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

 

 

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

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

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

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

What your clients want from you

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creating a firm of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leading in a new direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AdvanceTrack 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.

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.

 

Paul Barnes is the managing director of My Accountancy Place, which provides accounting and finance services to digital agencies. The practice, which operates with two directors and 15 staff, uses AdvanceTrack® to free up its team to provide deeper and more valuable services to clients. He explains the practice’s strategy, and development beyond compliance work.

Paul, tell us about your practice

We are a niche firm based in Manchester. We only service one industry: digital agencies providing marketing, creative and digital services, predominantly in the North West. We turn away those that don’t fit that. Our practice works using Xero technology.We have moved from being a ‘good, proactive firm of accountants’ to a full finance outsourced function. Rather than clients building their own finance team, we provide the full finance function. This encompasses strategy, financial control, making sure their systems run smoothly, and bookkeeping. My team works across clients (from our office), but spend a lot of their time with those clients in their offices.We can do just compliance, but we can do the whole lot. We bring industry expertise and systems expertise to the table as well.

When did you start using AdvanceTrack®, and why?

We started My Accountancy Place in 2014, and began using AdvanceTrack® in mid-2015. For the compliance function and historical accounting services that we provide, these are becoming more and more commoditised. It was an opportunity for us – we have real skills to grow and improve our clients’ businesses but were restricted by the amount of compliance and bookkeeping work.So, we streamlined that offering and outsourced, allowing our team to spend more time on the more rewarding and challenging work that truly makes a difference to our client’s businesses. For the value provided by AdvanceTrack® in terms of cost and service level, it was a complete no-brainer. It has removed the headache of managing that service, and we can use highly-qualified accountants from the start with our clients.

What impact has AdvanceTrack® had on the running of your practice?

Everyone in the practice has moved up a gear or two in terms of what they can give clients. When you sign up new customers, the on-boarding process can be challenging and you’re under pressure to provide value straight away. Now we can map out clients’ processes straight away – then that becomes an ongoing task run through AdvanceTrack® and it just repeats.We then get on with our job of advising clients. Anything non-client-facing goes to AdvanceTrack®; some of that is complex work but AdvanceTrack® can do it. Straight away we can start improving the clients’ business.

What is the future for your practice? What are you looking to achieve, and how?

There is still a lot of confusion in the accountancy market around what ‘advisory’ is all about. For us it’s about simplifying the journey the business goes on. We want to illustrate that journey through our own IP, delivered through workbooks, guides and workshops… moving the client away from the office and allowing them to focus on strategy and growth and to help them short-cut the mistakes and bad investments. We’re seeing small businesses now starting to expect what big businesses expect from their professional advisers, and they have every right to. Speak to AdvanceTrack® about helping you create a modern and pro table practice. Call us on +44(0)24 7601 6308 or email advice@advancetrack.com.

With accounting technology developing apace, it is only a matter of time before robots are employed to take care of the more process-led tasks. It’s vital rms protect themselves by evolving their service.

“We’ll need fewer people to do the mundane work,” PwC’s far-sighted head of regulatory affairs, Gilly Lord, told readers of ICAS’ CA magazine last month. This isn’t some huge downturn in the global audit market. Traditional number crunching is going out of fashion… well, at least with humans undertaking the work, anyway.

Lord was referring to the development of digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence to take on audit’s grunt work. These tools are interrogating the data; interpreting is still a job for humans.

But what does this mean for the vast of swathes of practices that sit below the rarefied atmosphere of the Big Four? Will this service revolution impact you?

The short answer is yes. And it’s already happening.

“If we talk about the practice of 2025, it doesn’t seem that far away. But if you look back the same distance to 2009, you can see how quickly the power of technology develops,” says Richard Anning, head of the ICAEW’s IT Faculty.

While the inevitable trimming back and delay of Making Tax Digital has bought practices some breathing space to consider how they will operate with clients in the new reporting regime, many have begun transitioning to a different way of working – one that digitises and automates ‘low maintenance’ clients or straightforward services.

“MTD will be up and running in 2025, and government will be more digital,” says Anning. “That means many more people using accounting software.”

There is nervousness in the market, concerns that the online software houses will replace the practices altogether. However, Anning believes digital government means “more clients will be looking for assistance, in terms of using the software and with tax advice”.

Firms that don’t see the change coming “could struggle” as automation provides opportunities for other practices, and some new ones, to take a more digital and process-led approach, Anning suggests.

“Lifestyle firms will just carry on, but MTD might be an opportunity to think about what they do,” he says.

There appears a consensus that automation of basic accounts and tax production will lead to commoditisation – although what that means for your practice will come down to your imagination, or optimism.

For example, Carl Reader, a director at Swindon-based practice d&t, believes that sooner than we think, the whole process of accounting will be automated – with communication undertaken by ‘chat-bots’. Intelligent systems will be able to gauge behavioural change in the affairs of a corporate or individual with real-time information. The upshot of the decisions the system makes will be relayed to the client.

“Machines can follow a present formula of how to answer questions. When it becomes scary is when that really kicks in… we will programme a chat-bot to answer questions, it will then pick up our language, and pick up trends before humans will,” suggests Reader.

“Self-driving cars will be the tipping point. Once a ‘robot’ can handle all those complex options, then that’s the point where every single job is open for review.”

Vipul’s view

“I agree that automation is going to play a big part in revolutionising the way practices and their people provides services and operate.

For our team members, I see them moving up the food chain in terms of the work they do – it will be higher level and earlier in their career than it is now. This will also be the case in our client rms.

There is a sea-change among the most progressive firms, of how their people work – whether internally-focused or facing clients. We see firms viewing businesses like AdvanceTrack® as strategic partners helping deliver compliance work.

I think there will be fewer local staff, but delivering more per head, and, as Paul Barnes says, providing a range of services.

Firms will no longer be historic-looking – they will play a part in clients’ financial and operational performance from start to finish with the aid of cloud technology.”

But by 2025? Paul Barnes, managing director of Manchester practice My Accountancy Place, isn’t seemingly concerned about self-driving cars, and thinks you should take note of the bigger practices – who are using cloud-based technology to access client data in real-time. More worryingly, for the high street accountant, he sees them scaling the systems to provide services to smaller clients.

“If you don’t step up now, clients will look at bigger firms,” he warns. “But it’s exciting as well. Clients are expecting you to influence their business. They’re challenging whether we’re helping them grow.”

Clients want to see that ‘dashboard’, he believes: “They want to know how to grow profit. Is it through increasing prices? Can we be more efficient? Can we reduce overhead?”

The more we’re made ‘redundant’ from process-led tasks, the more we can operate at the level accountants have been trained and educated, says Barnes. Clients will still need compliance in 2025, but you will need to provide more to keep them. “Become their core finance function, deliver an ‘FD service’,” he adds.

He concurs with Reader in that systems will be “intelligent and highly automated”, but he still sees a place for that human interaction – over the next eight years at least.

“As great as automation is, you need that relationship or person to provide client care,” says Barnes. “Even automated systems require attention – things like bookkeeping – and I’m sure it still will in eight years. Clients will always – and should always – value a professional to oversee and on strategy. If it’s all under one roof, that’s where you’ll win.

“The more automation, the more the client will get value from their spend on an accountant.”

For Phil Shohet, a long-serving adviser in the practice arena and a senior consultant with Foulger Underwood, there are implications for the number of practices and staffing levels due to automation and digital services.

“There will be fewer firms, and they will have fewer staff,” he says. A move in the market towards specialisation of either service or sector will be driven by clients who will – as Barnes says – expect a better and more valuable service. This will lead to consolidation in the accountancy marketplace.

Automation will also lead to a different staffing mix – where fewer people will be needed to head up the processing and account handling, while partners develop business and provide higher-value consultancy.

The danger with this is, as has been seen in corporate finance functions, that removing layers of teams makes it difficult to build skills and loyalty. “You might remove the breeding ground for succession,” Shohet warns.

Despite the concerns of robots using algorithms and computational skills to provide a better service than accountants, and the potential to damage succession planning, you are certainly needed now.

“Micro-businesses don’t need advice,” concludes Reader. “But for the 1.1 million businesses that have employees, the accountants’ role will become more valuable over the next ten years. But there will be a tipping point where the machines will be good enough on their own.”

AdvanceTrack client Wood and Disney is a two- director practice based in Colchester, Essex. The practice badges itself as ‘real-time accountants’, using cloud accounting technology to access client data in real-time – so it can provide proactive and timely advice. We spoke to operations director Brendon Howlett about how AdvanceTrack® has helped his practice develop.

Brendon, tell us about your practice

Peter Disney and I set the practice up in July 2013, and we head up a team of eight. We’ve been paperless for years – we love innovation – and won Most Innovative Practice (2-4 partner firm) in 2020’s Innovation Awards two years ago. We took the decision six months ago to focus solely on the cloud.

We use various cloud accounting packages, having taken the view that clients with paper bags of receipts, spreadsheets, hybrids are not the sort of clients we want. This is especially the case particularly when you consider Making Tax Digital, with four times a year reporting. Any client we take on, we say: “You have to be in the cloud.” We facilitate – all staff are Xero and QuickBooks certified advisers. There are training sessions for clients if needed, or we take on the bookkeeping as well, which is where AdvanceTrack® fits in.

When did you start using AdvanceTrack®, and why?

We’d seen [AdvanceTrack® founder] Vipul, had a good chat, then decided to use it as resource that will free up capacity. We commenced in June 2016. At the time, we couldn’t afford to give the client a competitive service to do the bookkeeping – we’d found a couple of bookkeepers locally, but they also reached capacity.

Our practice first outsourced accounts prep to AdvanceTrack®. It was a flexible arrangement at the start, but we loved it. We took it a step further with the bookkeeping.

What impact has AdvanceTrack® had on the running of your practice?

We had one client in London who was always last-minute on VAT returns, accounts ling, tax. We said: “This can’t go on.” They wanted to find someone to do the bookkeeping – we said that approach would cost them a lot and be an unknown quantity. They became our first client through AdvanceTrack®. We now have a weekly fee with the client, and we’re all happy.

That job, for example, runs itself. It frees up so much of our time from mundane historical data and getting it right – we’re now on top of it on a weekly basis.

Another example: a bank we speak to had a client that wanted a loan, but their accountant hadn’t sorted out their previous year-end data. We showed the bank examples of how we can keep up-to-date records, and now they’re our best friends.

What is the future for your practice? What are you looking to achieve, and how?

When the noise got louder on MTD, we took the view to write to all clients and say: “This is going to happen, how will you cope?” Part of the solution is to use cloud accounting and if we can get the data right at the basic level – we’re working with AdvanceTrack® to get that right – numbers can then be analysed. From good analysis, the client and us can make better decisions. This should lead to better results, giving our clients better businesses and all of us a better life.