This month’s guest contributor, Christine Nicholson, award-winning Professional Business Mentor, author and speaker provides an in-depth look at the important questions all accountants should be asking.
10 Important Questions All Accountants Should Be Asking
One thing I consistently hear from accountants is “How can I help my clients more?” It’s often the polite question that otherwise translates into “How can I earn more fees?” I frequently see practices trying to get more customers. And working hard to get new business. That’s hard work. It’s also expensive – time, money, effort. What if you could get higher fees from your existing clients? In less time, almost no money and only a little effort? Sound good?
The challenge is being heard and, more importantly, understood. Most people do not have the level of knowledge that accountants do. And this is a real problem because it means you are not having meaningful conversations with your clients. They do not understand how you can help them, which means everyone is missing out.
My own clients often bemoan that their accountant doesn’t understand their business and they don’t understand what their accountant. No one is going to ask for help from someone who makes them feel stupid or confused. If you confuse the client, you lose (and they lose out too). Here’s a first step to winning and developing a better relationship with your existing clients.
For many of the 5.4m UK business owners who cannot get their heads around their company finance, the challenge is finding the time to learn. It is one of the most crucial elements of running a successful business, no matter what size or shape. Especially if they are involved in the day to day running of the organisation too. Every day there are the distractions, firefighting problems and keeping the operations going. It’s easier to stay in the comfort zone of what you know. I wrote my first book “5-Minute Finance – A Business Owners Guide to Understanding Your Numbers” for a single client to help him get to grips with his numbers AND have a better relationship with his accountant.
Key elements the book focuses on is being time–friendly and accessible to people who do not have the background in accountancy training or an MBA. It translates the language of finance and takes clients through some of the basic elements of business accounting, explaining what the words mean and how to use them – from profit margins to cash flow and how to understand financial reports. It gives my client more confidence with their understanding of their business numbers. And it works – my client tripled his turnover in 3 years, focused on margin rather than revenue and mastered cashflow management.
He also has a new accountant who he can have meaningful conversations with about all aspects of his business.
The main gain is he has a depth of understanding of his numbers and data, enabling him to make more effective and timely decisions.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Many accountants, no matter what size their practice, miss out on the opportunity to engage with clients in value added services rather than just compliance requirements. The big barrier is usually something referred to as “the curse of knowledge”. As an expert in your field, you score 10/10 – your clients operate at 0/10 up to about 4 or 5/10. Bringing yourself to the appropriate level is hard – but the most successful accountants do this without appearing condescending or patronising.
The first step is finding out just where on the knowledge scale your client is. How do you know if you don’t ask them? And isn’t that a great conversation opener?
“How much to do you understand the numbers in your business?”
It doesn’t matter what the answer is, you can help them from wherever they are to get a better understanding. When I talk to my clients, I always ask about. their accountant using the following checklist. How well would your practice score on this?
9 More Questions Accountant Should be Asking Clients
- Are you paying too much tax? If yes, how much and why?
- Can you get a refund of any of the tax you’ve overpaid?
- Are you up to date with legal compliance? If not, how can I get up to date?
- How are your profit levels compared to other businesses your size?
- How’s your cashflow going? (How do you know?)
- Tell me about your business numbers – and what they mean?
- What is your business worth?
- How do you pay yourself?
- Are you on track to achieve your business and personal goals? (And what are these?)
As I always say to clients, if your accountant isn’t delivering, then YOUR big question is “What’s involved in changing accountants and getting the right support and answers?”
When you engage with your clients at this level, you’ll have a richer, deeper relationship. You’ll also be better placed to have the next level conversations with business owners about the future. That’s going to be more interesting for you, more value added for your clients and increased experience for your staff. It’s a win-win-win.
Christine Nicholson is an author of 4 business books, speaker, and multi-award-winning Professional Business Mentor (who happens to be a non-practicing accountant). She was a global Top 50 Women in Accounting for 2020 for my work with finance teams. She’s been on BBC talking about business. She’s been helping businesses for over 30 years – along the way she’s worked with every type of business from software companies to taking over the running of a zoo.
This month’s guest contributor, Richard Brewin, Joint Managing Director at Progress BB, provides an in-depth look at taking a positive approach to the problems in a firm.
It’s very easy to think the worst of our own firms and certainly to have a more jaundiced view of ourselves than our clients and contacts have of us.
Maybe that’s better than having it the other way around but it doesn’t necessarily help us.
As business owners we tend to focus on the negatives within our firms. We spend our time addressing problems, looking for the failings and trying to tackle our weaknesses.
Successes and strengths can too easily be taken for granted or quickly passed by as we head for the next area that troubles us. This can leave us with a disproportionate view not only of the health of our firm but also the scale of the problems.
We can feel that there is a mountain of problems to climb because that is all we see.
It’s very important to celebrate our successes in order to have a more balanced view of ourselves. An exercise that I strongly recommend is to gather your team together in front of a flipchart, smartboard or whiteboard and list out everything that has been a positive in the last 12 months…and I mean everything, big and small. From great results, new clients, successful projects and exam successes to rooms tidied up, new kettles, clients sacked and better coffee, we’re looking to list out everything that makes you and the team smile. The list will be long, I guarantee it.
As well as feeling better about ourselves, we also need to address this issue of the psychological mountain of challenges. One of the most common hurdles I come across is simply knowing where to start, it feels like there are so many things to fix. The problem here, of course, is that delaying the decision, or being unable to focus on any particular challenges means that we end up making no progress whatsoever.
I have a tip for getting over this hurdle.
First, list out the 10 best things about your firm, your 10 greatest strengths. Don’t overthink it but don’t stop until you have 10 strengths listed either. However poor you think your firm is, you will have 10 strengths.
Let me create a fictitious accounting firm, Typical Accounting Limited (TAL) and use them as an example. For their list of strengths, this is what they came up with:
- We care
- We’re nice people
- We’re local
- We’ve got good systems
- Our clients like us
- We’re a good team
- We’re honest
- We’re professional
- We know the basics well
- We’re really good at payroll
It’s an entirely random list but it shows how easy it is to pull out 10 strengths.
Now, think of one of the big challenges that you face right now. What troubles you most on a daily basis?
What we are then going to do is to apply our strengths in addressing the problem. In the case of TAL, the challenge that came straight to mind for them was workflow, they have a backlog that is getting worse. How can they apply their strengths to address the problem? Let’s go back to their list:-
1. We care
We should remind ourselves of this. We see it as a problem because we do care. This should give us the desire to fix it.
2. We’re nice people
Therefore we will find a solution that is fair for all.
3. We’re local
What other resources exist locally that could help us here? Are their freelancers, other firms, flexible workers, new recruits that we should be talking to?
4. We’ve got good systems
What is good about them and can we utilise this more? Are we making the most of them or do we need to be talking to our account managers about further training or upgrades?
5. Our clients like us
Will improving our communication with our clients help us here? Is there more that the clients could/should be doing to help address the challenge? Can we do more to keep our clients onside and reduce the pressure?
6. We’re a good team
Are we approaching this issue as a team? Are we making the most of our skills and what we’re best at?
7. We’re honest
But are we overpromising in our desire to keep clients onside? Are we being honest where we are underperforming? Are we being honest (realistic) with ourselves and planning accordingly?
8. We’re professional
Our clients and outsourcers need to reflect this. A one-sided professional relationship is harder than a mutually professional one. Are we standing up for our professionalism?
9. We know the basics well
Is it time to get back to basics for a while? Also, are we focused on the basics or are we over-servicing? Are we delivering ‘good enough’ in its literal sense?
10. We’re really good at payroll
What is it about our payroll that works really well and what can we learn from this?
By focusing on our strengths and using them to the maximum, we change the dynamics of our problem solving. Rather than “How do I fix what I’ve so far failed to fix?” our focus is on “How do I get even better at what I do well?”. It’s a positive approach built on positive thinking.
It’s also an approach that enables us to more easily engage the team in our strategies as they become part of the solution rather than waiting around for you to deliver the solution to them.
Of course, once you’ve started to eat into that first challenge, you can then pick another and do it again. You may choose to use the same 10 strengths or you may revisit it and see what others you have added, having progressed with one of your issues.
Give it a try. You may find that you are better than you thought!
This month’s guest contributor, Jo Edwards, Senior Director at JE Consulting, takes an in-depth look at the growth of social media and how professional service firms can keep up with the latest trends.
Time doesn’t stand still and neither does the growth of social media. The number of users across the various platforms continues to grow annually, as both young and old use their feeds to share information, images, videos and more.
However, in recent years the market share of users between the various sites has shifted. Whilst most sites have continued to see growth in monthly active users (the key metric for how ‘populated’ a platform is) this changes regularly from one quarter to the next – with some platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat even experiencing a decline in active users.
The stalwarts of the social media world, Facebook WhatsApp, Instagram and LinkedIn continue to see strong growth, but it is the new platforms – many of which have sprung up during the pandemic – that are expanding rapidly.
Our infographic below gives some indication of current monthly active users on each platform and their speed of growth:
The unexpected rise of TikTok
Probably one of the fastest-growing platforms out there is TikTok. In a year, the number of monthly active users on this platform has doubled and this number keeps on rising.
To those uninitiated with this app, it was created primarily as an app for teenagers to share video content.
However, since then it has grown considerably, with many of the world’s leading brands, influencers, news sites and politicians launching profiles.
Videos can vary in length from a few seconds to up to three minutes (soon to be 10 minutes).
There are hundreds of millions of users sharing and creating content on this app, ranging from the most obscure hobbies to the latest world developments, with dozens of dances, memes and obscure clips in between.
Initially favoured by younger social media users, it has a growing number of older users who also enjoy the short video content it offers.
Should professional service firms get involved on TikTok?
There are already dozens of solicitors, financial advisers and accountants on TikTok, often acting at a personal level, sharing tips and advice to thousands of followers.
One of the most significant in the UK has been family lawyer, Tracey Moloney, known more commonly as @thelegalueen on TikTok.
She has hundreds of videos covering all types of topics and now has 364.2k followers and more than 1.9m likes.
However, she isn’t alone, and this platform could be a significant area of growth and a great opportunity to educate new audiences for those experts willing to go on camera to share their knowledge.
Need help keeping up with the latest social media trends?
As the world of social media changes and new trends emerge it is important that you have the right advice and assistance to help you reach new audiences.
To find out more about our wide range of social media and digital marketing services, please contact us.
This month’s guest contributor, Richard Brewin, Joint Managing Director, Progress BB, takes an in-depth look at putting the focus on you – the accountant – and the challenges faced by deadlines and workloads.
When did you last put yourself first in your business?
Being too busy is a common condition for an accountant. Whilst we may feel that it is something driven by deadlines and workloads, human behaviour can be found at the heart of the issue.
The behaviour of clients in not keeping their side of the service agreement, not fulfilling their responsibilities and not taking our advice, requests and instructions seriously enough certainly brings pressure to our workload.
The behaviour of colleagues and bosses in not doing their own jobs properly, not following the systems and not communicating well with us definitely adds to the problem.
Yet, how often do we then allow their failing to become our problem? How often do we still pull all the stops out to retrieve an issue that is not necessarily of our making? We fix the problem and, in doing so, prove to others that we can deliver so they don’t need to.
On top of clients and colleagues, we are also the architects of our own downfall. We’re not great at saying no for a start off. We seem to accept any sort of work challenge that meets the legal and ethical criteria but not necessarily the commercial or practical ones.
We have a nasty habit of over-promising under the guise of client service and then, of course, shooting ourselves in the foot with the inevitable under-delivery. That problem is of our making.
Our behaviour, and our acceptance of the behaviour of others, adds much our ‘to do’ lists and our stress levels.
We don’t have to keep accepting an imbalance in the client relationship. If the client doesn’t respect our time and business then why should we worry about theirs?
We don’t have to keep accepting colleagues and bosses not doing their jobs properly. We can be criticised for not fulfilling our own roles and responsibilities so what about them?
We can apply as many systems, processes and time saving tips as we like but unless we stop accepting the failings of others and take a more realistic and honest approach towards our own capabilities then we will continue to find ourselves under the cosh.
- Under-promise and then impress with your over-delivery, not the other way around
- Know your capabilities and be honest with yourself and others in what you can achieve
- Trust in the fairness of others. Communicate your problem in good time and fair people will work with you for a solution. We’re not bothered about the unfair ones
- Focus on doing your own job well. It is your first line of defence and for others to do the same
- If you keep bailing others out then they will continue to let you. Learn to say no
- Value your time
- Value your health
- Remember, you are a good person. You will help if you can and you will support if you can, but not so that you become the victim.
2024 is looming large in the sights of all accountants. There is plenty of conversation about whether or not HMRC will be able to deliver on their revised timetable but that shouldn’t be a major part of our thinking. MTD is here and its progression is committed, regardless of timetable. If our firms and people are not already prepared for it then we certainly need to be getting there soon.
The digitalisation of our systems and processes is a key element in our ability to deliver in the new compliance regime. Turning ‘once per year’ into ‘four/five times per year requires a big step up in our efficiency levels if we are to meet demand and keep client costs under control. The marketing budgets of the software providers have now kicked in and the tech solutions to this challenge are there for all to see. We have plenty of choice.
Whilst the talk of tech meeting MTD is prevalent, the solution is at least out there. For the accountant it may involve time and cost in acquisition, updates and training but the answer is there. The accountant simply needs to make the decision.
I asked a room full of accountants this week what their ‘real’ challenge was when it comes to MTD and, of course, they all came back with the same answer…clients!
Technology may fill the advertising space but, no matter how good your tech and systems are, if you have to continually chase clients for their records, and if those same clients don’t get serious about the accuracy, completeness and timely processing of their data, then your firm is not going to cope with the additional workload. It’s going to get messy!
HMRC have told the UK government that it will take, on average, 6 minutes for an accountant to process, check and submit a client’s quarterly return. 6 minutes!
Now, the technology exists today that will play its part in that happening. With real time client data, cloud based accounting and direct filing, that 6 minutes is technically possible.
Of course, in the real world we have ‘too busy’ clients and ‘incomplete records’. This is the real barrier.
Incomplete records may have worked for the accountancy business model for 500 years but in a world of real time data and enhanced deadlines, they no longer cut it.
For MTD to be a success, we are going to have to change the mindset and behaviour of your average client. They are going to have to take their responsibilities far more seriously when it comes to the integrity of their bookkeeping and accounting systems. They are going to have to start listening to us and taking our advice seriously!
If we are to change the behaviour of clients then we are going to need to look at ourselves and our teams first. We are the people who have allowed incomplete records and poor client response times to persist until now. I accept that much of that is for good reason, and I’m as guilty as the next accountant, but we have played our part in our own downfall. We are going to need to get tough!
MTD is the accountant’s version of Thor’s hammer. It gives us the power to change the way that things have been done by giving a very dramatic reason for change. Clients surprised by our more forceful, “we need to address you records once and for all” approach will understand and respond to the dangers that lurk for them behind MTD more readily than us selling the benefits of cloud accounting and digitalisation. We can give them the positives of better financial management but most are going to need to understand the upcoming pain of not sorting themselves out if they are to act.
We have a window of opportunity in the lead up to 2024 to sort out our client data once and for all and to remove the weight of incomplete records. We must seize it.
To do so will take 5 steps:-
- Prepare to stand your ground. What is your argument for no longer entertaining clients with incomplete records or poor response records? (clue: it’s in the article)
- Instigate a client education programme for 2022/23 – “MTD and why your data has to be right”
- Instigate a client training programme for 2022/23 – “Why your data really matters and how to make it work for you”
- Instigate a client support programme for 2022/23 – “We’re here for you and will support you through change”
- Instigate a client elimination programme for 2023/24 – those clients who don’t co-operate and will be too time consuming or costly to support in 2024.
For those of you nervous about getting tough with your clients, remember this:-
- They are, on the whole, nice people. You don’t want those who aren’t!
- They trust you. You’ve possibly never made it important enough for them in the past so they’ve focused on other priorities. Now, it’s important!
- They value the relationship with you. They will recognise the digital disruption in our profession in the same way that it is effecting theirs. They know that times are changing and they have to change to. If they’re not prepared to change then you can’t help them!
- This is good for them. They will see the benefits not just from managing MTD but in the enhanced performance of their business as, together, you make use of better data.
Time to sort out those records!
About the Author
This article is by Richard Brewin, Joint Managing Director, Progress BB. Experienced mentor, coach, facilitator and speaker, specialising in owner managed professional accountancy firms.
February 2nd, 2021
It’s certainly been a challenging past year as the world of business has been forced to adapt like never before, while technology has taken a front seat to help – even the sceptics – keep their firms running.
As a result, we expect to see rapid changes in top technological and business innovation in 2021 – all accelerated by people’s experience during the pandemic.
Lots have changed, from remote working, communication and ecommerce, to firms almost ‘reimagining’ the customer experience. Tech trends such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), mobile Apps, Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics and blockchain are at the centre driving this change into a new age.
Businesses should be looking at how they can best use these trends in order to leverage them for growth. But for accountants in particular, they should really evaluate how these trends can be used strategically for now and for the future of accounting, as the world adapts to the post-Covid society.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
With AI, we are at a point of pivotal change. AI is already good at automating repetitive tasks, increasing accuracy and efficiency, and discovering hidden insights and trends, and in the coming years, will become even more increasingly embedded in everything we touch and do.
So where do accountants fit in? AI can bring many opportunities for accountants to improve their efficiency, provide more insight and deliver more value to businesses; whether that’s improving output quality and decision-making thus enabling accountants to focus on performing high-value, high-impact tasks.
AI automatically manages the process of gathering, sorting and visualising pertinent data in a way that helps the business run more efficiently.
Practices can also significantly improve compliance procedures and protect both their own and clients’ finances as AI can handle data review at speed and pick up anomalies such as duplicate invoices.
If a business client sees a rise in supplier costs, the AI-equipped accountant can also predict the likely impact on the business in the near future. AI is very much here to stay – and is already impacting business in ways we never imagined just a few years back.
Added to that; the future of AI in Apps will allow a virtual member of the team to be on call 24/7 and act as the first point of call for clients’ questions. This will revolutionise the touch points and engagement between a company and its customers, with 24/7 assistance firmly at the heart of this mobile technology trend.
AI has helped global giants such as Amazon and Netflix to improve their customer experience and therefore encouraged more and more people to use them – we expect this trend to filter down to everyday businesses over the coming years.
The world changed dramatically in 2020, and the result in the App world was an acceleration of mobile usage habits by 2 to 3 years – strengthening mobile’s role as the most crucial instrument for engaging customers and growing your top line.
In total, 2020 saw 218bn in new app downloads, representing a 7% growth. It’s clear that mobile is the number 1 space for information.
For accountancy practices, finding the time to go beyond compliance work and provide clients with up-to-date business news and tax content can not only be time-consuming but can put a strain on stretched resources.
With an App, clients can have key content in the palms of their hands when they need it most; with the most important updates and insights proactively signposted for them – and all done for the accountant.
The process helps to deepen the relationship with clients and share meaningful, insightful content that is often a struggle to produce in-house. This can include a fast turnaround of Government announcements, live Budget alerts or a simple round-up of tax changes sent via Push Notifications, while the client also has access to a wealth of tax tools and features to use on-the-go.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT refers to the network of devices that are able to gather and share data with other devices that are on the same network, creating many opportunities for a seamless integration of computer-based systems in the physical world.
Combining the internet of things (IoT) with accounting has the potential to provide a
powerful means of making organisations more effective; whether that’s through real time data collection, identification of issues or automated transaction processing.
Real-time data collection, for example, could help accountants to improve budget accuracy, cost planning and forecasting, meaning risks become easier to manage.
Accountants who can combine the range of IoT collected data with financial information have better chances of addressing the root cause of the issues.
Data analytics – how it can drive the decision making
The power, and value, of data, is unprecedented, and its importance to all businesses – especially accounting firms – should not be understated in this digital age.
By harnessing data analytics, accounting firms can track their client’s performance more accurately and identify ways of improving tax setups or general business practices.
As thorough, accurate data analytics becomes more commonplace in the industry, accountancy firms will be expected to harness this specialism. This upcoming year, therefore, is imperative for firms to act and ensure they remain ahead of the curve in five or ten years.
Blockchain is a specific type of database that differs from perhaps a ‘typical database’ in the way it stores information; blockchains store data in blocks that are then chained together.
The technology has found its way to virtually every industry, with companies incorporating it into their day-to-day business processes.
Blockchain provides accountants an opportunity to not only streamline their audits and processes (since it provides a transparent and immutable record of all data), but for reconciling accounts and recording cash flow, while also recording transactions and stores assets.
Blockchain can also help accountants gain clarity over the available resources and obligations of their organisations, and also free up resources to concentrate on planning and valuation – and we know the importance of time-saving, especially in the accountancy industry – rather than recordkeeping.
Looking to the year ahead
Technology development in 2021 will be somewhat of a continuation of 2020, but will no doubt be influenced – and evolve – from the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the outlook remains uncertain still for the year ahead as global economies roll out their own programmes to emerge from this pandemic stronger, many of our new behaviours will become part of the new normal in 2021.
At the heart of this is the push to help drive major technological and business innovations; if even to retool for the world of tomorrow.
While 2020 saw records for the acceleration of mobile App downloads, it’s clear that this format of communication was not only vital in maintaining engagement between firm and customer during 2020, but also as a driver for growth and alignment with other tech trends (mobile and AI, for example) for 2021 and beyond.
If you’d like to see how an App can work for your firm in this digital age for business, get in touch and a member of our team will reach out to arrange a short Zoom call to chat and learn more together.