Setting the standard – why AdvanceTrack’s latest ISO certification is so important for clients

AdvanceTrack is proud of its latest ISO certification for business continuity (ISO22301:2019) but what does it all really mean?

Kevin Reed steps into the shoes of existing and potential clients to ask Vipul Sheth, MD to explain why they should be comforted by this ‘badge of business resilience’.

Q What is the ISO and this particular ‘standard’?

A It’s an international measurement tool of competence and excellence in a particular area – to demonstrate the use of best practice across a range of areas…we also have ISO 27001;2013 Information Security Management, ISO 9001:2015 Quality Management and British standard BS10012 Personal Information Management System. It’s great to have an external body review what you as a business are doing in a particular area.

This one is about business continuity and the ability of our business to manage, with very clear direction, how to continue to manage the business where events occur that are out of the normal day-to-day business. You just have to take the pandemic as an obvious example – six months’ ago we would have thought something like that wouldn’t affect us but now we’re all more cautious about who we do business with and how. We want to give customers the confidence that we are a resilient business.

Q Why do you think it’s important to AdvanceTrack and why has it been undertaken now?

A It’s important to us as a business because it hit home to our full team that they have a clearer direction of what to do, should certain scenarios present themselves. One of the scenarios we thought about was me dying… I hope to be around a long time – but something like that could be detrimental to the business. If I’m not here, someone has to have my thoughts on how things then move forward. What’s important is that the business continues to operate without me.

The pandemic, rather than applying for the standard, had got us thinking in more depth about what sort of things might happen and to be better prepared to deal with them.

With the pandemic we had a good bunch of people in our team who managed our migration to working from home successfully. If that is to happen again, it’s now enshrined with our formal disaster recovery and business planning processes.

The last few months showed us it is even more important that we demonstrate our ability to cope in incredibly challenging circumstances.

Q Why is it something that should be of interest to AdvanceTrack’s existing and former clients?

A Our existing customers will know about this direction of travel. After our first client comms around the Pandemic, one of them said ‘we knew you’d have it under control’.

Existing clients see what we do every day, but for someone that doesn’t know us, gaining this certification gives them additional comfort. In very trying circumstances you will know that we have a robust business process to continue to be supported, and that it’s not something being made up as we go along. Gaining the standard means we faced a rigorous stress-testing of processes – of how we operate now and what we might face in the future.

Q What has been the process of audit and achieving the standard?

A It followed the way most of these standards work. There is initially an overview and analysis taken by the standard’s auditors that you have the basis for commencing the certification process. That’s effectively ‘day one’ – auditors come in and look at documentation to support attaining the standard.

Then you also have to have an internal audit process, where you look to identify improvements to address before the ‘actual’ audit. However, we also used an external body to undertake the internal audit – we didn’t want that stage too ‘friendly’… we went for rigour.

Then in the external process they’re seeking evidence that what we say we can do is actually something that is beyond the documentation. Such as demonstrating how we’d handle if our servers went down for example, or one of our buildings suddenly didn’t exist – however unlikely these scenarios may be. It’s then a case of showing how long can you operate without impacting service.

Q How does it align or complement with other standards you’ve achieved?

A We’ve always tried to demonstrate excellence – which is why we already have core standards. Allied to that it’s about showing consistency of delivery – that we’re ‘continuous’. What this has been about has been exactly that, even in trying circumstances.

Before we decided to go with this standard my phone ‘crashed’ and the backup didn’t work. I lost a lot of contact numbers. I told our CTO that this stressed me, and made me think about the business. As a result we ramped up the availability and resilience of our servers, shortly after this event, so we would lose very little data even if there was a huge problem.

Q How does the standard set you apart from competitors?

A There’s a reason why accounting practices work with us and stay for the long term. It’s our consistent approach, high standards from a delivery point of view but also security and infrastructure. Ultimately, I sincerely believe in the abilities of AdvanceTrack’s senior management – that they’re better than our competitors.

Q What’s the future for AdvanceTrack in context of other certifications and standards? What are your next improvements?

A We’re not ruling out other certifications – but these current ones are absolutely to the core of what we do. I’m sure as we evolve then other certifications will become important to us. It’s important to note that we don’t ‘chase’ certifications to puff up what we do. We strive for the best, as I’ve already outlined, in terms of service, security and resilience – these certifications are the upshot of what we do and try to achieve on a daily basis.

Cover drive – what ISO 22301 means for business continuity

The ISO, in its own words, is an “independent, non-governmental international organisation with a membership of 165 national standards bodies. It uses this vast network to build international standards that are “consensus-based” and “market-relevant”.

ISO 22301:2019, of which AdvanceTrack has completed certification, focuses on security and resilience. Namely, requirements for robust business continuity management systems.

The certification requires rigour in a number of key areas:

Organisational context – an understanding of how the organisation works, for whom, and what that means for the scope of its business continuity requirements
Leadership – How the business continuity policy has been formed, and its communication to interested parties; alongside set roles and responsibilities
Planning – The determination of risks and opportunities, alongside addressing them; and establishing and determining business continuity objectives
Support – Documentation and resources relating to the plan
Operations – Impact analysis; continuity strategies and solutions; implementation of solutions; recovery plans
Performance evaluation – Monitoring and assessment by internal audit and management of performance against business continuity metrics
Improvement – Corrective actions and continual improvement.

Source: ISO (iso.org)

take time make time

Being able to fight clients’ fires, or support their growth plans, are key steps in increasing your practice’s value to them. We cover how you can build this capacity within your accounting firm

The most successful accounting practices are those that have the capacity to either react, or be proactive, with clients. Ultimately this enables a firm to deliver a higher level of client service. If AdvanceTrack looked at our top clients, they have some 15% of spare capacity to deal with issues or broach things with their client.

But how do you achieve this? Well, first you have to take a step back and consider how your firm currently works and your attitude to technology.

 

Practice drivers and technological advancement

There are a range of drivers of change in an accounting practice, and these will vary in value dependent on the varying challenges it faces. However, there are key areas of which one or more will be on your radar most times. These are:

  • Number of staff/utilisation
  • Timing of service delivery
  • Use of offshoring/outsourcing in the practice
  • The pricing model used (fixed or variable)
  • How work is delivered to your clients
  • Frequency of invoicing

All these drivers can be impacted by the adoption of technology. But firms adopt technology at different rates, even in different parts of a single practice. Martec’s Law sets out pace of technological development versus change in an organisation. Most organisations are held back by the speed at which the technology is introduced into the business, and later have to ‘reset’ – in other words, effectively to start again. This ‘reset’ might mean reorganising a department or function – for some practices it might mean their natural end.

Consider within your own practice how quickly some teams or individuals have adopted change or new processes and technology. A prime example is a client using cloud accounting such as Xero, but the year-end process is an annual one that is completed months after the financial year end. If that feels like how your firm engages with clients, then neither party is benefitting from the technology improvements that software companies are introducing.

So, what are firms – namely you – going to do to respond? There are varying approaches, but it’s probably best to adopt and utilise the technology that will have the biggest, most positive, impact on the practice.

 

Help your teams, or the practice as a whole, build capacity

Press the reset button intermittently across the organisation. Consider where there is a wholesale change in the systems and/or process as a way of speeding up change.

The image (on page 3) shows the typical difference in perception of cost/value between an accounting practice and the client. Accounts processing and ‘being compliant’ for audit are allocated a lot of value by the firm, but the client attaches little or no value to them. The most valuable part of the service from the clients’ perspective is your meetings with them, and implementation of advisory services – plus the follow-up meeting.

So, if the compliance part of the business is perceived to have the least value, shouldn’t this be delivered at the lowest cost and in the fastest possible time?

As the MD of an offshoring/outsourcing business, I’d put the case that all firms need to look at the capacity required to not only deliver the service, but leverage any change to grow the firm. Our most successful accounting clients have ‘spare capacity’, which they achieve through a mixture of technology and strategic use of our outsourcing/offshoring solutions.

The question you should ask yourself, then, is: “How much capacity can I free up?”

 

Calculate your capacity plan

Using a ‘top-down’ approach, consider:

  • Predicted client billings
  • Write off allowances (plan should be zero)
  • Special work

Using a ‘bottom-up’ approach, consider:

  • Available hours of staff
  • Expected productivity of staff
  • Budgeted rates of staff

Any difference will be a surplus, or shortfall, of capacity.

 

Improving processes will increase the capacity of your firm

There are a number of tasks that need to take place to improve your processes, which will in turn help you build capacity.

First, you must identify your internal ‘champion’ to lead the process change, who must build a framework for change. Identify key leaders and their role in the review of this process, ensuring that non-compliance with the process won’t be tolerated.

Then you can build detail around the new process, once compliance has been signed off and key leaders have agreed on the changes. You’ll never make everyone happy, so consider the majority view. Also consider key risks and impact on clients.

 

Building an efficient team

Next you must make sure your team is fit for purpose. Training is the key to this, and this is done by building a training culture. The main areas to consider are:

  • Process training
  • IT training
  • Personal skills training (e.g. negotiation or presentation)
  • Product training (e.g. Xero, etc)
  • Share your training plan with a wider group (internal/external stakeholders)

 

Delegation skills

Build a delegation plan. Consider the skills needs in your business and ensure the team have the training to do the job. They must focus on solutions and ensure you hire and keep the best talent.

By having the right team balance with appropriate skills and experience you minimise rework, minimise errors and write-offs, particularly if work is otherwise delivered by senior managers and partners. Finally, if senior staff are freed up, they can be more client-facing, delivering more to the clients and bringing in new business.

Based on your client behaviour, it’s then key to try and smooth your workflow over the year. How do you do this? Well, build faster turnaround times within your production teams. AdvanceTrack has been building this for firms using their offshore outsourcing capabilities. And then ensure that there’s free capacity across the year, not just certain months, allowing the firm to grow and deliver based on client demands.

 

What are you measuring within the firm?

I know from personal experience when working in larger firms that KPIs are given to staff they have little or no control of. As a result, if you measure them against these, it is demoralising as seen as unfair. So, ensure you measure people on things they have the power to manage. You must also give honest and regular feedback.

Team members should be encouraged to advise management if job budgets can’t be met. An earlier conversation may reduce the write-off through open conversation with the client and team. Finally, ensure each team member has a job budget and delivery deadline.

Bear in mind that feedback from staff and clients will be critical. Review successes and make improvements where necessary. Can you recommend any advice to the clients based on the information your team has reviewed? Consider if that advice is billable, and whether a fee discussion is required.

If a client has poor bookkeeping or other issues, these must be communicated. If these are not communicated, they believe they provide good books. Firms across the industry are guilty of correcting the errors without communicating this to the client.

Make the client accountable for their actions around timeliness, accuracy of information provided, query resolution and payment terms. Consider the purpose of an engagement letter and ensure it focuses on the client relationship and not legals, which can be dealt with separately.

 

Clients

You’ve built your capacity plan. You’ve trained your teams and most importantly, you’ve adopted technology and have a plan to take the most benefit from this, so you are closer to the technology line in your improvement process.

You then consider how outsourcing/offshoring can help deliver more. Like all things, you need to consider the people in your business and ensure that they buy into the vision you paint of the firm and this will be driven by the type of person and possibly age profile of the team members.

 

Ready to start growing your firm? CLICK HERE

AdvanceTrack’s most recent webinar was one of its most thought-provoking and interesting.

On the topic of ‘value’, three experts joined AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth to discuss what value means in the context of an accounting practice, its people and clients.

Andrew Van De Beek, founder of Australian accountancy firm Illumin8, kicked off proceedings with an intensely personal and heartfelt presentation. This tone supported his message: work with clients you like, and understand the purpose of their business, before you can deliver value.

Clients are usually sold an expectation of what it will be like to work with another party, and are then disappointed with the reality.

“When I started my firm eight years ago, I’d already worked in a smaller firm and a Big Four firm. I hadn’t really enjoyed what I was doing – ticking boxes. That changed when I realised there were businesses behind my work – it changed my thinking,” he explained.

Van De Beek and his firm undertook soul-searching of who they were as personalities, and who they wanted to work with. “It was a transition from ‘pretending to be an accountant’ to ‘here’s Andrew… who is good at accounting’,” he said.

His official ‘work photo’ was him in a suit and tie. “I asked myself ‘why am I putting this shirt on?’ The branding was this picture while I was really [a guy in a t-shirt drinking whisky],” he said.

“In other words, the branding was the guy in the suit, but when clients interacted with us they got something different.

“If we’re pretending to be someone else, act a certain way, do things a certain way… it won’t hit the mark,” Van De Beek added. Accountants often present themselves in a similar way, providing similar services in the same style – “it just won’t hit the mark”.

Karen Reyburn, founder of accountancy marketing agency PF, carried on the thread. She said accountants feared being themselves, but making such a move towards fully representing yourself in your work normally required “small changes over time”.

However, such a move was important in terms of winning and working with clients. “Your brand is not for you, it’s for clients,” she said. “They will ask, ‘is this real? Are these people for real?’.”

When there’s a mismatch “they will hesitate to work for you”, Reyburn added.

The step towards online communication precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic has seen accountants behave more as they are, particularly where they talk to clients from their home environment.

“I hope that those moving through this see one of the big lessons that ‘me and my firm need to be who we are and show it’,” said Reyburn.

Building that authenticity is an aspect of setting out how to understand what value is in terms of clients, said James Ashford.

“Accountants do amazing [technical] things: balance sheets and P&Ls, but I only care
about what’s going on in my life. I want to be able to pick my kids up from school and my wife be safe, along with a storm-proof business. That’s where accountants can have an impact,” said Ashford.

On pricing, Ashford said you should be “consistent and profitable in what you need
to deliver”.

“And compliance isn’t dead,” he added. “It’s our most profitable work [at the accountancy practice where he is a director] because of how we charge it, manage our efficiencies and deliver.”

View the webinar by clicking here.

What can I outsource in my firm?

 

Outsourcing is no longer out of the ordinary. The outsourcing journey begins with accepting that.

We all know that the accounting profession has seen some big changes in the last decade – out with the old and in with the new, the more efficient and the most profitable. 

Some small firms with a handful of tax-only clients may be able to coast along for a while doing things the way they always have. But for those looking to grow and thrive, it’s a case of adapt or be replaced. 

That being said, it seems there’s still some lingering misunderstanding about outsourcing, what can be outsourced, and how it can contribute powerfully to the growth of your firm.

As far as we’re concerned, outsourcing isn’t about just getting some help with compliance.

It’s a tool to help you transform the nature of your interactions with your clients. 

 

Are you stuck hoping the dam won’t crumble?

 

When clients come to us, they’re usually overwhelmed in one way or another.

Remember the story about the little Dutch boy and the dam? 

In the popular fable, a little boy notices a crack in a dam. Since much of the Netherlands is below sea level, a leak in the dam could be a fatal disaster. So the little boy plugs the crack in the dam with his finger. The leaking stops. The little boy knows that if he moves, the hole will get bigger and bigger and the town will flood. 

When he is finally found, the boy is hailed the hero of holland! It’s a tale of bravery. The only problem? He is still the only solution for an imminent flood. 

We find many firms in the same position, stuck recruiting anyone and everyone to plug the holes in their own businesses before an imminent flood. Often we find the business owner is doing their own part to plug the dam. At this stage, we find the same issues stopping you from taking your firm to the next level:

  • You just don’t have enough staff or time to find them
  • Your existing staff are doing work at the wrong level 
  • You’re doing, rather than advising as the Business Owner
  • Your team don’t have the skills required for you to scale up
  • You’re unable to retain staff long term
  • Your top talent are recruited by bigger firms with more to offer

Our solution?

 

Build a damn wall

 

Instead of trying to fill the gaps with anyone who is willing, change the structure of the way you do business. Build a wall so that you’re never fighting floods and you can do the work that is going to be the most profitable for you. 

That being said, you don’t have to be in a tax work crisis for outsourcing to work for you. You can outsource at different levels within your business, to allow you to deliver more than just accounts, or find the skill set to break the barrier into advisory work. 

We created the outsourcing journey, to help you identify where you are right now, but most importantly to show you what’s possible. From all of our experience working globally with firms like yours, we’ve identified that this is the route that leads to scalable growth and profitability.

Start – Everything is being done in-house. You’re maintaining, not growing.

Regular User – We combat capacity by starting with one process and nailing it. By outsourcing accounts and/or bookkeeping, you’re scaling up your team’s hours for higher level work.

Strategic user – Getting to strategic level is exciting, because you’re able to revisit your internal roles and really start to level up your team. At this point, you’re outsourcing reporting and the team are reviewing rather than preparing. Your Account Managers are able to step up and have more conversations with the clients. 

Strategic + – At this point, outsourcing is your default method for accounting, bookkeeping and reporting. You now have the ability to increase your billable rates and your departments capability. At this level, your outsourced team are giving prime delivery, allowing your team even more time for advisory work. 

Growth – You have built the wall. You’re growing at a fast rate, with the right structure for having the very best conversations with clients, and the right team skillset to support your client base.

 

It’s not just about freeing up your time, it’s about what you use your time for

 

Ask yourself why you became an accountant. 

You are the most valuable person to your client, which means that you need to focus on what they value the most in order for your own firm to be more successful. If you’re stuck doing work at the wrong level, you’ll eventually become obsolete in the eyes of your clients.

Whether you need to build a wall to allow you time to find the right staff, or get your existing staff in the right seats for scalable growth, or you just want to do more of what you enjoy – outsourcing to a trusted team can help you accomplish your goals.  

Clear on where you are in the journey? Tell us what you need

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?”

 

If you’re looking for some inspiring business reading to balance with the thrillers and romance novels when on an exotic beach this summer, you couldn’t do much better than these three offerings

As the summer months approach, organising your essential reading material for holiday time requires careful thought. One way of not letting concerns about your practice get in the way of your break is to consider some inspiration contained within these new accountancy-focused tomes.


The Digital Firm

Author: Will Farnell

Back page blurb:“As one of the UK’s earliest adopters of cloud accounting tech, Will Farnell knows better than most how much it can transform client service…”

The talk:“I want the book to help other firms avoid the mistakes and wrong turns we’ve taken over the last ten years,” Will Farnell tells us openly.

“Secondly, it’s about making people understand that tech is an enabler – but you can’t use tech to fix MTD. In the big picture, tech’s a great thing but there’s much more to think about.”

One of the big issues that Farnell notes among practices is that by selling time rather than value, it causes them problems in grasping the need for tech to streamline their offering.

“Using tech to be more efficient means there’s no incentive to work more efficiently [in a time-based model] – the reality is if you’re billing based on time, you’ll cut billings.”

It’s an example that shows why technology doesn’t necessarily ‘improve’ a practice, he suggests. “It’s the other stuff: business model; culture; and everything else that goes with it,” Farnell explains.

For Farnell, the starting point for improving and evolving a practice is understanding what it is you want to do – and achieve. The next question is easy to ask, but requires lots more work: ‘How do we get there?’ This involves consideration around tech, people, attitude, culture and buy-in from existing people.

One option is to simply automate processes and functions: have fewer people but more clients and business. This is fine in principle, but if your new offering is about driving higher margins then the work will become more advisory-led and consultative. And people are needed to provide that service.

Therefore, repositioning your team and aligning them with what the practice requires to service its clients will be high on the agenda.

This should be undertaken on an incremental basis, he says: “We’re still five years away from not being able to survive without an automated compliance process… There’s still time to make that change.”

Book quote:“Back in 2016, for the first time in our fairly short history, we lost quite a lot of staff. We found it difficult to recruit replacements because of competition from other regional firms. While we could truthfully say we do some really cool stuff here, it wasn’t always reflected in the work environment, so we refitted the office to reflect what we were doing.

“This generated the desired effect, resulting in an increase of interest and a flow of better quality candidates – which is important.”

Book details: The Digital Firm is available through Farnell’s website.


The Business Growth Accountant

Author: Paul Shrimpling

Back page blurb: “As the tech companies work closer and closer with the government agencies, and as your clients’ expectations change, what exactly will your accountancy firm do, how will you deliver value, earn a living and build capital value?”

The talk: “In a fast-changing accounting world, one thing remains the same that accountants can be certain of: business owners will look to grow profits, cash and value. That’s not going to change,” says Paul Shrimpling.

While “tech will take over more of what accountants do”, and signposting the fact that accountants need to become the genuine go-to business advisor, they haven’t really delivered on that potential, suggests Shrimpling. And so, for his book, he spoke to high-growth accountants about what they do and how they think.

His interviews talk about a “heartset” rather than a mindset. It’s about the level and depth of care – desire – to help business owners succeed.

“Some accountants care more about compliance than helping their clients grow,” he states.

From Shrimpling’s point of view, tech developments including the cloud, automation, big data, AI and Making Tax Digital are “gifts from God”. “They will force accountants to put the tools down and look up from the desk and look at the client in front of them,” he says.

Many accountants struggle because they are concerned about not being able to provide the right answers for their clients. Shrimpling believes this is wrong-headed. Instead, accountants need to be asking the right questions. “It’s the people asking the questions that are perceived to be the high-value business advisers,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to become an expert in.”

Book quote:“When James Solomons, head of accounting at Xero Australia, started his accounting and advisory business in 2015 he had no clients… He simply focused on building relationships. And when we spoke, James made it very clear that relationship building starts with good questions. In our interview, James makes the point that the value of the discussion with clients and prospects is not around what you do, but around the questions you ask… Understanding the issues comes from great questions. The value lies in the questions first, the answers second, and the solution third.”

Book details: The Business Growth Accountant is available at Shrimpling’s website.

Shrimpling has offered Inside Outsourcing readers a £10 voucher code: BGABOOK10


The Pioneering Practice

Author: Amanda Watts

Back page blurb: “This book offers a masterclass in the nine key marketing strategies your practice needs for success.”

The Talk: “Accountancy’s an industry that is generally comfortable with ‘word of mouth’,” says Amanda Watts. “But, in a commoditised marketplace, I’ve set out nine key strategies for accountants to implement so you stand out over the next 12 months.”

Accountants weren’t allowed to market themselves before 1985, says Watts, and since then lots have been told that they don’t need to because they get referrals. “But marketing gets you better referrals,” she believes.

Accountants have to position themselves first: Who is the ideal client and what are you going to provide them? Then comes branding and where you show yourself in the marketplace, “how and where?”.

“It’s then about ‘educating’ the ideal client,” she explains. “You need to be seen as the expert and authority – otherwise they’ll buy you based on price.”

Touching on technology, Watts believes automation of accounting processes allows practitioners to “invest time” in proper relationships. Where referrals may have led accountants to be lazy or work with sub-optimal clients, the reverse will be the case. “There’s the experience… How do you provide a great experience so the [ideal client] recommends you?” she says.

Book quote:“The aim isn’t for you and your pioneering practice to be known by everyone and anyone, but by a particular group of people. This group is your audience, and you’ll be the niche celebrity its members will want to follow.

“To be a niche celebrity you need to have certain foundations in place:

  • A clear positioning in the marketplace. This includes what you do and who you do it for;
  • A strong marketing message that’s easily understood and attracts your ideal audience;
  • A personal brand that’s known and trusted, and which presents you as an expert authority;
  • And, finally, a stage – which we’ll refer to as platforms. These platforms are where your audience can find and engage with you.”

Book details: The Pioneering Practiceis available via Amazon.

 

Referring clients to other service providers is a path well-trodden by advisers, but it is often handled by practices in an opportunistic, ad-hoc, and ‘arms-length’ manner. But thinking about a strategy where clients receive high-level business advice from their accountant fits with ‘holding their hand’ for other types of business support they require – even if outside the practice’s comfort zone. However, ‘outsourcing’ front-end services to other professionals requires processes and strategy, much like outsourcing compliance services or back-office functions.

“Clients value having a business partner on their journey; one who can assist them in negotiating the twists and turns of their business life as they strive to achieve their goals and who can empathise with them,” says Wood & Disney’s Brendon Howlett. “While we can outsource a substantial amount of the ‘doing’, we can’t outsource this relationship building and we wouldn’t want to. After all, people do business with people.”

One practitioner told us that their approach was to act as a “go-between” for clients and the third-party service provider – an arrangement that suits all involved. Working with third parties requires research: find out about them from other practices they’ve worked with; learn if your goals and culture is aligned with theirs; and discuss how the relationship will work with them. Finally, start working with them in a strategic way that truly tests the service before rolling it out.

AdvanceTrack client Wood and Disney is a two- director practice based in Colchester, Essex. The practice badges itself as ‘real-time accountants’, using cloud accounting technology to access client data in real-time – so it can provide proactive and timely advice. We spoke to operations director Brendon Howlett about how AdvanceTrack® has helped his practice develop.

Brendon, tell us about your practice

Peter Disney and I set the practice up in July 2013, and we head up a team of eight. We’ve been paperless for years – we love innovation – and won Most Innovative Practice (2-4 partner firm) in 2020’s Innovation Awards two years ago. We took the decision six months ago to focus solely on the cloud.

We use various cloud accounting packages, having taken the view that clients with paper bags of receipts, spreadsheets, hybrids are not the sort of clients we want. This is especially the case particularly when you consider Making Tax Digital, with four times a year reporting. Any client we take on, we say: “You have to be in the cloud.” We facilitate – all staff are Xero and QuickBooks certified advisers. There are training sessions for clients if needed, or we take on the bookkeeping as well, which is where AdvanceTrack® fits in.

When did you start using AdvanceTrack®, and why?

We’d seen [AdvanceTrack® founder] Vipul, had a good chat, then decided to use it as resource that will free up capacity. We commenced in June 2016. At the time, we couldn’t afford to give the client a competitive service to do the bookkeeping – we’d found a couple of bookkeepers locally, but they also reached capacity.

Our practice first outsourced accounts prep to AdvanceTrack®. It was a flexible arrangement at the start, but we loved it. We took it a step further with the bookkeeping.

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

We had one client in London who was always last-minute on VAT returns, accounts ling, tax. We said: “This can’t go on.” They wanted to find someone to do the bookkeeping – we said that approach would cost them a lot and be an unknown quantity. They became our first client through AdvanceTrack®. We now have a weekly fee with the client, and we’re all happy.

That job, for example, runs itself. It frees up so much of our time from mundane historical data and getting it right – we’re now on top of it on a weekly basis.

Another example: a bank we speak to had a client that wanted a loan, but their accountant hadn’t sorted out their previous year-end data. We showed the bank examples of how we can keep up-to-date records, and now they’re our best friends.

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

When the noise got louder on MTD, we took the view to write to all clients and say: “This is going to happen, how will you cope?” Part of the solution is to use cloud accounting and if we can get the data right at the basic level – we’re working with AdvanceTrack® to get that right – numbers can then be analysed. From good analysis, the client and us can make better decisions. This should lead to better results, giving our clients better businesses and all of us a better life.