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

Being ‘more valuable’ to clients can mean many different things, but all iterations involve understanding your people’s current skills, and how you work together to adapt and evolve both them and your practice

Technological advances in the accountancy space, whether it’s for your back office or client-facing, have been rapid in recent years. It does feel that anything is possible.

Despite these advances, coupled with the technical nature of accountants’ offering, it is still a ‘people game’. You must get to know and understand your clients’ requirements, and understand your own team members’ personalities and skills.

Therefore, using tech to automate your services and provide a broader and richer offering requires more than IT investment.

 

Where do you start? Is it the client, the tech or your people?

Paul Richmond, managing director of people consultants theGrogroup, says that you must first set out a vision and strategy to deliver future success. “An accountant in 2030 will need to be an adviser, tech-savvy and a change expert,” he explains. “They will need to be widely connected and know people who help clients. Key talents will need to be curiosity, adaptability, emotional intelligence and a growth mindset.”

But these skills and personality traits are
difficult to capture in one person. And from a cultural perspective, practices have focused on compliance services that are defined by collating historic data – which means forward-looking services will require a shift in culture.

“It’s not an overnight switch. You can’t just say your job is going to change now; it’s an impossible thing to do,” says Aynsley Damery, CEO of business advisory platform Clarity. “‘Historic’ is ingrained in accounting, the ethos of preparing things based on the last year, so there requires a shift into the unknown.”

A key skill for all client-facing staff is empathy, he explains, as it puts your people in a position to listen and understand what clients are going through. “Most employees don’t know what it’s like to understand what it’s like running a business… the fears, hopes and challenges – everything a client’s going through,” says Damery. “It’s incumbent on leaders to help staff understand this, so when clients are upset or cross they will turn to you to share with.

“It is about your people becoming sounding boards – not necessarily ‘business gurus’. They need to be open, help understand the issues and challenges, and to avoid asking ‘closed’ questions,” Damery adds.

 

Focus on the process

Beyond strategy and culture comes process, setting out what you will do and how you will bring your practice closer to defining who undertakes which tasks.

“I’d map out the functions of the firm as a whole,” says Accounts & Legal director Stuart Hurst. “Rather than individual job descriptions, I’d look at job processes and ask people how they get from A to B to C to D… then ask the best way of doing it and what the barriers are to it improving.”

Setting out this path encourages your people to change and mould according to your overall direction of travel, rather than a pre-defined job description. “This way you’re changing the day-to-day… otherwise you create resistance,” says Hurst.

Once you understand where your practice is and where it’s heading, alongside a broad definition of how your people need to work and communicate with clients, what is next?

“I’m a big fan of really understanding what type of people you have in your team,” says Hurst. “Those that are more naturally extrovert will likely get more involved with clients and will be an easier conversion towards more proactive support.”

 

Ask the right questions

Clarity’s Damery believes a more nuanced approach is required, suggesting that extroverts aren’t always the best fit with certain clients. “It’s more about those that listen and ask the right questions,” he suggests.

“Remember that you’re not throwing people on stage and asking them to perform, and there isn’t ‘one way’ to train everybody – find methodologies that work for certain individuals. Build a culture of trust where people can fail safely, let them make mistakes in a controlled environment, and build trust and learn from it.”

You are looking to instil into your people that they need to open their mindset, that the firm is on a journey and you want them as part of that – though some things will change.

TheGrogroup’s Richmond poses an example of how the mindset and attitude must move. “One of the key frustrations we have is when accountants say: ‘We did a client survey and scored 8/10’. Well, you would because you asked the question: ‘Are we good accountants and do we give you enough help?’ To which the answer will be ‘yes’,” he says.

“However, what if you were bold and said: ‘To what extent do we help you with your strategy? Have we helped you grow your business this year? Do we enable you to grow your client base and suppliers?’ Ask that, and the response is likely to be 3/10.”

Damery suggests that taking such actions to change your firm’s direction doesn’t mean turning it upside down. Changes can be iterative and not necessarily revolutionary.

“There is still a place for people to do mainly technical work and a need for that,” he says. “Clients aren’t generally looking for anything mindblowing but focus, awareness and accountability – that shouldn’t be scary.

“Empower your team and give them the confidence to ask clients what you can help them with – ask the basic questions and respond in their language. They want help with the numbers, but also planning and the impact of the numbers and what different projections mean for them.”

 

Learn from each other

If you have junior team members that are more comfortable with using new apps, and some senior members very comfortable with having valuable conversations with clients, then there is the opportunity for both to learn from each other.

“Certainly, if you’re looking to upscale people in terms of facing clients, then you have to bring them along to the meetings; there needs to be a mindset of coaching staff,” says Stuart Hurst.

Paul Richmond also extols the virtues of training. “If your firm is becoming more adviser-led then training and recruitment must reflect that. You’re looking at relationship skills, EQ, influencing, persuasion and the ability to lead clients – ensuring your people want to know as much about clients as possible,” Richmond explains.

 

Be adaptable

As suggested earlier, adaptability is a key trait in a firm looking to support clients more proactively. And understanding your people’s ability to adapt may only come through experience. “While it’s trainable it’s much easier to recruit it,” says Richmond.

“You need to be having conversations with your individuals and using tools such as the nine-box grid to evaluate potential, and their appetite to adjust and develop. But people are either motivated by change and challenge or afraid of it.”

Hurst says: “The worst-case scenario is that someone doesn’t fit. Then it’s about reallocating – you need to have the right people in the right seat. That is not necessarily an easy or instant decision, so think carefully about performance management.

“Sometimes you have to nurture where you’re heading. With advisory it can be a bit more of an open conversation and by nature vary – certainly by client-by-client.”

Richmond asks you to consider which KPIs and metrics are being used to measure your firm’s success in operating with a different model.

“What do you want to hear back from a client?” he asks. “‘My accountant is always there for me and interested in how I do’. Then you must measure how often people contact clients or suggest ideas to them – what gets measured gets done. So, forget ‘who has hit budget’ and instead ask questions about client communication or adaptability.”

 

  • Kevin Reed is a freelance journalist and former editor of Accountancy Age.

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)

 

It was ‘accountants galore’ on AdvanceTrack’s webinar, ‘Scaling for Growth? Building an Advisory Mindset and Firm’, which discussed the cultural and strategic approach towards making a practice invaluable to its clients.

AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth started the conversation by highlighting the key challenges of changing how a practice – or any organisation – operates. These include altering mindsets, successfully adopting new technology and embedding change into the new normal.

 

“People are fearful of change, and will look to maintain the status quo,” said Sheth. “So leadership is required to change doubters to believers, and champions are needed to keep it all on track.”

Joe David from accountancy firm Nephos said that his background as an accountant in industry gave him a mindset that creating and analysing good data was key in supporting the making of decisions. This led him down the path of creating an advisory- and technology-led practice.

 

Clarity’s Aynsley Damery said that established firms have to go that bit further when it comes to driving change, particularly if ingrained in providing services based purely on clients’ historical information. “It’s about looking forward as a firm, and looking forward on behalf of your clients,” said Damery. He said that ‘champions’ within the firm, who will help instil that mindset while managing change projects, were vital. “They’re so important in terms of connectivity between management and the team – interpreting the vision and how it will work.”

 

Practice Ignition’s Trent McLaren said: “You must set out from the top, across the entire firm, the direction and why you’re changing. You also have to let them know about progression, or you’ll inevitably end up with silos of knowledge.”

Click here to access the webinar.

AdvanceTrack makes its third visit to speak to accounting practices about managing their clients and team in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. While lockdown has eased, it certainly isn’t business as usual – with our practitioners formulating plans for the immediate future, and longer-term.

 

Bruce Burrowes, founder, Kingston Burrowes

It has been four months since lockdown, and a lot has changed since then. How has your firm been since we spoke a few weeks ago?

There has been lots of communication, particularly where clients have needed funding. For ourselves, we moved from four offices into three – which involved consolidating two of them. It’s been a really busy time.

The main focus of the last few weeks is getting compliance work undertaken that might have been put off during the first few weeks of lockdown, alongside bedding the new office in. Clearly that has meant encouraging people back ‘into’ the office – one they’ve not been in before.

Thankfully, the new office space is
more than big enough to accommodate
six staff and practice safe social distancing. A team member has managed the day-to-day issues.

The main problem we have had is typical teething problems of being in a new office – we had to wait for new monitors to arrive.

A key part of our ongoing dialogue with team members has been: ‘It’s OK to tell colleagues if they’re too close or make you uncomfortable.’ Where an office had to hot-desk to allow for social distancing, little things such as assigning everyone their own wireless keyboard has helped make a difference.

Clients have been grateful for us keeping up communication lines with them – even if it’s been to say ‘we’re really busy and we’ll speak tomorrow’.

One person moved during this time, which has meant reallocating work, but that’s opened my eyes to some of the existing team members’ efforts and technical ability.

 

What about the agenda going forward?

We know that some people want to come in and physically see us to discuss their personal tax return. But as a management accountant by qualification I think I can lead my team to demonstrate support – and communicate – online if need be. We can’t discount online communications because we can’t have a trail of people coming into our offices. So we need to make that work.

 

And what about the medium to longer term?

My firm didn’t charge clients for furloughing support, up until June. We’ve then had conversations that begin with: ‘Well, we’ve helped you out for quite a while…’ Clients have realised what a proper relationship is with an accountant. Well, I’m not going to go crazy with pushing remote working, that’s for sure. Our trainees require – and will continue to require – close contact with more experienced team members to learn and grow. That learning osmosis won’t happen with remote working. For example, I saw one small issue that took four hours to deal with over email.

We’re seeing the split now between businesses that are getting back on their feet and looking to push on, and those that are still pushed back and furloughing. There’s still plenty of support required for them over the coming months.

 

 

Nikki Adams, CEO, Ad Valorem

It has been four months since lockdown when we last spoke, and a lot has changed since then. How has your firm and its clients been?

We didn’t furlough anyone. It was a conscious decision that we didn’t want to and we didn’t need to do that. We were in a good position before it happened so there was no compelling financial need to do so. The biggest operational challenge for us was furloughing coming into play – the speed that everything was changing. It was a case of getting to grips with things… The team are used to being the ones that know everything and confident in what they say – but we had no time, so it was stressful. Thankfully we have a big enough team to provide support where required; in this instance, to support payroll.

It really paid off for us, because we used people for different things as it progressed. Our admin team helped with client comms. We charged for furloughing support where they wanted us to do it on their behalf. For us it was beyond basic payroll support.

We’re now back in the office with half the team rotating with the other. There’s also a skeleton staff in all the time and a few people not in at all. We’ve actually recruited six people during lockdown – they were primarily very good accountants and technicians who had found themselves furloughed and weren’t happy about it. They’re experts in tax, R&D and digital.

 

What about the agenda going forward?

 There’s been no noticeable dip in enquiries; in fact, we’ve won some big accounts – where their accountant doesn’t have a digital focus. Some accountants have been hard to get hold of or have even shut down – it is difficult for the smallest practitioners without resource.

Our workplace has become almost like a clubhouse where you come specifically to collaborate or train. Most people want 50/50 between working from home and the office. We’re outcomes-focused so that helps provide flexibility.

 

 

And what about the medium to longer term?

We’d taken on extra office space. There’s an argument about needing it, but we feel it will be our flagship – a central focus that has energy and buzz and where we can exchange ideas. And what about the medium to longer term?

The medium term is not so great though, without face-to-face. It makes training really difficult.

We’ve also placed 130 clients from a previous acquisition onto our systems, so that’s exciting.

We’ve certainly noticed that the value piece has come back. Clients understanding what we can do for them. Some wanted to ease back because things were tough, and they’ve realised how important we are in getting them back on their feet so have changed their mind.

Finally: people. We want more – good ones.

 

 

Brendon Howlett, operations director, Wood and Disney

It has been four months since lockdown, and we’ve previously caught up twice. How has your firm been since we spoke a few weeks ago?

 It’s been much more settled. Businesses are releasing people from furlough, and for others the shutters have been coming down. We’re also seeing business trying to do different things to diversify. We’ve had tax and furloughing – the waters have been a bit muddied there with July payments in terms of how and who we bill, but we expect clients to pay if they can afford it.

From our perspective we still have everyone in at full capacity – and we’re still using the team at AdvanceTrack to undertake tasks for us. We are behind compared to the budget at the start of the year but our heads are above water.

Communication has started to change. We’re moving away from the shock of what happened four months ago and people are going back to work. There had been so much info and assistance – it has been really good for new business and new clients, so we decided to continue a high level of communication as much as possible. We’re still using Zoom, but have to balance that out with getting on with general workload as we had fallen behind.

I personally thought that a lot of our routine work would fall off, but our team have been able to hammer home self-assessment returns. I think that the typical late filers have had time on their hands and got this off their back. It’s also enabled us to have conversation about their general finances.

 

What about the agenda going forward?

Discussions about understanding cashflow and accounts are leading to financing conversations. And then there’s improving ongoing financial reporting. Where there’s uncertainty then we have to help clients plan –
it’s on us as advisers to make that happen.

 

And what about the medium to longer term?

Most of our A-list clients like the regular dialogue… even if they say we’re fine let’s speak soon, checking in on them helps. So…linked to this communication piece, we’re thinking about how we present this pro-active support – supporting the client journey is fine but how we market that is a big thing going forward. And what about the medium to longer term?

Part of that will be reinforcing to clients that
we can communicate with them quickly so they can act quickly. We’ve also got to keep showing our human side in that process to maintain and build trust.

AdvanceTrack’s webinar on value, earlier this year, 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.

In the April, we spoke to practices about their approach to managing clients and their practice in lockdown. We revisited them after two months to find out what happened and how they see the next few months shaping up.

Bruce Burrowes, founder, Kingston Burrowes

How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

I think we basically got it right. A great deal of effort has gone into talking to our clients, maintaining communication, talking about the changes, the funding available and supporting clients. We’ve had two clients cease trading but they voluntarily shut their business down – otherwise everyone else is still on board.

Big changes were made to how our people worked. It has been a bit more settled but now it’s about getting back to work, the ‘new normal’.

We now have three offices rather than four – but that was part of a long-term plan to better manage our operations – and included moving into a new, bigger site in Cheam. The plan was for this to be live just before Easter, which got delayed to the end of May – not because of the build but just because the desk manufacturer closed.

 

What is now on the agenda moving forward?

Well, now it’s about getting clients back into the flow of managing regular compliance tasks such as accounts and tax returns.

Our personal tax team has the self-assessment stuff in hand. On companies, it’s about trying to keep ahead of things; VAT, accounts have to come in. If you delay accounts because the information hasn’t come in, you don’t get that time back. So it is being mindful about letting clients know we’re still here and work needs to be done – it’s a similar message for our own team.

The huge thing, though, is getting people back into the offices. That is the same for us and clients. Where they’ve asked us for legal, human resources and health & safety advice, we have contacts we can refer them to.

Our biggest challenge is getting people back in – they must realise that face-to-face is so important, either for day-to-day tasks or managing clients. I’ve realised that even as government guidance relaxes, there has to be a mindset among people that they want to come back to work… if you don’t get that they won’t come back. Clients will have the same problems. Conversely, some people can’t wait to get back in.

 

 Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

This is normally my planning and budgeting time – so the coronavirus has taken that out a bit. We are involved in helping with funding and have had a few more enquiries on that front – something for me to consider.

From a tech perspective we’re in quite a good position; our investments in IT paid off. The investment allowed staff to be productive at home. We have a good understanding of both the applications we need to run, plus the hardware requirements. It has not been without challenges – such as dealing with ad-hoc IT issues remotely – but we’re on it.

The most immediate client-facing tasks will be around helping sort through and manage their Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) claims.

 

Brendon Howlett, operations director, Wood and Disney

How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

It’s been well beyond the norm. We’ve had to speak to insolvency practitioners and lawyers and be brutally honest with some businesses. It went as good as it could, I guess. We felt as a team that our focus should be purely on client communication: calls, ‘hand-holding’, listening and sometimes just simply being there. We were, in tandem, sifting through the deluge of information from the government and various accounting bodies to understand what options were available. We had daily calls with a good number of our clients, others on a weekly basis.

As practitioners we’ve had to sacrifice our time. I’d justify it as an investment. Clients have been understandably coming to us for help – and we are the people they should come to. It does reach a point where it’s not sustainable as pro-bono; we have to operate as a business, too.

Furloughing helped as there was a lot of work to do and it was more straightforward to bill for while easily demonstrating value.

 

 What is now on the agenda moving forward?

We’ve said to our team that we understand the majority of our clients will be able to continue with a retainer – but that might dry up after that…so use the information we have on them, plus the extra communication, as an opportunity to understand what’s going on. Opportunities will come from helping clients move on and grow. We also know they’ll talk about us to other people – and we’re picking up some other work where their accountant has either let them down, or they haven’t heard from them.

Early on we did our cashflow budgeting and impact on our firm. We have also looked at our clients and undertaken a ‘z-score’ methodology, looking at their balance sheets and grading them. Then it’s the more serious discussions about ‘where your business is now’ and devising strategies to come through this.

Generally, we’d look at it as almost a given that clients we’re working with will want to grow. Some will struggle – it won’t necessarily be ‘the end’ for them but we need to do something about it and do it quickly. This coronavirus has sharpened the focus on tracking survivability.

 

Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

It’s going to be a tough few years. We’re quite a lean team at the moment and our focus will be on looking after existing clients and attracting new ones. Communication will be crucial and will remain at a high level.

We won’t focus solely on compliance services – there has to be more advisory work. We also want to grow our practice, so will need to keep the sales funnel working. We would like to think referrals will keep on coming but you can’t guarantee that or predict.

We have been able to build emotional connections with our clients… now’s the time to strengthen those connections through stepping up our digital marketing.

 

Alastair Barlow, founding partner, flinder

 How have the past two months been since lockdown began? Have things panned out for your firm as predicted?

Uncertainty was at the fore. We had no idea how our clients were going to draw back from us, or react with their employees. We were expanding and had just taken on two new team members, so we on-boarded them during the lockdown. With expansion in mind, the team knew we were unlikely to furlough anyone ourselves; it would be more a case of not hiring anyone else for the time being.

While our use of tech is high, we realised it would be stressful working from home for a prolonged period, so we tried to make it as comfortable and health-focused as possible – such as using a proper work chair rather one in the dining room.

As we’re London-based, we made a decision pre-lockdown to go fully working from home. If team members got ill travelling in and shared it with everyone else, it would have been disastrous. I think the move was pretty much seamless – MacBooks at home and phones as well – internet-enabled comms channels are already fully used. It has, however, been far more prolonged than we hoped for.

As such, some WFH situations can’t really continue – so we’re looking at co-working spaces nearer the teams’ home where possible.

From a mental health and wellbeing perspective we run ‘self reflections’ on a Friday. Our people opening up about what’s on their mind and how they feel. We also hold weekly Pulse surveys with questions, which help us gauge an overall sense of where we’re at.

From a client perspective we ranked them according to a number of metrics, including cash, exposure to sectors or supply chain and so on. We spoke to them all but with an understanding of their overall risk exposure. It took several weeks for things to unfold and understand the general direction they were heading in.

Our pricing model is flexible and based on consumption… if it increases we will increase fees – if things change adversely or are on pause then we’ll strip back where required. Of course, if we’re strategically advising a client on cash management, then we’d say that cutting our fees would be a false economy.

 

What is now on the agenda moving forward?

 Things are mostly settled with loans in place – we’ll see a greater than average fall of businesses in the overall economy due to repayment issues in the medium-term. Many of our clients are equity-backed, and we think there will still be enough investment around.

One thing we’ve seen slow down is the volume of clients changing accountants to come to us. We’ve picked up a couple of big clients but in a period of uncertainty many will keep as many certain things in place as possible.

We’re seeing more businesses unfurlough, and expect that to increase from the middle of June.

I don’t think rushing people back into the office is our thing – in fact, our lease was ending and we decided against its extension. Our people say they want roughly a 50/50 time split between WFH and being in the office. So we may look at leasing where we can take a bigger room if we have everyone in on a Monday, for example. We won’t do a big bang – we don’t need to take the risk.

We are all, however, missing human contact and interaction. While we leverage tech, we really try and send people out to be embedded with clients; whether it’s on their advisory committees or attending board meetings. Such rich, strategic, interactions are difficult to replicate.

 

Are you able to undertake longer-term planning? How do you see the medium term?

In terms of our service solutions, which revolve around client-centric problem solving, one thing that may be on the agenda is more governance and risk management offerings. It has surfaced a little bit more in the eyes of clients – and some of our team can already deliver it.

Generally, this situation has brought to the fore the concept of advice: what clients really value is speaking to accountants rather than receiving a set of accounts.

Some the most popular and well-known advisers and experts have been speaking to AdvanceTrack and accountants about how to lead through the crisis, while reconfiguring your services – and people – in a locked-down world.

 

While physical conferences and get-togethers are currently off limits, that hasn’t stopped AdvanceTrack from running a “mini conference” online via Zoom.

On 28 April, we ran a “Beyond the Pandemic – The Customers Journey”, a 90-minute online seminar, in which experts provided insight about how best to structure your approach to support clients through the crisis, and beyond.

Innovate and communicate

Kicking off the session was AdvanceTrack MD Vipul Sheth. He said that accountants are in a unique position to provide real value to the people they work for – above and beyond a basic and narrow ‘service’.

But they must not rest on their laurels. “The wow of today is the normal of tomorrow,” said Sheth.

Citing the exponential improvements in Amazon’s service provision and constant innovation, he explained that day-to-day consumer experiences influence what people expect from professional services organisations – and they must step up.

“Don’t compare yourself with what other accountants do – consumers and clients are driven by other experiences they have – that represents their expectation,” he said. “So why do you do what you do? You have to deliver value.”

While the coronavirus crisis has proved incredibly disruptive, it has forced accountants and clients to communicate more – albeit via digital online platforms.

“The importance of relationships never goes away,” said Sheth. “And now we see our people increasingly moving up the value chain – with clients and in our business. If you weren’t using Zoom or Teams a month ago, you are now – and these tools are helping you have conversations.”

You might have had two or three client meetings in a day; now you can have ten or 15 – hopefully all incredibly valuable to you and clients, explained Sheth: “Being digital allows you to do that. You’re doing things a lot quicker, communicating more – so take the digital journey.”

Invest in relationships

Karen Reyburn, founder of The Profitable Firm, gave an inspirational talk focusing on the relationship-building you will inevitably be doing at the moment. And that, while billing and charging is a difficult and thorny task at the moment, you are investing in potentially keeping clients for a lifetime.

“Some things have changed in the crisis, some things haven’t,” she said. “Relationships… it’s always important to invest in client relationships.”

Putting yourself ‘out there’ will also engender positive sentiment towards you and your firm from potential clients and other working partners.

“So many of you are already spending time on the things that build relationships – sharing information, blogs, videos… just get it out there! You will get enquiries if you’re doing those things. You are on the front line of saving businesses,” Reyburn added.

Some firms are fearful of giving too much valuable information away in the public domain, via their website or on social media. However, Reyburn’s approach is very simple: “Give information away, charge for implementation.”

If people think that undertaking a task will be exhausting or difficult, they will come to you, whether you’ve given them the basic information or not, she suggested.

“The more you share, the more they’ll want to work with you,” she said. “Use content to build assets. What can I build so that when they have problems, this is the tool they use? This is why video is so powerful: you’re connecting with them faster – the number of accountants who are realising that it doesn’t have to be perfect, but doing so builds relationships faster.”

Efficiency and trust

As founder of presentation training business Speaking Ambition, and MD of Blue Arrow Accounting, Alexandra Bond Burnett is well placed o talk about how you build trust with existing and potential clients.

“How do you give someone the green flag that you’re the best person to choose to help them?” asked Bond Burnett.

Breaking down the elements that are required to create trust was a key part of bond Bond Burnett’s presentation.

The trust equation is: credibility; reliability; and intimacy.

  • Credibility – “Demonstrating your experience, be that talking about things you know and understand, having conversations with people and presenting your qualifications.”
  • Reliability – “This is about ‘showing up’. Doing what you said you were going to do. To be there so your clients don’t need to worry.”
  • Intimacy – “You can be credible and reliable, but you have to build that level of rapport. People make logical decisions but with a dollop of emotion. How do you make someone feel? Safe, challenged, that they can do anything?”

Bond Burnett pulls this together by discussing ‘self orientation’. “It is a funny phrase – but essentially we’re considering who do you think about when you’re communicating?” she said. “It’s more than likely that it’s ‘what will someone think of me?’ Don’t focus on yourself – turn it around and think about the client.

“How can they be helped right now, and then next week and then the week after that… then start communicating that to them. The hero is the client; make them the centre of the story.”

Service clarity

“How do things get done?” asks Trent McLaren, global head of accounting and sales at Practice Ignition. Accountants need to be clear about understanding the work entailed both internally for your practice, and what you do for your clients.

For McLaren, this ultimately means you are looking for a balance between the work your people undertake, the technology used as a tool and the processes put in place to make the work flow.

“When the customer and employee experiences work well, then you as a practice gain a competitive advantage,” he said.

“It means you’re completing work faster, with fewer resources, improving quality and hopefully improving customer satisfaction.”

Another key task is to ‘map’ the customer journey. Do you understand the path a client takes, and the touchpoints they have with you, as you work together? From them becoming a lead/prospect to becoming your client and beyond, think about how you communicate with them and the services you provide.

By doing this you create a ‘blueprint’. McLaren referenced an article by the Nielsen Norman Group on this very topic, which can be found here.

 

 

 

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.