Helping clients navigate New Zealand’s business support packages

Content Summary

Megan Breen | August 2020

This article was current at the time of publication.

April is always a busy time for accountants across New Zealand, with GST returns due and clients preparing materials for the end of the financial year.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and lockdown measures implemented in late March 2020, the workload exponentially increased as people reached out to their accountants for information about support packages and wage subsidies.

Ann-Maree Ozanne CPA, Director Sterling Accountants in Christchurch, was ready when the news broke and within the hour had emailed clients with vital information about business support packages.

"It was announced at 1pm [and] we knew we had to have something ready to go out to clients as soon as possible," Ozanne says.

The firm works with a range of clients, including small business operators, farmers, tradespeople, and tourism operators, and according to Ozanne, the New Zealand Government's economic support was crucial.

"Many clients took the wage subsidy to help them get through the initial four weeks, and some that did go back under Level 2 restrictions went back under reduced hours," she says. "It was a godsend for many."

However, the extra work that was needed in April to help those clients had an impact on the practice's cash flow and projected work schedules.

Public practices first port of call for many clients

"For most of April, we spent time getting our heads around what it all meant — which we can't charge clients for. Then, we had to talk them through the changes and how it affected them. A lot of the time it was more about them having someone to talk to," Ozanne says.

For Auckland-based Amanda Davies CPA, director C & A Accounting Services, the situation was very similar. The immediate effect of the lockdown on the practice's diverse client base meant they were the first port of call for many.

Most of Davies' clients have been with the practice for 20 years or so, and as a result, have a well-established relationship with it. Accordingly, the communication extended well beyond applying for wage subsidies.

As Davies says, the firm provided support and counselling and helped many through a very uncertain situation.

"The four to five weeks of complete lockdown were one of the most mentally draining times I think I've ever worked through," she says.

"We would be on the phone up to seven or eight hours a day. Often, when people need to talk about money, they don't necessarily want to talk about it with family members, so they will ring their accountant."

Getting close with remote working

While Ozanne's practice was ready to switch to remote working immediately, she says a few clients had to adapt quickly and there were some delays in them getting up to speed.

This also had an impact on workflow, with work normally scheduled for April having to be pushed out to May and June.

"The work we scheduled to do in April just didn't happen, apart from the GST returns," she says.

"Clients who are usually really organised and bring their work within the first week of April didn't bring it in until May. Some had families to look after and some had to order scanners online, so they could scan and send documents to us. That added to our schedule being pushed out by a few weeks."

Davies' practice has been working remotely for many years and while clients' adaptability to switch to digital tools was a mixed bag, she was impressed with their portability and technological advancement.

"New Zealand is forward in this sort of thing," she says.

"We often end up being a test site for software because we're small and diverse. As such, there were very few of our clients that couldn't [master] most of the functions. That helped us."

Backing your staff

Regardless, the lockdown measures and increased workloads affected staff at both practices.

For Ozanne, it was important to be able to support her employees and be flexible with their working arrangements.

"We made sure people knew it was OK to work when they could," she says. "So, if you needed to start early and then take a few hours off in the middle of the day and finish later, that was fine. It was all about being flexible."

Davies says while her staff is used to working remotely, it was still vital to be in constant communication during the first phases of the lockdown as information was being regularly released by the government on the subsidy packages.

"We've been in different physical locations for the last two or three years, so none of us expect to be in the same room all the time anymore," Davies says. "We learned very quickly how to do every single method of phone and videoconference and we talked to our team members every day."

The wage subsidy extension announced in June came with more stringent requirements. This has led to a second wave of work and further conversations with clients.

"A lot less of our clients have been able to qualify for the second round, even though they're still really struggling post-lockdown. It is very stringent, and you need to be down 40 per cent in revenue," Davies says.

"Consequently, the redundancies have started to really roll out now, and we are now dealing with those conversations."

Tips for dealing with future triple-threat situations

  • It is imperative to connect with clients and not overlook the "small guys". They are the ones who particularly struggle in difficult times. It comes down to providing a lot of support information.
  • Help your clients become digital savvy.
  • Be flexible with your own staff — let people know they can work the hours that allow them to be productive and still manage their life at home.

 

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