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.

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.

 

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.

New European data rules may seem abstract and scary to the accounting world, so Kevin Reed has spoken to two practitioners about the work their firms have been through to get to grips with GDPR

From processors to controllers, through to the right to be forgotten and data portability, the new European rules for data protection under the acronym GDPR seem more akin to a science-fiction plot than compliance.

But it is very real, and very close. From 25 May, the new rules set out to create a world in which personal data is much more rigorously controlled, protected and understood. For accounting practitioners, who handle and process reams of personal information for and on behalf of clients, it may feel more like another layer of red tape that gets in the way of performing their role.

We have spoken to two accountants about the work their practices have undertaken to get to grips with GDPR, and the upshot and ramifications of their efforts.

Donagh Waters is a partner at Dublin-based McInerney Saunders. The six-partner practice provides a range of services to clients beyond accounting audit and tax, including forensic investigation and wealth management.

What approach did your practice take to ‘dealing with’ GDPR?

The first time we became aware of it was last summer. We formed a steering committee of two partners to begin the process. We’ve always been taxed about how we manage data protection – we were conscious that in the past the way to trip up was over client money… now it’s client data. After forming the committee, the next thing was to educate ourselves. We attended lots of events. The tone set at the top is important – which is why we’ve had two partners on it. It would be easy to delegate, but we preferred partners to cascade it down the organisation.

What actions did you deem as required, and how did you then manage the project?

We were trying to understand how it applies to us. For example, in the past we’ve outsourced outside of the firm so were conscious about covering that in our engagement letters. And having that in our engagement letter we had contractual obligations in place with the outsourcer as well… The Irish Data Protection Act makes us conscious of the importance of confidentiality. With nothing in place GDPR would feel like scaling Mount Everest. I put together a ‘personal data map’. This was to look at the flow of personal data into the organisation and out – it was an interesting exercise.

Within our business it’s secure – but we found it’s more about how it comes in – do we have consent to process it? And then when it leaves to an external party such as a specialist tax expert, it’s then a question of how it is accessed. It’s important to close down any weak points around data flow; for example, a client engages you to do their payroll. But the real issue is not ‘corporate’, it’s personal data of employees and your client. So, are their employees aware their data has left their employer? We’re the data processor, not the controller. So there’s a [responsibility] on them as data controller.

What stage are you at?

From 25 May you can’t access our data apart from using an authorised device. No data will be held on the laptops, so when you use it you’re logging in through our secure portal. Data can’t be taken from it unless you had passwords to access the portal. If a laptop is stolen, we’re pretty sure there’s no data on it. Then you need to consider paper files: now our policy is they can’t be left anywhere unsecure – if taken outside the office they must be brought back that day. We’re not at the end of the journey yet.

One of the things to do is around policies and procedures and making sure they’re completely updated. Apart from that, it’s make sure agreements with staff and checklists go to all suppliers, we update contracts of employment and then finally, staff awareness and education – why we do what we do – so they can appreciate why we do it.

Did you consider the project as ‘just compliance’, or have you been able to leverage your efforts to become a better-organised practice?

It has forced us to think carefully about security and data security – it’s been a very interesting exercise. This project has touched on law, data protection and IT, and I wouldn’t hold myself to be an expert on it all! It will be difficult at the start, but [the new way of working] will become the norm. Have you used the experience to advise clients on GDPR?

Have you had requests for advice on the topic?

We feel we’re covered, but we need to [particularly] help [payroll] clients. Some clients have been proactive and sent us checklists asking us to confirm what we do. We’re updating our engagement letters, but I wonder if some clients are not actually reading it. We’ll start reminding clients of their responsibilities under GDPR to get consent.


Nick Millard is senior manager at Accounting4Everything, a small practice based in Paignton, Devon. The practice is led by James Twigger, who won Practitioner of the Year at the British Accountancy Awards 2015.

What approach did your practice take to ‘dealing with’ GDPR?

We downloaded the Information Commissioner’s Office guide to GDPR, and then we accessed the full official regulations. We did this for two reasons – so we’ve got a full copy at hand and to have both full regulations; the UK’s version includes notes and ideas. We went on a training day to provide us some more clarity and information. We got what we needed… and they’re now a client! We have seen some differences on GDPR interpretation [in our studies].

What actions did you deem as required, and how did you then manage the project?

Our first part is completed. We’ve looked at all our software and checked their data policies and privacy policies, against GDPR. Most software companies have GDPR policies in place, or are going through that process. We’re changing some software over because it wasn’t GDPR compliant. For example, we’ve gone with data portal technology that’s UK-based and compliant – it’s all encrypted. We would have done it later down the line and had been looking at it, but GDPR pushed forward the need to do it.

One of the big things has been going through systems, processes and looking at how we hold data and how we contact clients. There are ways of improving what we do using GDPR as the leverage. For example, we don’t want clients to ring us with wage receipts information – it’s difficult to take a record of the call, and it could be anyone ringing up. We’re very aware that it’s easy to hand out and discuss client information over the phone but not very safe to do that. So all [client/employee dialogue] will come through the portal, which will be up and running by the end of April.

What stage are you at?

We have a very detailed three-page data storage policy, which has all our software listed on there; what data we hold on them, the reasons behind the software; their compliance literature (with weblinks to their policy), and then how long we hold the data for. That was the first stage. I’ve also run a half-day training session for all staff.

Did you consider the project as ‘just compliance’, or have you been able to leverage your efforts to become a better-organised practice?

We’ll definitely, 100%, be a better-organised practice because of it. I don’t see it as us being bogged down – there are so many products out there to make yourself efficient. The extra bit of thought and admin [from GDPR] will be offset by providing a better service, and we can help our clients better because we have their information in one place, and know when work’s being done. Our staff can see where we are on a job or client because it’s more structured. The bits ‘in between’ such as handwritten notes and calls that haven’t been tracked – that will now be in our systems and portal. It will be a pain at the start – more work – but once we get past that there’s savings and efficiencies to be made, and a better practice for employees and clients.