The better the question
When competitors turn allies, is it businesses that thrive?
See how rival accounting firms came together in record time to help businesses facing adversity.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned many economies upside down. In Canada, it had a profound impact. There are 1.2 million small businesses (less than 99 employees) in Canada, which equates to 98% of all employee-owned businesses in the country. When the pandemic began, more than half of these businesses experienced a significant revenue drop. It was estimated that as many as 33% of these companies would run out of money within one month, with an additional 25% needing financial assistance within two months.
To help offset the financial burden placed on these businesses, Canadian federal and provincial governments quickly set up support programs, including wage subsidies, rent assistance, special interest loans and emergency relief programs. While these programs were designed to help Canadian businesses survive the economic impacts of COVID-19, navigating these programs was challenging. Business owners struggled to understand each program’s qualification criteria and application processes. To further complicate the situation, many of these small businesses did not have dedicated accountants on staff to offer guidance.
As the Federal government and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce heard these frustrations, they knew they needed to act quickly to offer an informational bridge to close the gap between the Federal and Provincial support programs and the small businesses being matched with the best options to fit their needs.
The better the answer
A helpline answered the call for business guidance.
In just three weeks, EY assembled 150 advisors from various accounting organizations to help businesses navigate the established aid programs.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce asked Ernst & Young LLP (EY) for help. EY’s solution was to promptly set up a network of qualified professionals who could provide these small businesses with guidance on the aid program options and eligibility. In just 12 hours, EY had agreement from several accounting and tax organizations to assist with the effort. The overall goal was to help these small businesses make informed decisions regarding the recovery plans that best aligned with their needs. Within weeks, EY, along with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, created the Business Resilience Service (BRS).
“There’s a time to compete and there’s a time to cooperate,” said Warren Tomlin, Principal, Ernst & Young LLP. “We created an innovative solution to quickly get aid to businesses. Bringing the best tax and accounting minds together to help small businesses was a rewarding mission for all involved.”
Innovation at scale — how do you work in a pandemic when “in-person” is off-limits?
Due to social distancing policies, the BRS had to offer a touchless method to disseminate crucial information quickly and effectively without losing the element of human interaction. In a world in which remote was the new norm, a team of geographically disconnected professionals worked together to brainstorm solutions, allowing us to rapidly stand up and run a fully functional, contactless call center.
“We were able to pull from all four of our service lines, utilize multiple team members from five different countries and use technology alliances,” said Mike Smith, Executive Director, Ernst & Young LLP. “Our combined efforts helped the BRS invent a solution tying many moving parts together, creating fast and compassionate support for the needed business owners.”
Specifically, ServiceNow was used for generating call intake forms and developing a case management tool, while Microsoft Teams was used for collaboration and training. In the end, it was innovation that connected small businesses with key government aid information.
There’s a time to compete and there’s a time to cooperate. We created an innovative solution to quickly get aid to businesses. Bringing the best tax and accounting minds together to help small businesses was a rewarding mission for all involved.
EY also utilized proprietary methods and tools to create a core telephony structure using Genesys technology, allowing for remote knowledge sharing and providing a platform for industry professionals to do something they had never done before — meet virtually with distressed small business owners strictly over the phone. Other key features were call recording to learn how better to serve future callers, call whispering so supervisors could help in real time, if needed and interactive voice response (IVR) that provided automated messages to callers with key information, expediting calls.
“While we offered calls in English and French, we had very diverse staff fluent in multiple languages,” said Debby Wong, Manager, Ernst & Young LLP. “When someone was struggling with translations, we would message on secure channels. We could then easily transfer the caller to a BRS advisor who spoke the native language.”
Technology at speed — how does technology aid speed?
Technology was the driving force in creating a needed operating model that was fast, efficient and complemented the helpline representatives’ efforts. A cloud-based solution kept sensitive information safe, meeting the Federal government security guidelines. Once the secure infrastructure was in place, technology also aided in the development of case management and of advanced analytics that turned feedback into actionable insights.
Through the advice provided by the BRS to thousands of small businesses, you made a difference for Canadians during troubling times and helped to position businesses, not-for-profits and charities for reopening and recovery.
In addition, technology was used for training sessions. On the technical side, technology aided with learning the ins and outs of the Federal and Provincial program details. Once the technical training was complete, the program information was input into the ServiceNow software allowing the BRS agents to access details for quick and consistent guidance. Technology also aided with soft skills — helping turn the seasoned tax and accounting professionals into empathetic customer service experts. Specifically, virtual role-playing was used to simulate calls, addressing how best to communicate to callers and how teamwork could be used to support one another.
“Through the advice provided by the BRS to thousands of small businesses, you made a difference for Canadians during troubling times and helped to position businesses, not-for-profits and charities for reopening and recovery,” said Patrick Gill, Senior Director of Tax and Financial Policy, Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Humans at the center — how do people get the help they need to keep their businesses operational?
Beginning on 25 May 2020, the BRS helpline began providing advice to small businesses as they navigated Federal and Provincial support programs. The helpline ran for six weeks, responding to callers quickly, seven days a week. On average, each agent spent more than 20 minutes with each caller. Overall, the helpline received a 97% approval rating from the callers.
“We heard many success stories,” said Hussain Basit, Senior Manager, Ernst & Young LLP. “One small business who had established a local hockey league saw a 90% revenue drop due to canceled games. Our BRS professionals suggested an aid program that the business owner didn’t even know existed. Thanks to that advice, the local hockey league is still operating today.”
The BRS recognized how important it was to help in a time of crisis. By utilizing all the technology elements in place, the BRS team members were able to work around the clock to provide comprehensive, yet compassionate, advice.
The better the world works
Canadians helping Canadians stay open during a global pandemic.
BRS agents spent 77,000 minutes fielding 4,000 businesses’ questions. These callers secured part of the allotted CAN$95b governmental aid.
In addition to connecting business owners with information, the BRS was able to influence government policies. Specifically, by collecting and analyzing data, the BRS helped the Canadian government obtain a better picture of the overall financial conditions of small businesses. Once the government had a better picture of what these businesses needed, they further tailored the offerings, helping even more small businesses stay afloat.
“The helpline uncovered areas where emergency measures could be strengthened,” said Gill. “For example, the BRS identified businesses and organizations that did not qualify for existing loans or rent assistance. These findings helped the government create new offerings to resolve these issues.”
The pandemic has taught many Canadian businesses how to adopt and be agile — car manufactures stepped in to make ventilators, distilleries learned how to make hand sanitizer, and hockey leagues turned out masks and surgical clothing.
The helpline uncovered areas where emergency measures could be strengthened. For example, the BRS identified businesses and organizations that did not qualify for existing loans or rent assistance. These findings helped the government create new offerings to resolve these issues.
And, accounting firms, like EY, offered free financial advice to businesses during a time of uncertainty. By combining the industry’s best accounting and tax consultants with supporting technology, the BRS was able to build a comprehensive solution in record time. It is no secret that when competitors put their heads together, innovation quickly aids business survival.