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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on the process

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ask the right questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learn from each other

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

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

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

 

Be adaptable

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

tech, Xerocon, outsourcing

In September, we were at Xerocon Brisbane. Whilst we were there, we had the opportunity to catch up with our Australian clients, see some new faces and get the latest updates in tech. 

The biggest move we noticed in Australia is the increasing move into SMSF and bookkeeping for clients by accounting firms.  Clients want a holistic service from their trusted friend – their accountant!

Often the two go hand in hand and firms are increasingly asking us to manage the SMSF record keeping for the individual fund, but more importantly, the business owner wants the accountant to look after the business’ financial records.  This trend, which started a while back is turning into a flood, with businesses recognising that their energies are best spent in driving their business forward. 

Their accountant is now better able to help clients with Cashflow management using tools like Float, Fluidly, Fathom and Futrli for example. They can do this, because they are responsible for the regular production of management accountants, all enabled through technology. This was a very important growth area. 

In 2018 we wrote about the top three issues facing Australian firms

Talking with professionals this year in Brisbane we found that outsourcing is becoming more of an accepted way to deliver work. Some firms also wanted to hear about our dedicated offshore resource. 

But most successful firms among them have truly embraced the fact that their role has changed. 

They’re outsourcing as default, from compliance through to reporting, so that they can have a consistently proactive rather than reactive relationship with their clients. 

What moved them to make this decision?

1. They realised they’re not in the business of accounting

 

What?

A confusing statement for an audience of accountants. 

Our friends at GoProposal wrote a really great blog titled ‘You’re no longer in the Accounting business’.

It’s just as true in Australia as it is in the UK, perhaps even more so. 

When we meet accountants we often find ourselves asking them – what is it that your clients want? Yes, they want to save tax. Yes, they want to know that their affairs are sorted. But what do they really want? What are their goals for the growth of their business, for their family, for their future. 

The successful firms are now in the bigger-picture business. They’re having conversations with their clients about the things that really matter. 

There’s a growing demand for wealth management advice

One of those bigger picture conversations that’s in demand more and more in Australia is wealth management. There’s an increasing need for advice in personal and business wealth strategy, pensions and retirement, and many accountancy firms are filling the gap by moving into wealth advisory services.

As more individuals manage their own pensions with a self-managed superannuation fund (SMSF), the work involved is also rapidly growing for those accountants who have moved into the wealth space. This means two things:

  • The firm will be pushed to deliver more compliance work
  • The firm owner needs to free up more time firm-wide to have bigger conversations with clients and offer more value

As these two things happen in tandem, it means more training, stronger systems and consistent processes. This is where the need for outsourcing has become more than just offloading compliance work. At AdvanceTrack, our goal is to help you create the business structure to have the very best conversations with your clients. 

2. They understood they need to create the right environment for today’s staff

 

We partner with firms in the UK and AUS/NZ and we’re seeing that the same issues arise when it comes to staff retention. Once qualified, if not pushed to their potential, staff are leaving smaller practices for the big accountancy firms or migrating to tech companies. 

Australia is further along than the UK in digital development, and the tech space is an attractive option for graduates who are now learning to add value at an earlier stage in their career. 

At the same time, we’re seeing desktop software being discontinued. BGL, Australia’s leading SMSF admin software, has retired its desktop product in December. 

It’s adapt or be overtaken when it comes to transitioning to new technologies and giving clients real-time information. Business owners can access their finances at the click of a button now, meaning that roles have changed whether we like it or not. Cloud integration specialist, Chief Data Officer, Virtual FD – These are the next generation of job titles.

Your staff already don’t want to be stuck delivering low-level work now, and they won’t want to be stuck delivering low-level work in the future. And remember, it’s not why you became an accountant either! 

The firms who are seeing real growth realised early on that their people are working at the wrong level, and they’re outsourcing their core services to make room for more skilled, challenged and satisfied staff. 

Ask yourself these two questions

If you’re stuck in a compliance cycle right now, and you can’t see a way out of the hamster wheel, first ask yourself:

  • What do my clients really want?
  • What do my staff really want?

Then take a look at how you can go about joining the global community of firms on this outsourcing journey, and realise your new potential as an evolved accountant. 

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.