With the accounting profession in a constant state of evolution, accountants are always looking for their next source of inspiration. Whether it be a new tool for your team to use, or a new app to trial with your clients, there’s a plethora of support and events out there to launch yourself into.

Accountex is by no means the least on that list. Every year they build on speakers, apps, education and knowledge available at their 2-day event in London. You might go to demo new software, or learn about the trends defining the profession, or you might be there to simply share ideas and grow your network.

But how exactly do you attend such a marathon of a conference without the risk of overwhelm? How can you get best benefit from attending, as opposed to spending two days out of the office, inevitably returning to 123456 emails, and then letting everything you promised to do after the conference drop to the bottom of the list.

For some, the answer lies in this year’s Client Conference, which once again is being hosted the day before Accountex.

Plotting out your client journey

As we’ve already established, the accounting landscape has radically changed in recent years, and as a result of that, client experience has never been more important.

Marketing, onboarding, app stacks, pricing – it’s all connected, and for firms to thrive in this evolving industry, it’s now more crucial than ever to address the fundamental crux of accountancy businesses – serving your clients.

That’s why our annual conference is this year focused on the client journey. We want accountants to recognise the importance of providing a first-class experience to your clients, and as such, we’ve crafted our conference to cover every element of your client’s journey.

If you’re attending the conference, it’s an opportunity for you to start plotting out what your client journey currently looks like. Take a look at how your team operates with clients. Evaluate your pricing model. Sketch out your onboarding process. Determine your app-stack. Craft your MTD offerings.

By doing this before you attend the conference, you’re going into the conference with an open mind-set of what your client journey currently looks like, and how it might be improved once you’ve heard from the speakers of the day.

Take action at Accountex

Hearing from all the speakers at our client conference will no doubt give you a long list of elements to improve in your client journey.

The good news is Accountex is one of the best places to start taking action. You might need to revisit how you price based on the insights from Paul Barnes’ talk, which means connecting with the different pricing apps exhibiting at Accountex would be a great place to start.

Or you might want to adjust the app stack you offer to your clients, which would lead you to many apps available to connect with.

Whatever your actions may be, our approach would be to go to Accountex with a positive mindset for change. Be open-minded, be willing, be ready to try new things. With that approach, you’re in the best possible frame of mind to refresh the client journey in your firm and begin crafting that first-class experience that people are looking.

What does your client journey look like?

With Accountex a few weeks away, now is the time to start plotting out your client journey. Grab the post-it notes, or the whiteboard pens, and start writing down everything that makes up that experience, and your goals for improving it.

We’ll see you at Accountex and the Client Conference!

AdvanceTrack demonstrates its compliance to GDPR by adding the BS 10012 standard to its existing BSI certifications

AdvanceTrack is delighted to announce that it has attained the personal information management system standard BS 10012.

Attaining the standard means it has met BSI’s best practice framework for the collecting, storing, processing, retaining or disposing of personal records relating to individuals.

The framework aligns to the principles of GDPR.

“We went through the process as many firms and their lawyers don’t understand the GDPR legislation,” says Vipul Sheth, AdvanceTrack founder and MD.

“We felt that we wanted the standard in order to demonstrate that our processes were aligned to GDPR compliance processes.”

The audit process undertaken by the BSI concluded that it was satisfied that AdvanceTrack’s processes enable us to deal with GDPR in a professional and systemised manner. The standard places AdvanceTrack at the forefront of compliance, says Sheth.

“In terms of culture, our staff have always taken security very seriously, so it is very much business as usual,” he says. “As a systemised business – while not an easy exercise – it did make the certification process much easier to attain.

“We already had most of the processes in place, but there were some technical changes applied to exceed best practice.”

 

What are the benefits of BS 10012?

BS 10012 provides a best practice framework for a personal information management system that is aligned to the principles of the EU GDPR. It outlines the core requirements organisations need to consider when collecting, storing, processing, retaining or disposing of personal records related to individuals.

Easily integrated with other popular management system standards, BS 10012 brings big benefits to companies of all sizes, including:

  • Helping to identify and manage risks to personal information
  • Supporting regulatory compliance with data protection legislation
  • Inspiring customer trust
  • Protecting your organisation’s reputation
  • Benchmarking your own personal information management practices with recognised best practice.

Other certifications

AdvanceTrack is already certified for both ISO27001:2013 and ISO9001:2015.

The former covers the requirements for establishing, implementing maintaining and continually improving an information security management system.

The latter sets out the requirements for a quality management system when an organisation needs to demonstrate its ability to provide products and services that meet the needs of both the customer and regulatory requirements; and aims for continual improvement.

AdvanceTrack’s webinar series contains lots of insight to help you set out the direction for your practice. We round up a chat with Receipt Bank’s Sam Horner on ‘the future is now’ for accountants, and highlight our other online discussions

AdvanceTrack has a great catalogue of webinars for practitioners. Topics range from how to approach bookkeeping, through to credit control and even marketing advice – in conjunction with some of the UK’s top accountancy experts.

We’ve included an excerpt from a webinar with Receipt Bank’s Sam Horner: The Next Generation of Accounting. This wide-ranging discussion sets the scene for how and why advisers must look at their practice’s operations as part of a strategy to develop value for a modern client.

Sam is joined by AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth in the chat.

 

Starting point

Vipul Sheth:When we talk about the cloud, an indicator of how far a practice has gone down this path is the number of apps and add-ons they use alongside the core bookkeeping product. It’s an indicator of how far you’ve gone down the cloud journey – are you giving clients real-time information?

Sam Horner:The issue we see with early adopters of the cloud is they take on the bookkeeping service and see it as a silver bullet, but the cloud is more powerful when combined with everything – whether that’s apps for accounts, invoicing, chasing debt and so on.

VS:Real efficiencies come from using other add-ons. And optical character reading (OCR) is a key part of data capture.

 

Factors driving change

SH:MTD does have a say in this, but a lot of the change is being driven by clients. It’s about the way millennials and Generation Z communicate and live their life. Conversations I hear where ‘we use our phones for an alarm, go downstairs and listen to Spotify, tell Alexa to change TV channel, get in the car and it tells you how to get to work, then at work everything’s offline’… The tech stops and they don’t engage with cloud apps in the same way as at home, so the drive and shift is coming from how they operate in their personal life.

VS:If accounting practices have a great relationship with long-standing clients, then they must appreciate that their clients’ business will hand over to their kids – and they’ll expect information over their smartphone. They’ll question why financials aren’t available online. So, firms need champions who can at least have conversations about how their firm’s going to develop.

SH:There is a big question about ‘how do I get clients to change’ and educate them? But you might be surprised, there can be preconceptions about established clients – the previous generations.

VS:The real difference we see with working with clients online is that with regular interaction, your firm can spot gaps where things are missing, rather than getting well past year-end and find things are missing. Then you have to make assumptions on behalf of the client.

We see MTD as just another button to press, for those that are on cloud. However, some think that if you’re making processes automated and ‘easier’, the client will actually want fees lowered.

SH:Well, then you have to show the benefits of the technology. If you can give a client their accounts by the third of the month, then to the client it’s as close to real-time as possible and helps them make decisions. One of our practice clients made this move and offered a premium service to their clients: 30% took up the premium service. But, in reality, the partners aren’t really doing anything different but have created more revenue.

And firms are having conversations where, after adopting tech, they put clients onto fixed fees across a period, and the client is happy.

VS:But where it frees the accountant is for other services: R&D reviews, tax planning meetings and so on. These things were hard to do, but now all clients can be seen because you have access to their data in real-time.

This morphs into CFO-style services. Many businesses can’t afford a full-time accounting professional in their firm. But real-time access enables them to have better conversations, almost as their CFO. I know a practitioner who specialises in a sector, and can now benchmark the client base.

 

The next generation of job roles

VS:Lots of firms we’re working with can perform the CFO role; using tech to capture and process information. They then use our team in many instances to do the bits that technology can’t. We call this ‘systemising the unsystemisable’.

SH:At Receipt Bank we say ‘it’s great to have badges and logos on your website of products, but they just enable you – don’t dine out on them’. They just power what you do. The tech is there to make yourself easier.

For the next title: Chief Data Officer or analyst. This role comes as the government is getting tighter and tighter in the risk management side of sharing of data.

VS:This role is about making sure the integration piece is properly run and tested. In smaller firms these roles or ‘hats’ are worn by the same person – you have specific roles when it comes to larger firms.

SH:We’re seeing firms recruit staff without an accounting background: 18+ year-olds with iPads in their hands, employing them because they understand tech. Clearly it’s also about mindset rather than age… but in reality for many there’s that ‘desktop memory’ in your mind, which isn’t there for someone starting fresh. Junior staff are helping with onboarding, for example.

VS:Yes, we’re seeing conversations being pushed down in the firms – not all partner-led… more of a team-based approach. Your age and experience aren’t limiting factors on who you can have conversations with. The person who’s comfortable sitting in a room having conversations will be recruited.

SH:There are other emerging titles: relationship manager, business development and software support for clients. Firms are investing in people and skills. You used to be able to hide behind numbers, but firms are saying: ‘We need to look at how to upskill our team to have conversations.’ There is still a need for technical specialists and software won’t replace them. But there’s going to be more face time, and that’s where we see the shift.

 

How to change your practice

VS:Fundamentally, you need clean data coming in: from OCR, bank feeds and so on.

SH:It’s about having a single process for a single task. If you standardise processes, you’ll reap the rewards – and allow you to scale-up.

VS:The cloud and digitisation allow you to gain an authenticity of data. However, if you don’t standardise processes you will have very stressed staff through MTD.

Summary

VS:Technology is the key to scale and profitability. Standardisation, repeatable processes… the more you can do that, the more you’ll be in great stead.

SH:And make sure you do it for the right reasons. It’s not about MTD. You need to understand the ‘why’ before the ‘how’. Why are you making the change? Get the tech in and let us do the processing. It’s about improving the conversations and then your team becomes much more valuable because they have those client relationships.

To start the new year we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to how you should approach outsourcing, from ‘what can I outsource?’ through to the key questions you should ask of your own practice’s strategy and operations. AdvanceTrack founder and MD Vipul Sheth fields the questions from Kevin Reed.

 

What is the ‘starting point’?

While outsourcing as a concept is well understood, practices can struggle to align that concept with the running of the business. Unless you see outsourcing as a strategic part of delivery for your firm, it won’t work.

For example, do you understand how you’re utilising your current staff and that outsourcing could create great (and positive) change to them?

Ultimately, do you want your people and practice processing data? I think that, instead, you’ll make more money spending time sat in front of clients. Using an outsourced service can help you spend more quality time with clients. You’ll bill much more per hour and it will make you a proactive adviser in the eyes of your clients.

Your staff will be involved in those client-facing conversations and earn more money for you. And as their own value increases, you’ll have more satisfied and better-paid staff. And happier clients.

 

What can a practice outsource? What are the most popular or standard types of outsourcing that take place, and how is that evolving?

In principle, any task where someone is sat at a computer and inputting manually has the potential to be outsourced, from tax work to bookkeeping and accounts production. What’s unlikely to be outsourced is the conversation piece with the client, unless there are some basic forms of administrative-focused communication. What tends to be outsourced early on, with relatively low risk, is year-end accounts – a popular choice. You have nine months to file a set of accounts so there’s ample time to check without the client requiring visibility during that process. The information is not being changed live as it would be with bookkeeping. It sits in its own silo.

As for evolution, well, the biggest change happening is the need for real-time data. As a result of this, areas such as bookkeeping in the cloud are increasingly being demanded by the end-client. So, if they want real-time bookkeeping, how do you deliver that at scale?

And that’s where we come in, helping to systemise in order to scale that service upward.

Once their information is processed consistently and quickly, you’re moving to real-time information. So, the achievement as a result of MTD compliance is you just need to press a button.

 

What types of practice outsource, and why? Do certain types of practice outsource certain types of process?

It’s not really about size, it’s about attitude. Big firms would do it more because of their scale, but because of their size it means a lot of buy-in is required from a range of people. It can be done by them but requires a much more involved process.

When I meet the whole partnership, they’ll have gone through the whole ‘why?’ journey; any change project requires leadership and sponsorship. And it can also fail with small firms, if someone in the chain doesn’t go along with the plan.

How long can it take to get a process or function outsourced? Why does it take that long – or short – a time?

I could ask, “How long’s a piece of string?”, but it can be fairly quick, relatively speaking. Again, it depends on both attitude and the will to harness technology. If a group of people understand tech and are prepared to standardise (which will require change in an organisation), then it will happen.

One of our most successful clients used outsourcing to standardise their working files. Instead of a different approach by client, office or partner, they said “this is how we produce a file to support accounts”. So, when that data comes to us it means that we know exactly how it has to be prepared.

 

How does the arrangement work between outsourcer and practice? What is the process and how secure is it?

For bookkeeping, we can work with cloud tools that are collecting client data and we sort it, then push it into accounting software and make sure it’s fully reconciled. An accounting firm might have someone continue doing this, but instead of looking after ten clients that person can now manage, say, 50 clients. Their work will also change – it won’t be about processing, but their time will be reviewing the outputs (while understanding how it’s put together) and work at greater scale with their end-clients. This also frees them up to speak to clients.

Once the initial work is done, some firms get us involved in undertaking management accounts and reporting on behalf of their clients. It requires skill to understand what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, but it can be systemised as well and enable you to speak to your clients in a consistent manner.

As a firm you can move to a subscription-type service and start having great conversations with clients. You’re not reporting history.

On security, some in our industry believe that just because the outsourcing staff log into a firm’s network, they think there are no other GDPR or data protection requirements; we have lots of protocols required to keep client data secure. You can’t just say, “we’re working on your servers in London”; there is a separate requirement to undertake impact assessments around how that data is being accessed.

Then, beyond that, the protocols must be secure. We can work on a firm’s network, where firms have their own IT staff, to do work to ensure data accessed by our team members is locked down and things can’t be abused.

 

What are the key advantages from a cost and process perspective that outsourcing can bring?

This may sound odd, but even in ‘year one’ of the project (even when factoring in internal time) you’re probably looking at break-even from a pure cost perspective.

But I’d say that, longer-term, what you can achieve is more client-facing time, and as a result they bill more.

They’ve also changed the type of person they recruit, not someone to work in an engine room but instead be comfortable sitting in front of clients, and talking sensibly and confidently about that business. They’re not having to talk to clients’ FDs about deadlines and accessing information. And it’s a totally scalable process.

 

What else should my practice consider?

When I sit down with practitioners I say: “You need to have a standard workflow.” So whatever is sent to us by whomever, it looks pretty much the same every time, while appreciating or understanding where there will be exceptions. Get standardised yourself and then expect that level of process rigour from the outsourcer.

 

 

Key questions to ask outsourcers

  1. What experience do you have in the outsourcing space?What credentials does the outsourcer have in place, and are they interested in how your practice operates? Try and speak to existing clients. This is all crucial as it will impact directly on your working relationship.
  2. Do you also run an accounting firm?It’s not unknown for some outsourcers to also provide their services directly to what would be considered end-clients. Therefore, are they actually competing with you and, if so, are you comfortable with that?
  3. What credentials do you have that give me satisfaction that you’re trustworthy and reliable?Accreditations should be asked of the outsourcer. What are their processes and general approach to security and reliability? Where are their operations based, and can they be visited?

 

Key questions for the practice to ask itself

  1. Do you want to grow your business?Simply hiring more staff is a way to help you grow, but getting staff competent at processing complex accounting and tax data means they’re sought after. It’s also difficult to improve margins. Lastly, will this approach work when attempting to provide data to HMRC more regularly, and will clients start asking for better and more timely services?
  2. Do you want yourself and staff to be more client-facing?If you’re looking evolve your offering, then your staff will be vital in achieving your goal. Freeing them from processing provides an opportunity for them to help your practice evolve.
  3. Do you want to make more money?Improving margins and profitability requires you to improve your processes.

A phrase heard at an accounting conference led Nikki Adams, director at Ad Valorem, and her managing partner to change tack in their approach to running their practice and now, with AdvanceTrack’s help, they’re reaping the rewards

Nikki, tell us about your practice

We were a traditional practice in terms of our offering – although myself and managing partner Nigel Adams came from industry. Our practice did the same as others for the first eight years, but we got fed up – we weren’t making enough money and it was hard.

After attending a national accounting conference, we changed our focus, and our mantra became making the business ‘scaleable and saleable’. We set out to create a £2m practice… clients wanted tax so we looked to build that as a specialism.

Our practice is more advisory-led and includes a strong R&D tax claims service. We also consider ourselves more commercially-focused than many other practices.

 

When did you start using AdvanceTrack, and why?

As a practice we’d struggled getting our head around ‘the cloud’ at the start, and how we’d implement it. We were frustrated and a bit behind the curve. Then we set up a ‘Millennial Club’; under-25s who said what they thought the practice of the future would be – and they’ve led our cloud offering.

In 2016 we started bringing in cloud clients and convert existing clients. We now have ten new clients a month coming in.

The only way to handle this was having the AdvanceTrack offering to manage our rate of growth.

We’re very open with clients as to how and where the work’s done. If clients want advisory, we’d rather them spend money on advice than their bill being simply for putting a set of accounts together.

 

What impact has AdvanceTrack had on the running of your practice?

It has enabled us to allow more junior members of staff to access clients earlier in their career – becoming ‘client managers’ as ‘assistant accountants’. Even a trainee will have a portfolio of clients for whom they’re responsible. Our consistent message is we want to have client contact.

We see our teams as having a client manager, assistant accountant, trainee and then AdvanceTrack supporting them as part of that team.

 

What is the future for your practice? What are you looking to achieve, and how?

We know that offshoring didn’t work for us, so the benefit of AdvanceTrack is that it is up to (AdvanceTrack MD) Vipul to get the right people – we don’t directly have that concern about talent.

We also know that the accounts production side of things is taken care of. We can fill the ‘client hopper’ without worrying about capacity. It then enables us to pay our staff well, which is crucial in a very difficult recruitment market.

We want to get to £10m in revenues seven years from now. We wouldn’t be able to contemplate this without knowing that AdvanceTrack is by our side every step of the way.

We have assembled a panel of industry experts to give their thoughts on potential tech developments, challenges facing them and their aspirations for 2019 and beyond

It’s that time of the year when we all think about what’s in store over the next 12 months. What are your hopes and aspirations for your practice, and how will that be influenced by the world of technology as it continues to accelerate its offerings? Will those naughty twins that are MTD and Brexit derail everything – or can we flex and adapt to changing circumstances?

AdvanceTrack spoke to major UK tech houses, alongside accounting practices, to gauge their thoughts and moods on 2019.

Tech

We spoke to Steve Cox, chief evangelist at IRIS Software Group; Alex Davis, business development manager at Intuit QuickBooks; and Damon Anderson, director of partner and product at Xero

Q: What tech development is your company working on that most excites you for the year ahead?


Steve Cox:
We are excited about the continued development of APIs across the government and industry. We believe these collaborations – whether it’s with HMRC, other vendors, or wider applications – will dominate the year ahead. To ensure all new technologies are accessible and relevant, we see micro services and integration brought together on a resilient platform, such as IRIS’ Project Darwin. Firms will be able to manage their practices on an integrated cloud platform with a suite of products and services to digitally manage and optimise every step of the client journey from first touch to filing of final accounts.

Alex Davis: Bringing together siloed data is one important way we help save customers and their advisers time, and reduce the risk of manual errors. For example, we have direct bank feeds with three major retail banks in the UK, covering 60% of the UK market. Direct bank feeds automate much of the time-consuming data entry associated with bookkeeping.

Tax prep is an area in which we continue to add value for accountants who spend an excessive amount of time gathering data for a single client on an annual or quarterly basis. Multiply this by 25 or more, and it’s clearly a problem that needs to be solved, especially with MTD around the corner.

Damon Anderson: It probably comes as no surprise that we will be developing our artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities further. Although, as the world digitises even more, so too will the world of work humanise more. And these things will have to work hand-in-hand.

So we’ll continue to focus a lot of our efforts on developing and improving AI, in turn improving automation features that free up valuable time for accountants and small businesses to take control of cash flow and run businesses more strategically.

Q: What challenges do accountancy tech providers face in the year ahead, and how will you approach them?


SC:
The challenges in the year ahead will be to respond to government and industry demands for greater integration and find innovative ways of solving problems as they arise, no matter the cause or origin; these include areas such as calculation mistakes which often falls with the provider, even if it’s a third-party mistake. Practitioners see the benefits of the advanced technology but need our help to build a blueprint for success and take advantage in the digital economy.

AD: There is little doubt that over the coming months practitioners will be focused on firstly identifying which of their clients need to be migrated to MTD-compliant software. Then, they will put the plans in place to manage those migrations efficiently. This will involve the transfer of critical financial data, along with educating staff and clients on how to use the software efficiently.

Once these building blocks are in place, we expect the conversation to move towards how these insights can be put to use. Cloud software offers visibility into real-time data that can be used to enrich client relationships and aid planning and advisory services. This is a prime opportunity for accountants and bookkeepers to up-level their roles.

DA: We’ve been working closely with accountants, bookkeepers and small business owners for some time to ensure they are informed about how best to prepare for HMRC’s Making Tax Digital for VAT initiative. We’re also helping our customers prepare with our recent acquisition of Instafile, a cloud-based accounts preparation and tax filing solution that connects accountants, bookkeepers and small businesses to UK compliance bodies including HMRC.

Automation will also continue to have an impact on the accounting industry in 2019. It will continue to transform the ways that accounting firms interact with data and their clients.

Practice

We spoke to John Brace, managing director of Harwood Hutton; Alex Falcon Huerta, CEO and founder of Soaring Falcon; Carl Reader, director at d&t Chartered Accountants; and Bruce Burrowes, founder of Kingston Burrowes

Q: What are your aspirations for your practice in the year ahead, and how will they be achieved?

John Brace: Despite some very gloomy Brexit-related forecasts, we are planning to achieve measurable growth next year and are already recruiting additional people to deal with this.

We see growth in more specialised areas of advisory work, both for business and private clients and we have seen this trend through the current year. Brexit is creating a lot of opportunities for us, particularly in Customs & Excise consultancy in which we expect to achieve significant growth.

On the private client side, probate, executor and trustee services are in demand and this is also linked to our business-owning clients. We expect a measurable expansion in these services.

Alex Falcon Huerta: We are looking to expand beyond just accounting to bring other processes online for our clients. This way, when they have access to all their information in real-time it will give our clients real control.

And, as much as I love tech, I want to work with products that offer just a bit more, to reduce the ‘stack’ of products we use.

Carl Reader: For me, the biggest target is to make sure that we set our board up for success. We’ve been going through a reorganisation, and now that we have the new leadership team in place, it is now our job to let them drive the practice forwards.

For them, they are looking at how we can continue to provide additional services to our customers. In particular, we are looking at how we can support them with their funding requirements, and at how we can change the dynamic of our service so that our value is provided in planning and strategy, rather than reporting and compliance.

Bruce Burrowes: We’re looking to grow and consolidate. We need to continue our growth to ensure we not only replace the natural attrition of clients, but also grow to meet our aspirations. The consolidation part is about ensuring the relationship we have is appropriate for the client needs. Both of these are continual.

Q: What technology development, from a practice’s point of view, would you like to see in the next year?

JB: To be honest, none would be a pleasant surprise. There is much talk about AI but I think we are still a long way off from seeing real benefit. Like electric cars, I think it is still a bit early to start rushing into adoption.

This links with cybersecurity and I would like to see more activity in this area before we go headlong into AI and perhaps have our data plundered. I also fear the introduction of MTD, which seems to be on this week but who knows what will be said next week. Many business are blissfully unaware and I just feel HMRC resources are spread too thinly and it will end in tears, especially if we have a no-deal Brexit.

AFH: I would really like to not have to write emails anymore! Any development that improves workflow and communication between me, clients and staff would also be gratefully received.

CR: The biggest technological opportunity is moving our data fully into the cloud, to remove reliance on our on-premise tech. We also want to broaden our software offerings for our customers, so that we can help them integrate their key business processes.

BB: We’d like to see a continual improvement in HMRC’s systems. These need to continue to evolve in terms of interaction and guidance.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you face in achieving your practice’s goals in 2019?

JB: One of our biggest challenges stems from HMRC, regrettably. The standard of service and output is sinking to new lows almost daily.

Gone are the days when HMRC could be relied upon to be professional and collect the correct amount of tax. The recent Lords’ Report is a good commentary on the parlous state of our tax service and their aims.

It’s time to curtail their powers. Practitioners have to deal with this daily as well as the constant changes in rules and the obsession with new powers. I would hope that practitioners are robust enough to handle the challenges but they need more support from the professional bodies. I just feel sorry for unrepresented taxpayers.

AFH: Recruitment has been and will continue to be a huge challenge. I would like to overcome that for my practice. I’m seeing more people coming through that are comfortable with using new technology and hopefully I’ll be able to tap into their skills.

CR: Our biggest challenge is around recruitment. Finding staff who have not been ‘brainwashed’ by a traditional practice is really difficult!

We recruit based on the person-first, and only then do we even consider skillset. Unfortunately, we find that most firms have a skills-first approach, which combined with the natural personality types that are drawn to accountancy, means that new recruits struggle to adapt to d&t’s culture and customer service expectations.

BB: Bringing staff on to be able to meet client requirements. Clients want more and more business information, and as their trusted adviser we are the first port of call.

Vipul’s view

AdvanceTrack’s MD and founder gives his take on the year ahead

The biggest challenge ahead for accountants is meeting client expectations. Clients expect their accountant to solve problems, whether it’s MTD or other things. They will not forgive their accountant for failing to provide options to keep them compliant (and at a sensible cost). Some businesses won’t be able to afford the accountant to do all the work, so technology becomes extremely important.

In our recent webinar with ReceiptBank, I spoke about scalability of services offered by accountants – without tech you can’t scale your service.

So, the journey that both accountants and customers must take is around effective onboarding, capture of client info, processing of that data, and then at the end how do you communicate what has happened in that client’s world, and at scale?

You can’t spend your time crunching numbers. That’s what the world is going to look like – and in the new world, it will feel like 31 January every quarter unless you adapt and help your clients to do the same.

AdvanceTrack makes an impression as attendees want to know more

 

Xerocon 2018, held in London’s ExCeL, was another important date for the AdvanceTrack team. With several thousand people in attendance at the continually growing show, we were kept very busy – fortunately we had a couple of existing clients on hand to help talk through what we do to attendees curious to know more about us.

Xero director Damon Anderson spoke about its big news: the acquisitions of accounts prep and tax filing provider Instafile, and financial document ‘fetcher’ system HubDoc. “These acquisitions place compliance at the core of Xero,” he said.

But what does such technology mean? Does it mean outsourcing won’t be for you, with it easier kept in-house? For AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth, any technology that enables accounting practitioners to have access to client data more accurately and quickly is a boon.

“Once practitioners understand how technology improves efficiency, and the data is in the cloud, it becomes so collaborative between us,”
said Sheth. “Previously a client had to do work to package it up; now they just provide us with a login. Firms can give us so much more information and utilise us as a resource – we know that resource is finite in the UK. So our proposition becomes more valuable and compelling.”

Anderson also addressed the issue of potentially ‘treading on their app partners’ toes’.

“There’s no sign of our ecosystem slowing down; there are huge opportunities,” said Anderson. “We work with lots of providers – we complement them and don’t compete. They are specialists.”

Brendan Woods, CEO and founder of invoice and receipt capture provider AutoEntry, said the “market is as vibrant as ever”.

“Cloud was the top priority, but it’s now about trying to remove manual process and transforming processes (see main feature on pages 2-3). There’s no end to the success stories – but the key is making a commitment to change,” he said.

“Very often it’s the clients putting their toe into the water… are you going to walk away from a client? Either you help them or you don’t – so practices get dragged forward,” Woods concluded.

Accountants can seem fearful of change, and their profession is described by some as slow-moving. This is strange, considering the bulk of their compliance work – tax and accounting – is an ever-changing beast. We discuss where to start your technological odyssey

Change in tax and accounting is relentless and seems to be picking up speed. For those that feel bogged down by the grunt work of manual processes, what changes can be made quickly that will improve their working life – and perhaps even provide a better client service?

For Nick Gregory, marketing director at IRIS, it is a tough proposition for smaller practices to add change that isn’t ‘forced’ upon them, particularly smaller ones, when they struggle to keep up with legislative churn.

However, the combination of digitally-focused rules such as Making Tax Digital and GDPR mean that firms must develop their systems and processes.

Ultimately, the starting point is the client. If their information comes into the practice in a standard digital format, then every other step becomes easier. “You have to decide: do I want clients to do their own bookkeeping or manage it as a service for them – and even outsourcing it to someone else?” says Gregory.

For Gregory, getting this step into place is virtuous: as cleaner, more accurate and timely data comes in, time is freed up to provide higher-value services.

“Train clients to be more efficient and then use that to drive up productivity,” he says. “A box of receipts gives you no intelligence; get it into a bookkeeping system and then into a more insight-based tech at your end, things then just snowball. If workflow tools are tied into compliance you can then improve communication to clients. And the extra transactional data you receive through MTD allows you to better understand your clients – and then look at forecasting and business planning.”

Managing the transition

However, the thought of herding clients onto a bookkeeping package or helping them manage the transition to managing it themselves in a way that will help you capture their information is a big ask.

Della Hudson, a former practice owner who has recently written The Numbers Business: How to Grow a Successful Cloud Accountancy Practice, sees a way to break down the client management problem. You may want to implement an onboarding process that initially only captures details about new clients, she says. It could still lead them towards a bookkeeping service, but is a lower risk alternative to an immediate transfer of all existing clients.

“When it’s not broken but inefficient, then you think carefully about the transition,” she explains.

Tech companies have got better at providing advice around how to implement tools and what they deliver, “but how you do it is where you might need some coaching and advice – your needs will be specific”, Hudson says.

New practices

But what about new practices? What has been their approach to technology, and can a more established practice learn from them?

James Twigger runs the successful Accounting4Everything in Paignton, Devon. Set up in April 2016 as a one-man-band, he now employs eight staff.

Twigger did not feel wedded to a particular system or platform when he set up the firm – but he did know that, from a workflow, data and process perspective, he wanted to work on the cloud.

A series of standard but scalable tech was then chosen: AccountancyManager for onboarding; TaxCalc for tax production; Xero and QuickBooks for bookkeeping; and OneDrive as a data repository.

“I consider myself systematic,” says Twigger, “but had these individual elements that were brought together and integrated. We don’t keep any paper files, which has meant we’ve never had to pay excessive storage costs.”

The combination of an onboarding process and digital services means clients use automated receipt capture and invoicing at the start of the relationship. “Automating makes our lives and clients’ lives easier,” says Twigger. “We can train clients to make sure they use the system they’re comfortable with.”

Flexibility and agility

Small practitioners have a key advantage when it comes to change – they have some flexibility and agility. However, they are usually resource constrained… how can sole practices deliver for clients while thinking about making changes to the tools used to provide that delivery?

This is a key issue. Creating a more digitally-focused practice requires a shift in attitude, as well as strategy and planning. Practitioners need to be brave and take a leap of faith.

Della Hudson thinks that small practices should, for starters, make time to map out processes: “Even if it’s just with Post-It notes, you’ll soon find inefficiencies.”

Identify the ‘A-list’ of biggest inefficiencies, but also a list of ‘quick wins’. Then look for a tech solution to the problem. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you start with, but start with something,” says Hudson.

In a presentation to the ICAEW’s Practice 2018: Connecting in a Digital World conference, new sole practitioner Rachel Balchin spoke about approaching technology with a ‘try it and see’ approach. She said it is difficult to know which technology will suit you and your clients if you don’t use it. “If you don’t like it, try something else and move on,” Balchin told the audience.

In her post-conference blog, Balchin talks about the “tad overwhelming” tech options available. “There are somany different options to explore, it can be a tad overwhelming, but I’ve found the cloud-based accountancy packages to be really helpful in engaging with my clients, and managing my workload,” she said. “I’m going to be spending some time in the next few months exploring what other systems and apps might be available to help my clients – and help me – do things more efficiently.”

James Twigger concludes that the role of the accountant is changing, and is being driven by both client needs and regulatory change. He says: “They expect you to be able to produce information instantly, but with electronic filing systems we can produce old correspondence in seconds and send it to them in minutes. That’s what modern clients want.”

  • The Numbers Business: How to Grow a Successful Cloud Accountancy Practice, is available to purchase on Amazon.

With practice digitisation and automation comes consideration of strategy, processes and people. Kevin Reed looks at the new types of role practices are creating – and what is required of those filling them

We have sought wisdom from forward-thinking practitioners about the roles they create, why they have done so, and which skillsets are required to achieve the practice’s aim. Interviews were undertaken with:

  • Paul Barnes, managing director, My Accountancy Place
  • Alex Falcon Huerta, CEO and founder, Soaring Falcon Accountancy
  • Carl Reader, director, d&t Chartered Accountants
  • Mark Taylor, technical innovation manager, ICAEW

Virtual FD/CFO

Where the accountant becomes closely tied to their clients, through analysing information to help them make business decisions.

Mark Taylor: As compliance work declines and becomes lower-margin, then you look towards higher-value work. If you described yourself like this, then it feels closer to the client than just an adviser. Being a virtual FD feels more as if you’re in their business – but it will depend on what your clients want out of the agreement. I know of someone offering a ‘virtual’ chief information security officer service – so it’s a growing trend.

Alex Falcon Huerta: It’s absolutely a role of the now, with more companies asking for this type of person. It’s a cheaper option for them than recruiting a full-time FD. You need access to real-time data, and want to know the data is being gathered properly and accurately, and then report back to their investors and MDs.

From my personal perspective, when we do the work for them and talk to them about their data, they have trust and confidence in us. The whole point is to rely on the outsourced company – you don’t necessarily need to be a tech specialist, but you do need to understand cloud systems. It’s about reviewing the data through cloud software.

Paul Barnes: Within a finance function, you’d have an FD dealing with strategy and future financial performance, then a financial controller in charge of reporting and compliance.

There are then one or more bookkeepers making sure the data is right in the first place. That’s how My Accountancy Place is structured. We can then mould around what the client has in place. So, we might do some bookkeeping… every SME is different and has different internal or outsourced resource.

Chief data officer/data analyst

This could be either a ‘data chief’ in a practice in charge of information flow in and out of a practice, or someone moulding the data for the benefit of clients.

MT: They won’t exist in smaller organisations, but the role of data is absolutely paramount – to protect it, and do the right things with the data. We’ve seen lots of bigger firms handling and analysing data. Increasingly among accounting professionals, data analytics has grown, as has the importance of ethics – the handling and management of data.

AFH: This is interesting. Larger organisations could have this in place where there is lots of data to feed off. I could take on a CDO, but we would need a certain number of clients to have data to look at. I use technology to do that.

PB: We have recently changed the name of our bookkeepers to ‘accounting technicians’. They can offer more than just bookkeeping services: Xero and app training; integration work and also cost analysis. They can also take some of the weight from our FCs as well. They form the bedrock of what we do.

Cloud integration specialist/onboarding executive

Staff charged with making sure new and existing clients are integrated onto an accounting/tax platform.

MT: I can see the need for an effective operation for onboarding clients. It’s possible there will be some form of contraction in the marketplace as digital becomes more important, and MTD may force some practices to decide they’ve had enough and sell their practice. Therefore, existing practices will need a way to onboard those clients.

They will likely be complex cases – not particularly digital and unique circumstances. Once on a platform, it should be easier to aid their progress.

Clients are expecting a smooth progress. Look at how you buy something as a consumer: it’s so easy, that level of automated service. Cloud helps in that regard.

Some of the onboarding will be automated, but automation allows staff to become more engaged with clients. More junior staff can have more sophisticated conversations that would have traditionally been the preserve of partners.

AFH: This sounds a bit historic. I think that will be everyone’s job in a practice, everyone will do it – all of my team can do it. Perhaps it’s more of a role for existing practices that are moving to the cloud.

Operations/technical head

Someone in charge of running the practice on a day-to-day basis, with responsibility for maintaining its technical knowledge; as opposed to someone client-facing.

MT: This role fits into the model that has been well established in larger organisations – the idea of having front staff and then ops is fundamental – perhaps that’s now moving down to smaller practices. The back-end is becoming so complex; perhaps we’ll see more differentiation between client-facing and operations.

AFH: Everyone has such traditional models – I feel that I’d rather educate my team, so we can do everything. If you know the whole system you can then get on with it. If I’m teaching everybody to understand the operations of the business – then it’s more about the order of work, [prioritising and organising]. I’ve done that since day one.

PB: All our operational staff are effectively front-of-house. We recruit young grads who are hot on tech – as well as being energetic and bubbly. We ask for a video of them explaining their experience, because communication and confidence in front of our clients is vital. They are speaking to clients all the time, requesting information.

Emerging titles

Carl Reader, d&t director, has been driving a new structure and new roles at the Swindon practice. So he’s given us his own thoughts on emerging titles:

‘Pure’ relationship managers: Rather than just a job title for a portfolio manager, these will be financially literate, but focused on the client rather than ‘work’. They will act as a go-between if ever anything is tricky between firm (led by an operations head) and client.

Business development executive: This might be a hybrid role with relationship managers, or a separate role, focused on winning work.

Customer service co-ordinator: This is an evolution of the previous ‘admin’ role. Instead of typing dictated letters and filing paperwork,
they are much more involved in client-facing admin, checking in records, chasing work, dealing with day-to-day questions.

Software support: Exactly as it says on the tin, but more for day-to-day queries rather than onboarding.

Vipul’s view

As AdvanceTrack’s feature article discusses the future skills and roles that will need to be filled by accountancy practices, our MD Vipul Sheth stays a bit closer to home – and ponders firms’ efforts to get to grips with MTD

“Firstly, it’s important to step back and consider the direction of travel for practices,” says AdvanceTrack MD and founder Vipul Sheth.

“There’s a huge impetus to move to the cloud, and secondly, there’s the speed at which firms are moving.”

Sheth recently spoke to a practice moving 15 clients a week across to an MTD-compliant solution – the only problem is they need to get 1,000 across by December in preparation for the April deadline.

Worse still, he sees even “deeper heads in the sand”. Practices that are putting off dealing with MTD until the self-assessment filing season has finished at the end of January are deluded if they think they can flick a switch for transition.

“They think software companies will hand over a magical solution that will make clients ready instantly, without thinking about how clients currently keep their records… it’s usually not in an easy format to move to digital,” says Sheth.

While leaving transition efforts to February and March won’t give practices long enough, now is the time to drive clients to move.

“Identify them, speak to them, but make sure your firm has a solution,” says Sheth.

Other clients will inevitably need rolling out as the MTD project develops and broadens. So, practices need to think carefully about what this means for the future of their business. Sheth sees two very clear paths.

“Will you become a compliance factory, or an advisory practice?” he asks.

Ultimately, whatever path is chosen, it will be impossible without embracing technological advances that enable automation, or the ability to predict clients’ future direction.

“MTD will create a surge of work every quarter,” he says. “So how can you deliver that both cost effectively while keeping your own staff happy? There will be no stepping off the treadmill.

“Use tools to help clients get set up, and understand what you’ll need to deliver consistently. Then, how will you collect client data and process it?”

 

Improving efficiency within an accountancy firm is one of the top reasons we hear for adopting new technologies. However, smoother workflows and increased productivity need to be earned; it’s never as simple as switching to a new app or software.

This reality can often trip you up. If you rush headlong into using the latest tech, without taking the time to consider if it’s the right move for your firm, you can end up right back where you started – just significantly out of pocket.

And funding the switch isn’t the only challenge associated with implementing new technology. It can impact productivity and morale in the short-term, errors can increase while staff become accustomed to a new way of doing things, and security concerns can be laid bare.

So, to overcome these challenges, take a moment and review the following 3 step process.

Step 1: Understand your motivations

Before you introduce a new piece of technology to your practice, you first need to truly understand your motivation for doing so. If you’re clear in your own mind as to why you’ve decided to replace an outdated piece of software, it will make identifying its replacement a great deal easier.

Let’s say, for example, that your staff are spending too much time on manually entering data into a spreadsheet. In theory, a cloud-enabled, automated software solution could save them time that would be better spent elsewhere. However, implementing that software would represent an additional cost to the business, not to mention the time and resource spent on training, and the disruption to the existing workflow as your staff currently understands it.

Now, in the long-term, you should see the benefit of making the switch. Your staff will save time and increase efficiency, turning their focus to more profitable activities. And yet, if you move ahead without giving any consideration to your motivation to adopt this new technology, you can become deterred when faced with the issues mentioned previously.

Step 2: Undertake due diligence

Once you’ve shortlisted a few of the software solutions that meet your requirements, you still need to take a breath and make certain that the advantages for switching outweigh the disadvantages.

Undertaking a period of due diligence is therefore highly recommended. 

Work closely with those affected by the change to minimise push back, and encourage an open and honest dialogue throughout the implementation process. If the software offers a free trial, take them up on it and let your staff road test the various options to get a feel for what works best for them.

If you have concerns over security, raise them with the software provider. Then, whittle your choices down to the one that ticks the most boxes.

Step 3: Be patient & address concerns

Now that you’ve identified the software solution for you, it’s important to accept that efficiency won’t be transformed overnight. There are many more challenges to come. Here are a few tips to help you address them:

  • Appoint in-house ambassadors for the technology: Spend additional time and resource training a select group of staff members to the highest possible standards, so that they can lead the way when it comes to using the software. This will help smooth the transition and keep morale high.
  • Embrace transparency: Try to avoid taking any unilateral decisions when it comes to the technology. This will only serve to frustrate and confuse your staff. Be transparent with your decision making and talk regularly with those impacted by the change.
  • Be patient: Introducing new technology is often about short-term pain for long-term gain. This requires a degree of patience and understanding as your staff get to grips with a new approach.

In summary

The pursuit of improved levels of efficiency will often demand innovation. The opportunity to solve problems with new technology should be embraced, but the challenges associated should never be overlooked.

By following this simple 3 step process, you should be able to meet those challenges head on, and ultimately increase productivity in your accountancy practice.

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