What has technology-driven change meant for practitioners at the coalface? We get the detail from four accountants about how their role has evolved as part of creating a fit-for-purpose and modern practice.


Stephen Smallwood is managing director of Herefordshire-based practice Thorne Widgery.

What’s your current role?

As managing director, I try and run the business ‘as a business’. For the running of the business, the fact that I’m an accountant is almost incidental. I do much less client work than I used to.

I’ve always enjoyed tech work more than compliance. I get a great deal of satisfaction from making IT systems work and delivering value, rather than filling in a statutory report.

We’ve been actively involved in moving from a traditional practice to one of the leading proponents of IT systems – not hardware and cables, but systems for how you run your business. We were awarded Small Firms Innovator of the Year at the British Accountancy Awards last year.

How has your role developed, and why?

In the past five to ten years, I’ve moved from being a typical, though progressive, accountant serving clients, to being a director of a business that operates in the professional services sector.

We’re using Xero and its practice management module (XPM) and have converted to the cloud. We love it for our clients, but to my astonishment we’ve also ended up helping other accounting practices get the best out of modern and accessible software by helping them evolve their own back office. Altogether it has completely revolutionised how we go about things.

What has that meant for the running of the practice? Is it part of a broader strategic change?

I’d say that supporting other practices is now 15% of our business, which has developed from ‘Xero’ over the last three years. No accountant is normally allowed to get close and personal with other firms of accountants, but we do because of our knowledge of XPM. The result of that is we get to see some really interesting, good examples of practices, and we learn as well.

Our screens are full of pictures and graphs that allow us to analyse up-to-date information and find trends.

Do you prefer what you’re doing now?

It’s so exciting and so much more fun. Hereford is a small pond for us to fish so it has got us out and about and we’ve become a national practice.


Nathan Lewis is a client relationship manager at Bristol-based d&t Chartered Accountants.

What’s your current role?

As tax senior within the practice, I look at tax compliance and returns – along with some advisory work as well. I help junior members of staff, alongside dealing with HMRC enquiries – my background as someone who worked for the Inland Revenue and then during its merger to become HM Revenue & Customs helps.

How has your role developed, and why?

I see it as an evolution of tasks. The first online tax returns filed at the Revenue were printed off and then manually entered. And then, as I went into practice, tax software meant that boxes of clients’ receipts were no longer required.

Tech has also changed us from being a local company to an international one, where we can communicate over Skype. With Xero and QuickBooks you can even ‘take over’ a client’s desktop to show them how to use the software.

These tech platforms allow us to have much quicker access to client information. This allows us to review it more quickly, and plan for the future, rather than view information retrospectively.

What has it meant for the running of the practice and client service?

The tech enables one-man-band-style accountants to do more; so we have to use information and increase our value to clients – show them the extra things we can do.

The tax landscape is going to continue to change – HMRC wants to reduce the number of returns it receives – so we will look to offer more advisory-focused services and tax planning rather than looking backwards.

Up-to-date information is going to become even more important. Look at IHT for example, having the ability to see a client’s position and plan things such as gifts out of income for the years ahead.


Andrew Perrettis cloud accounting manager at TC Group (formerly Taylorcocks).

What’s your current role?

It covers lots of different things: the main role is to review cloud software and help staff and clients use technology. For clients, I help them with the scoping process to best choose tech solutions, then onto implementation and training.

As there’s only one of me, I’m also training team members so they can offer basic advice around accountancy software and add-ons.

How has your role developed, and why?

The role began officially in January 2018. I’ve been at TC for more than 11 years, qualifying as an accountant and then working with another manager to support a partner with their portfolio of clients.

I was looking after fewer clients than the other manager but my clients required more work: bookkeeping, monthly accounts, management reports. And then we looked at a way of managing my clients more effectively. Between the partner and myself we developed a process to get clients onto Xero using automated invoice capture, through to bookkeeping and reporting. With every client on the same process it made the whole thing much smoother.

Once we had 30 clients onboard, we looked to take it out across our other offices. I became more internally focused during 2017 as this process went on – and so I transitioned over my clients to other staff towards the end of that year.

What has it meant for the running of the practice and client service?

All bookkeeping across offices is done on Xero – we had shied away from the service because it wasn’t profitable. Now we actively go to win that and their whole process.

We do very much report back to clients – adding value through meeting people and discussing their up-to-date information.

Do you prefer what you’re doing now?

It’s exciting: working with staff and seeing our offices; working with clients on projects that provide value to them, teaching them about tech they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.

My work is less accountancy-focused now, but clearly I retain the fundamentals. I do lots of CPD-accredited training related to my role – so it’s not a problem keeping that up.


David Rudd is senior client manager and business growth accountant at Colchester-based Wood and Disney, an AdvanceTrack client.

What’s your current role?

If a client has any issue I’m there to help them deal with it. Sometimes that can be historic compliance issues, but more recently it’s about ‘where they want to go’, ‘what will be the impact of me doing A, B or C’.

I’ll try and get to the heart of it – to understand what they really want to do; often their direction is not tax-related at all.

How has your role developed?

I’ve been here three years. At first it was similar to what I’d done before: accounts; corporate tax; and returns. Now everything’s in the cloud and in one place it becomes much easier to project forward for our clients – this leads to project work that isn’t about just compliance.

One client had 50% of turnover tied up in debtors – we then became their back office so they could focus on the business. Now they’ve progressed and have their own bookkeeper, and we have moved onto strategic analysis at board level – they have a bigger team and the next set of issues to deal with, but their financial performance has skyrocketed.

I now look at tech and see if it can break… then, if it works, how can we evolve it to make it even better for us? We’ve looked at every process, every single thing we do – can we do it better, find a way to evolve it, or speed it up to get a better result for the client?

What has that meant for the running of the practice?

It means we’re more goals-focused, which leads us to ask clients where they want to get to.

Using AdvanceTrack to take on accounts preparation and bookkeeping has freed us up to do other things.

While this created the opportunity for us to do different things, we then had to structure the team to work suited to them. We created an organisational structure to work out where we needed to head. Then we underwent DISC profiling to understand what people liked and what they should be doing.

If clients need specialist advice we now have strategic alliances in place… nearly every decision they make, they ask us first.

If we solve those problems then the tech will never replace that, because it’s about trust and helping people, that’s how we look at it. Tech’s not enough to solve the complex problems people face.

Have you had to learn new things?

It’s certainly taught me how to better speak to clients, and then I flipped it [onto managing director Peter Disney and operations director Brendon Howlett] and did it to them…

I’d never had or taken a board meeting or ‘taken charge’ of things – so that’s been transformative for me. That’s all from Brendon and Peter pushing me. I’ve also had some soft skills training, which was massively important – to better understand people.

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

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

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

Tech

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vipul’s view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Understand your motivations

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

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

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

Step 2: Undertake due diligence

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

Undertaking a period of due diligence is therefore highly recommended. 

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

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

Step 3: Be patient & address concerns

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

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

In summary

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

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