InsideOutsourcing examines some of the new models of practice that are developing – and how tech facilitates this change. Kevin Reed looks at those that have launched from the ground-up, and provides food for thought for traditional practices that are reticent about evolving their offering.
General practices run by Baby Boomers cannot continue as they have done. For starters, the sands of time continue to pass unhindered. Second, the world in which a practice’s accounting services are provided moves at a seemingly faster pace than the grains themselves. But before we hurtle headlong into the future, it is important to remember that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In reality, the types of service that clients want from their accountants – while varied – is not dramatically or radically different from what they would have required 20 or 40 years ago.
“There will always be people who want to have basic tax returns done and dusted,” explains ACCA head of advisory Glenn Collins. And existing, successful, practices have always offered a form of value-added business advisory service. These are the types of deeper business advice oft-referenced as what practices should aspire towards, moving beyond just compliance. Perhaps what has changed is the sheer reliance on accountants by the small business and owner-managed business communities. The erosion of the bank network and disappearance of the ‘manager’, along with dissipated trust in financial services post-2008, has seen the pendulum swing very much in favour of accounting professionals for broader advice. Numerous surveys around the globe point to accountants as the most trusted adviser, usually scoring way ahead of banks, financial planners and lawyers.
What are the options then, for practices?
We have seen much growth in the accounting franchise. TaxAssist is billing £37m in UK fee income, with more than 200 sites in the UK. Its blue and yellow livery is clear to see on high streets and other locations up and down the country.
There is Cheapaccounting, founded by Elaine Clark. This franchise is driven not from the high street but as an online service, and a very clear pricing structure. Franchisees are taken on via a flexible working arrangement and there is “little in the way of formalities”, states the website.
Then there are the volume providers. A great example of this model is Mazuma. Based in Bridgend, Cardiff, Sophie Hughes and Lucy Cohen launched the business in 2007, defying the economic downturn to build a highly market-friendly bookkeeping and tax return business. Its distinctive ‘purple envelope’ service sees clients post receipts and paperwork monthly.
Finally, you have Crunch, an online accounting provider that does more. Crunch enables clients to take up insurance and investment products as well – all through its website. You can even choose a mortgage. But who else has pushed into the online accounting arena? That’s right, the biggest accounting firms. Deloitte’s Propel offers start-ups and small businesses a bookkeeping, accounting and tax service. An expert at Propel will also send clients monthly management reports – all at a pre-agreed fixed fee. A live dashboard taking data from feeds illustrates the business’ performance in real-time. While a ‘separate’ business to that of Deloitte, there is of course the option to refer across where clients require services outside of the online offering.
There are even variations on the online accounting theme among the big firms themselves – and not all have worked out. For example, Grant Thornton’s Geniac proposition was effectively an ‘office-as-a-service’. This included payroll, company secretarial and legal – driven via the cloud. However, the firm’s multi-million pound investment hasn’t worked out, and clients will need to find a new provider by April. Geniac’s failure illustrates that change and disruption means risk – new offerings will not necessarily succeed, even among the biggest operators. Ultimately, cloud-driven accounting and tax services – along with increasing options to use direct bank feeds from clients – creates an opportunity to automate.
This automation of processing then enables information to be shared between accountant and client more often and more accurately. This is why the term ‘virtual CFO’ is now bandied around the practice community. Practitioners can free themselves from slogging through compliance work, and instead provide strategic and deeper advice to their clients.
And while accountants have always worked with other service providers to help clients, it is clear from Crunch, Propel and even Geniac that online offerings can broaden that scope.
“Good practices have always offered that ‘FD function’ but often on a relatively small scale, as you can only deal with a limited number of clients. But as data becomes more digital it means you can offer it to more clients,” adds Collins. This is the direction of travel for Richard Sykes, founder of CloudCFO. A KPMG-trained accountant with finance function experience, he is looking for technology to manage the finance back office for his clients – and then he wants to focus his time and efforts on advising them.
“I want to be in the passenger seat next to them,” he says. “I want more contact time and a deeper relationship.” With a truly outsourced finance function, the tech deals with receipts and bookkeeping, not Richard or the client. Finance functions are normally costed at 1.5% of a business’ revenues. Sykes will charge clients 2% – the difference being the price for strategic and business development consultancy.
“If I can add that value through improving cost of sales or adding to sales, then that percentage model seems very clear for clients. Some cloud-based pricing tools offer so many options and combinations it can be confusing,” he adds.
By sharing information with a client beforehand, it means that meetings with them become more focused and productive. They become about outcomes rather than just presenting figures. “Most productive meetings are when everyone’s familiar with the numbers and then meet up to come up with a direction and action-points,” says Sykes.
The option for Sykes and others to provide a broader range of services will naturally become a temptation – as clients lean on their adviser for the full suite of back-office support. For ACCA’s Collins, this is a natural path and one already trod in the corporate world.
“If you look at the general CFO role, it already encompasses strategic, finance, HR, IT and cybersecurity,” says Collins. “The CFO doesn’t have to be an expert in all of them. For practices they can identify where the opportunities are and use other experts to deliver.” Cloud technology may be, as Sykes puts it, “a gift from the gods”, but choosing technology stacks and platforms is fiendishly confusing and time-draining for practices – so planning is essential.
Sykes admits he has spent “an inordinate amount of time” studying the tech options open to him. “There are pros and cons to all the choices, and the tech features move very quickly as well,” he says.