offer a valuable product or service but lack robust financial skills.
Nevertheless, as accountants imagine a post-pandemic future, many expect their role with SME clients to continue to grow. An accountant in South Africa suggested that businesses have come to expect their accountants to be vocal advocates for them. For example, “SMEs expect their accountants to negotiate on their behalf with technology companies that can assist them to digitalize their operations,” she said.
An accountant in Malta believes that SMPs should embrace this expanded role and help their clients build their businesses back better than they were pre-pandemic. In particular, he contended that accountants should consider helping their client businesses become more accessible to customers through a “robust and efficient online shop of their products and services,” supporting digitalization of internal processes and advising on the organization of hybrid remote work models.
An Australian accountant captured the value of the profession’s strong reputation going into the pandemic: “Professional Accountants as trusted advisors were the first people that business owners turned to for help in working out a strategy that would enable them to be able to operate in a COVID world.” While the lasting effects of the pandemic on small businesses won’t be fully understood for years to come, the respondents revealed a strong international consensus among SMPs that the pandemic has only strengthened this dynamic.
Faced with daunting financial realities, small business owners are increasingly turning to their most trusted advisors to ensure long-term viability, and SMPs are well-positioned to smartly cultivate the immense value only they can provide.