It’s been quite a week for the accountancy profession. It’s been one in which (I hope) AdvanceTrack has played its part – and I hope some certainty has been provided to outsourcing as a critical part in the profession’s future.

The second week of May saw what were the first ‘unrestricted’ major events for accountants take place in the UK since Covid-19 struck.

We hosted our AdvanceTrack conference on 10 May, which then led into Accountex across 11 and 12 May.

Technology tends to ‘leap forward’, certainly when it comes to its use in professional services. And there are a number of reasons for that, but primarily it comes down to firms becoming ‘used’ to doing things in certain ways, for certain clients.

For the accountancy profession, change is iterative and focused on the client i.e. keeping up to date with the latest accounting and tax legislation and their impact. Every so often, the changes put in place are seismic enough to drive firms to change how they do things. The push for online tax filing over the past 20 years has seen paper-based returns (almost) a thing of the past.

More recently, disruption came in the form of the pandemic, which required us all to embrace digital communication beyond just emails.

The conferences held last week were enormous fun and also insightful. Meeting people face-to-face always is, even more so after such a long hiatus. The AdvanceTrack conference’s theme was about you, your team and your practice growing. Discussion about ‘value-added’ services was never far away.

MTD to advisory?

Accountex was very much of a similar vein, there was plenty of discussion around ‘how can I manage Making Tax Digital for Income Tax Self-Assessment?’

I believe that growing your practice, while ‘dealing with MTD’ can be dealt with in similar ways. And that’s because the issues are similar. For advisory services, broadening your offering requires efficiencies and process – these in turn free up resource to get to know existing (or new) clients better – to have the conversations that open the door to new things.

MTD certainly isn’t as much ‘fun’ – or, it seems on the face of it that there’s not a lot of positives to be gleaned from many of your clients increasing the amount of reporting they have to undertake. Your people are not in a position to quadruple the amount of prepping and checking they can do. However, increasing the number of touchpoints with a client could well pay dividends longer-term if you can leverage that communication towards your service proposition.

Firms need to recruit both number-crunchers and those who can provide further analysis and ultimately higher-value services. For us at AdvanceTrack, we see our offering as critical in supporting practices – whether it’s gaining efficiencies or scaling up your service (both are interlinked).

Our tech and people enable firms to solve their recruitment woes, keep on top of new tech and processes, and ultimately providing the best client service. Don’t let the people war, or MTD, drag your practice down. Join the many others that are growing their offering by growing their links with us.

I’d be delighted to talk about what they’re doing and how you can do it too. Book a call. 

Vipul Sheth is founder and MD of AdvanceTrack Outsourcing

In the first of a series of articles, we look at why it is important to understand what the client wants. Only when we do that, can we truly help clients fulfil their personal and business ambitions.

What the Client wants

Our profession has been going through change, but never more so than the last decade. It’s fair to say that the Pandemic has probably accelerated that change, with the move to the cloud being made even more relevant.

The story that underlies everything we do is that “Accountants Change Lives, but not by producing a set of accounts”.

As the son of entrepreneurs who benefited from an accountant who understood this over 40 years ago, I know that he made a difference to my future. Having worked on markets when I was 7/8 years old to help my parents, I went on to University and qualified as a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Adviser, going on to work for 2 of the largest accountancy firms on the planet.

Why do I talk about this?

My parents’ ambitions were not necessarily for themselves, but the futures they could afford their children. I talk about this because we need to understand what is important to the client.

Below is the result of some research which shows that client meetings and strategic implementation and advisory is more valued than the compliance, yet professional firms spend a disproportionate amount of time delivering compliance.

what does client want

Credit: Aaron Dunn

The key therefore is to reduce the cost of the compliance element, whilst allowing the accountant/bookkeeper to focus on the client relationship. We’ll talk more in the next feature about how you do this.

In this issue, let’s focus on the client needs. In order to serve the client, they need to deliver value and then demonstrate this.

Let’s discuss this a little further.

what the customer wants

© AdvanceTrack Outsourcing

The most important part of the equation is to identify the client agenda. Understand what the client’s aims are. For some, that may be material things, such as a large house, car, boat etc. The reality for most business owners is something more emotional than the material things.

Financial independence may be just one goal for the business owner. For my parents, it was ensuring that the children got into higher education.

This was their agenda for the accountant to help guide them through. If we take the past 18 months, some of your clients just wanted to get through and retain their staff, home, business etc.

It’s therefore important that the firm identifies the client agenda, jointly with the client and then agree their role in helping the business owner deliver that. The accountant won’t stand behind the counter of the store or weld the metal in the workshop. Their role helps the business grow, prosper and deliver the goals necessary for the business owner to fulfil their goals.

The accountant needs to measure what that looks like. More importantly, has the accountant and their team shown they understand the business? The most valuable lesson any accountant learns is asking the business owner to show them around their business. It is usually their biggest passion (other than family).
If the accountant doesn’t know what drives the entrepreneur, they can’t help the entrepreneur. At some point, the relationship could break down if it is not nurtured.

what the customer wants

© AdvanceTrack Outsourcing

So you’ve helped the entrepreneur share their goals.

How are you going to help them?

Have you identified the issues that will hinder their success. What impact will it have on the resources required of the entrepreneur and/or your firm? Every firm may think they can do the job, but at some point, the entrepreneur may outgrow the firm. That doesn’t always mean that you can’t serve them.
Sometimes it is about collaborating with others to help the client, for example, the world over, there are incentives to invest in Research and Development. The firm may not be able to do that, but there are specialists who work in this area. The firm retains the primary relationship and has presented a solution that serves the client and shown that you can help them deliver value by keeping their costs down or bring cash into the business.

I’ve seen in my own training days, a very successful entrepreneur floated their business on the stock market. The firm lost the audit to one of the large international firms then. The firm acted to support the entrepreneur and their family to manage the wealth they built up over the 30 or more years since, serving him throughout his business career. They maintained the trust and respect and just understood that the business was best served by a larger firm for part of their requirements. Retaining the trust of a prominent entrepreneur helped the firm to continue to demonstrate its value to the family and the wider business community.

We’ve included ethical values. This is important in considering whether you should retain the client. When faced with such dilemmas, the firm always needs to consider whether they want to retain the client or not. If the firm or its principals are not comfortable with what a client is asking them to do, what is the appropriate action for them to take?

When I used to run a small practice, I’ve been faced with situations where clients I considered to be friends asked me to do something I just felt uncomfortable with, or they acted against my values. At that point, you go back to the values you live and breathe as they’re instilled in you as you grow up. I think of the way I dealt with bullies in the playground or the workplace. Do you do the “Hard Right” or the “Easy Wrong”? I’ve always done the Hard Right and it’s what allows me to sleep at night.

If enough firms and principals rewarded partners for doing this, rather than penalising them because they “lost” fees, our profession would be stronger for it.

Can we execute the work?

How many times have you been on the wrong end of poor service? It’s often because the provider has decided that you’ll be their test customer/client. You’re paying for them to learn the service, which they’ll then be able to charge other clients for in the future. I’m pleased to see I’ve always been in firms that either had the expertise or stepped away from delivering it themselves.

Today, our industry is incredibly collaborative. Think of the WhatsApp or other groups you’re a part of. One message and you’ll find someone who can help your client. It doesn’t have to be you. You can manage it. Just make sure it’s right for the client.

If you know what your client’s goals are, you should be able to measure the success of the project. This is incredibly important in showing the value that your firm delivers in yours and your client’s journey. Without this, you’re not helping to keep the client or the firm focused on results.

It’s then time to re-evaluate what goals are important and the cycle goes through the same process again. I know I set both personal and business goals annually. It’s important that as an adviser you understand what your client’s goals are and if they’ve changed in any way. It will help you focus on making those happen. Remember, you’re trusted with their innermost fears and ambitions. Guard them safely and bring your team on that journey, so they understand what they do is so much more than reporting history.
We help firms deliver their goals. We’d love to talk to you about yours.

In the next instalment, we’ll continue the story of how to improve the customer experience.

While living in a Covid world has been turbulent for people and their businesses, it has also provided an opportunity for accountants to get closer to clients. Phil Shohet reveals how accountancy partners and owners must now take steps to improve their service offering, be more efficient and better manage their operations to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

 

 

For many practice owners and partners, this period of time is crystallising their future plans, ambitions and prosperity. But they may not be controlling their destiny.

While Covid-19 and its huge impact is key to this disruption, it piggybacks other big changes in recent months and years: HMRC’s digitisation project through Making Tax Digital; the huge increase in automation of accounting, tax and client data collection tasks; and online/digital-focused accountancy practices have all made changes to the landscape.

Practice owners and partners, certainly in firms focused on compliance services, can find themselves in a quandary about adapting and evolving. Their vision only reaches out to the next wave of tax return and accounting deadlines – setting out a path for future prosperity and the impact on services and your people can be hard to undertake when the day job is of comfort. Covid has, understandably, seen practitioners undertaking emergency support for their client base but spending even less time on their practice’s own direction.

So, this is a starting point for what accountants must focus on to service their client base, how that will impact on a practice’s structure and then expectations upon partners and owners to deliver.

What your clients want from you

Fundamentally, there are five key areas that clients seek support on from their accountant:

 

  • Compliance services;
  • Wealth management/protection;
  • Tax mitigation/planning;
  • Consultancy/business advisory services; and
  • An opportunity to have access to virtual information and forecasting.

 

This can be distilled even further. Ultimately, you’re helping people and their companies make (more) money, keeping tax liabilities to a legal minimum and protecting their gained wealth – whether for the business or family.

Unfortunately, there is historically a dramatic underservicing of clients. And this is not just in the so-called ‘valued-added’ services, but more generally. Why? Because so few practitioners actively ask their clients how they are and what they might be able to do to help.

Correspondingly there is an over-servicing of compliance technical processing, for example on small audits where the external reviews often praise the compliance detail and box ticking, but ignore the additional advisory level services.

There is not an overly-complicated way in which to bill more advisory fees compared with compliance. The compliance services themselves often create an opportunity to provide advisory – unfortunately, so often the tail wags the dog.

Self-assessment is a perfect example. Practices receive SA-related information so late from clients that it creates the huge overload of work in December and January. This creates a vicious, not virtuous, circle. It means there isn’t time to then get to know clients better.

So, the cycle needs to be broken: How do you get information in earlier? Rather than send passive emails to clients asking them to file earlier (which doesn’t work), instead call or email them personally and ask what they are doing, and how that impacts the direction of travel for their income and subsequent tax bill. This may give an opportunity to provide them with extra support – but on the proviso that their income information comes in earlier for processing. The practice should be looking at a real-time information flow between itself and clients and encourage the use of apps for client data delivery. You may then be able to bill more for supplementary tax support, mitigate their tax bill further, and all the while reduce your January workload.

The beauty of working this way is that you are using your combined technical knowledge and experience to better help your clients. It doesn’t need to be something you feel is out of your comfort zone.

Crucially, success in this area will be conditional on outsourcing some of your work to create a lower cost base and a more efficient processing system. MTD is pushing the need for a more regular flow of information between yourself and the client. A combination of automation and a dedicated third party managing/checking the flow of data is now crucial for the survival of a profitable and sustainable accounting practice. However, outsourcing doesn’t mean losing control of your clients; on the contrary, outsourced processes should help you better understand and communicate more frequently with clients.

So, think about the systems you and your clients use. Uniformity and ease of flow of accurate data are key. And while accountants are ruled by deadlines set by lawmakers and enforcement agencies, they should work with clients towards the practice’s own, most optimal, timescale.

 

Creating a firm of the future

While calling more clients more often is, in itself, relatively simple to conceive, there are broader considerations about how a practice will operate in the future. In essence:

  • Fees will be earned on the basis of value for money;
  • Firms will be organised into specialist departments along service lines;
  • Statutory requirements will become a ‘smaller’ part of the firm’s work;
  • More competition will come from outside the profession; and
  • The firm will be, in essence, a provider of business services.

Practices that are more proactive with clients, use technology to automate input-heavy processes and look to support clients across a broad range of needs will need to take the above points into account.

There are a large number of diversification opportunities that exist for accountancy firms, for which the level and extent is driven by the market the firm wishes to service, but more importantly the business development acumen of the partners and their desire to operate in a structure as suggested above.

Making such considerations is crucial. For example, is audit a viable service for smaller firms? There’s no longevity necessarily there: audit thresholds creep up and clients will inevitably move to bigger auditors when they seek funding and grow in scale.

Entrepreneurs can be a difficult client base to handle: they often make excessive demands. But if satisfied they will be lucrative in terms of both direct fee income and their willingness to promote your firm through referrals.

But it is no good understanding who you want to serve – and how – if your partners are unable to help adequately support existing clients and bring new ones on board.

 

Leading in a new direction

Partners must want to develop business, and that must sit alongside their desire to steer current clients. On the latter, too many partners spend too much time processing compliance work rather than understanding the client to drive more fees.

Small teams, or units, must support the partner in providing the client service. The partner can remain close, but not undertake the grunt work themselves.

For many firms it is a lot of change, whether measured by client service provision, processes or operational management.

But while accountants are good technicians, the owner/s and partners have to improve their focus on running a business and supporting clients; moving away from the coal-face of computations.

Over the last six months, Covid-19 management has, for many practices, required flexibility and swift decision-making to adapt workflows, processes and communications. It is essential that pragmatism is carried forward in the future to encourage questioning of the status quo, provide channels for new ideas from internal and external sources and take action to change where deemed justified. An ongoing questioning of comfort zones by all partners and a commitment to adopt change agreed.

This is, in some ways, the toughest aspect of change – where practices and their people have operated in a certain way for a long period of time. But leaders must lead, using their gravitas and persuasion to bring partners on board to start turning the ship. This means the most senior people must be flexible: client-facing but not number-crunching, and playing a part in setting a strategy or plan to drive up profits.

Covid has driven clients into the arms of their accountant, but if these closer relationships fail to be nurtured then other providers will come in to fill the gap: be they accountants or broader business support organisations.

You may be left with just compliance work, in a world where that offering will be commoditised and the price driven down. And, as such, you make your own retirement or exit route a more difficult and certainly less profitable one to tread.

Ultimately, an efficient practice with strong processes, using technology to automate and support your people, with partners closely aligned with the needs of clients, improves its value.

Phil Shohet FCA is a senior consultant at professional services consultancy Foulger Underwood. He can be reached at philip@foulgerunderwood.com

AdvanceTrack is proud of its latest ISO certification for business continuity – but what does it all really mean and why is it so important for clients?

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’

What is the ISO and this particular ‘standard’?

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, with very clear direction, 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.

 

Why do you think it is important to AdvanceTrack and why now?

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.

 

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

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.

 

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

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 our servers going 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 we could operate without impacting service.

 

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

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.

 

How does the standard set you apart from competitors?

There’s a reason why accounting practices work with us and stay for the long term. It’s our consistent approach and 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.

 

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

We’re not ruling out other certifications – but these current ones are absolutely at the 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.

 

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)

 

AdvanceTrack has teamed up with business advisory platform Clarity to offer clients a way to understand and improve their business

We have exciting news of a new partnership, bringing together AdvanceTrack’s outsourcing capability with support to build and deliver a top-level advisory service. Clarity has partnered with us to provide an exclusive offer for AdvanceTrack’s clients.

Clarity is a business advisory platform harnessing AI, machine learning and blockchain, which uses the right combination of people, process and tech to transform the business advisory services of accounting firms worldwide.

Clarity’s offering helps practices support clients in understanding their numbers – and how to improve them. Accountants can help them create a step-by-step plan to build a better business and, through a structured online data room, help access the cash and investment to grow or exit. The Clarity platform empowers 100% of accounting teams to help 100% of their small business clients with business advisory.

Its founder and CEO is Aynsley Damery – a qualified accountant and former CEO of a multi-award winning niche advisory accounting firm for entrepreneurs in the UK.

 

“Our world is now so connected – both people and devices, and the ability to reach customers is no longer restricted by borders,” said Aynsley. “The move to the cloud and the ability to analyse big data opens up incredible opportunities for many accounting firms. Harnessing the power of technology effectively has become critical to gain competitive advantage.”

 

 

 

 

AdvanceTrack founder and MD Vipul Sheth said that, by outsourcing, accountants should be freed to drive client value. “We want practices to break free from spending all their time on compliance work that can be managed and processed in a better way,” he said.

“And by freeing them from these bonds, they can make much better use of their time understanding and advising their clients on growth, or their longer-term aims.”

Get in touch with #TeamClarity on info@clarity-hq.com to find out how you can benefit from our partner programme, plus an advanced implementation plan to get your firm on track.

Growing practices need support to drive efficiencies, improve processes and create value. AdvanceTrack has been integral in helping firms achieve their goals for nearly 20 years. Here’s our story, and where we (and you) are heading.

 

While technology is integral to what we do, outsourcing on behalf of accounting practices requires so much more than that. It requires a commitment to collaborative working, absolute prudence and rigour in terms of IT security, and a focus on client service. These criteria are borne of a mindset that comes from our own experiences working as part of – and with – the accounting profession.

 

MD Vipul Sheth: About myself, AdvanceTrack and Inside Outsourcing

AdvanceTrack provides critical outsourced accounting and bookkeeping services to many UK accounting practices. Working with the accounting technology you know so well, we offer the best combination of IT and qualified people to free practices up to provide a better and more valuable service to clients.

As for me? Well, I trained with a great firm as an auditor and business adviser, and understand the challenges and rewards of being an accountant.

I eventually ended up in what is now EY. I remember thinking that, with my smaller firm training, it would be difficult to cope in a ‘big firm’ environment. However, I quickly discovered that my work to date prepared me better than I could imagine. I already knew how to deal with everything from a technical perspective, but now I focused on the value-added service of tax.

 

Understanding the ‘process deficiency’ in accounting practices

Going back to practices and workflow. My biggest lesson was realising that EY didn’t have 400 ways to produce a file (I’m guessing the numbers of partners in the firm then), but just one way.

This was the lightbulb moment in understanding what differentiated the firm I trained with and the Big Four firm where I now sat. And when I left, I then realised that a client is transitioned very quickly from yourself to another very capable colleague with almost no difference in client service.

A few years later I put this learning into what we all now know as AdvanceTrack.

Finally, Inside Outsourcing is AdvanceTrack’s monthly publication where we share insights on practice management, usually with a tech focus, and highlight the work we’re undertaking. A print version is available or you can view it online at www.AdvanceTrack.com.

 

AdvanceTrack and founder Vipul Sheth – the journey so far

2002 I left practice with the ambition to start up an outsourcing business. I spent several weeks in India meeting people and concluded that it could be done, and successfully. Having met people in the accounting industry, I knew the technical capability was there – but I wondered if the technology was as well.

 

2003 Formally set the company up and sought to build an online platform immediately. Being someone who used IT rather than creating it taught me many lessons. Most importantly, it taught me that staff need careful management, and I needed to build the technology to run the business.

 

2005/2006 I found some developers who demonstrated incredible focus and enthusiasm for the project. I told them what I wanted was to build something accessible on the internet (they hadn’t called it ‘cloud’ at that point).

 

2013 Security and quality accreditations were achieved. This was without making any material change to any of our processes. The security accreditation just demonstrated how the whole process was designed to deliver higher quality in a secure way.

 

2016/2017 Despite many improvements over the years, we ripped up the platform we had spent over a decade building and refining. It’s hard to do, to take something that has helped deliver great service and growth for the business and consign it to history. We bit the bullet and put a team together to deliver a brand new platform for the business.

 

2018 There were good reasons to rebuild the platform, particularly the need to comply with new and exacting data protection legislation (GDPR) that was brought in across Europe. Our early planning helped ensure that with plenty of time to spare, the platform was ready for GDPR and the challenges that would be undoubtedly coming, particularly as technology in the industry was changing so quickly. We can be sure that we’ll need to continue making changes.

 

2020 While other outsourcers are beginning their cloud journey, we’re proud that we started our journey more than 15 years ago. We’ve reimagined it time and again but sticking to our core values. With the pace of change increasing in the sector, we know we have to constantly re-invent ourselves to keep relevant to the customers we work with.

 

Beyond 2020 We won’t be making big announcements until they have happened. We don’t make our commercial strategy a public manifesto. It’s fair to say though that we’ll drive technological advancements faster and more thoughtfully than ever. Our clients expect us to help them lead the change.

 

The ACCA’s new report delves into the key roles that accounting professionals are now expected to fill, and what that means for your organisation’s future, writes Kevin Reed.

Technological change in the workplace, and our daily lives, is a constant. That the pace of change is seemingly increasing means it’s not so clear what this means for practices, their clients and the roles that accounting professionals will be expected to play.

With this as the backdrop, the ACCA has produced a report – three years in the making – that seeks to make sense of the social, corporate and employment environment.

Future ready: accountancy careers in the 2020s contains five key ‘career zones’ that could provide opportunities for accountants in the future. Some are more relevant to finance functions than practices, but they could all still apply to specific roles with a professional services organisation or otherwise. These are:

  • The assurance advocate: these roles will focus on trust and integrity in an organisation. This may include risk-focused tasks, or understanding emerging issues that could impact on business performance. Control and stewardship are also under their remit.
  • The business transformer: From a practice perspective, individuals will need to lead organisational change to cope with growing regulatory demands and evolving client needs.
  • The data navigator: From a finance perspective, they will focus on expanding the organisation’s use of data – finding tools that will analyse information to provide business critical insight. Accounting practices are beginning to understand the importance of strong data control and analysis, alongside managing its flow between them, their client and statutory bodies such as HM Revenue & Customs.
  • The digital playmaker: Described by the ACCA as an ‘evangelist’ for technology, we see practices looking to allocate a champion within their firm to help track the latest apps and software. They will also play an important role in its implementation.
  • The sustainability trailblazer: What does sustainability mean for an organisation? And how do you measure it? Producing broader information about business performance will certainly fall under the remit of a finance function – perhaps a path for practices to provide assurance, auditing and consultancy?

 

Considerations for the practice team

For those looking ahead at their own career, what does this mean? Transforming and evolving should be active and iterative. You can’t change who you are and what you do overnight. It will need to be in context of your chosen path. Are you a sole practitioner, running a bigger practice, holding an operational role or client-facing?

But the ACCA has picked out ten aspects for you to consider. For those in career mode, being flexible will be key in staying relevant as business models and customer requirements change. Understanding the impact of digitisation on the practice landscape is really a must – and should be integral to your development.

Because of these two factors, job roles will appear that are lesser-known or new, but might help you broaden and develop your CV. “With career paths less certain, thinking laterally about future job roles is critical,” the ACCA states. In essence, continuous learning and showing a hunger to improve “future-proofs capabilities and ensures enduring competence”, it adds. Building an online brand and being aware of the benefits and drawbacks of things you post on social media are also critical. “Online career visibility is vital in the digital age,” states the report.

Making sure that CVs represent your skills will be more important than previous job titles, it believes. “’Competence’ is king,” states the ACCA.

Collaboration, an issue for many silo-centric accounting practices, will be vital. Teamworking, particularly cross-function, service line or discipline, will provide the best service to either internal or external clients.

While the term ‘data scientist’ has been bandied around for many months in the profession, making better use of data and building an ability to better analyse different formats and types of information will be “a cornerstone” of accounting and finance roles.

But don’t forget to look all around you. As the ACCA states, we are moving to a point where several generations will sit in the workforce. For those developing their career they must not be blinded by the future, but take heed of lessons learned by others over the decades. “With different entry and exit points into the profession, the diversity of talents across all ages is enriched,” it states.

 

Considerations for practice employers

If you employ people within your practice, how do you as an employer respond to the opportunities and challenges ahead?

The ACCA’s first point is probably more focused on corporates, but could still apply to smaller and more collegiate professional services firms as well. Does your practice demonstrate a purpose and contribute positively to society? Practices, in their support of clients, tend to do this by definition – but not many spell it out clearly. “Employers that can frame and articulate their broader purpose successfully are more likely to be attractive to potential employees in the future,” states the report.

Succession planning is an ongoing problem for the practice community. And the ACCA highlights that career paths must be open and visible – this becomes even more crucial if roles are changing: “Do they support building a pipeline of retained talent for the future?”

As in the employee-focused suggestions, the ACCA flags up the responsibility of employers to build collaboration within their organisation. Team-based projects and encouraging people to move out of ‘silos’ is recommended.

As employees must make a big effort to continue their development, so practice owners must support their team in doing so. Digital learning is becoming a popular way to enable such development.

Technology-driven change can create apprehension in many practitioners. It’s not that the tools aren’t helpful, but the pace of change and increasing choice means that workarounds and organic change seem easier and more manageable than revolutionising how a practice is run and structured. Such fear is also heard by team members, who fear that efficiencies and automation will see them out of a job. Taking the opportunity to develop a practice using technology must be grasped, but careful consideration of how to redeploy staff must be considered – along with communicating that change.

Finally, evolving your practice will mean new skills and inevitably new people coming on board. Creating a diverse workforce will have a positive impact. “This isn’t just a moral obligation,” states the ACCA. “Workforces that are more diverse in a range of different aspects, for example gender or ethnicity or culture, are seen to be more innovative, and various studies continue to identify correlations between different diversity measures and improved organisational performance.”

The ACCA report can be found by clicking here.

 

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.