As upskilling becomes a key need and objective for many accountancy practices, what skills do you need to develop in the workplace and how can everyone in the team complement each other?
As part of our AATPowerUp series we look at the skills that are missing in the workplace.
We spoke to colleagues across the floor space at 1 Accounts Online, led by Director Paul Donno. The company is unusual: it is entirely digital, and all clients use online software, mainly Sage One and Xero, and some on Quickbooks.
Making a traditional practice digital
“Having run a traditional practice for 18 years,” Donno says, “I merged that and then after 18 months started this company.” The somewhat radical decision to accept only online clients was made “because of the lessons I learnt – particularly to do with cash flow. All our clients pay by GoCardless, all are on direct debit and that’s triggered by Practice Ignition. We are very software-driven and our processes are too.”
A need for digital skills
This emphasis on digital means a demand for very specific skill sets.
“We have two apprentices who are highly skilled digitally and indeed don’t know any other way of working,” Donno says.
“So far that’s involving bookkeeping, accounts production and reviews for clients.” Both Donno’s apprentices, Grace Orrell and James Revell, are currently doing AAT Level 4.
What skills will apprentices need going forward?
“We’ll need to develop them in terms of analysing the data that’s coming out of the software – becoming proficient with the tools and presenting the data to clients.”
As Donno points out, “this need is not in terms of traditional accounting, but that’s the skills gap we’ve got at the moment and is the next stage for us. In a year’s time when the apprentices are fully developed, we’ll have qualified accountants who will act as a much needed resource and keep us up to date on compliance.”
How a skills gap can help enhance your business
Something for firms to consider is that the skills gaps you need to fill must be related to the needs of the business.
“An area we never found profitable in the past, but which we now do, is bookkeeping – we will probably get another bookkeeper now.”
The benefits here are “that our bookkeeper is able to train clients with the client’s own online software, and help them when they struggle a bit to put the right things in the right place. That’s enormously valuable.”
Different generational skills
Does Donno find that having younger people on the team means he learns from them?
He laughs. “Yes. Particularly Excel. The younger generation just go at it in a different way, and when they’ve been using Excel, I seem to learn something every time I look at it.” It’s also highly beneficial, Donno observes, that the younger generation “have a good understanding (and no fear) of online software. They approach it differently, understand it fully and see it from the client’s point of view. That’s really useful – then as a team we learn and work through things together.”
Supporting each other to learn quickly
Kerry Seeley is Bookkeeping Manager. “I’ve only been here for seven months,” she says, “so I’ve been quickly doing lots of different things in that time – learning Xero, then Xero payroll and specification. Before that, I was doing desktop programmes only – so the digital learning curve has definitely been what I’ve been focused on.”
And gaps to resolve for the future? “Making Tax Digital is definitely the big one – I need to discover more about that – and I’m currently learning more about VAT, which I hadn’t been covering before.” Seeley is undertaking AAT Level 4 “and my colleagues James and Grace are also at the same stage. We all help each other with anything that needs a bit of cross-skills support.”
From accountants to adviser
Donno also has his eye on two further areas. “Two clients rang me this week and they have good, profitable businesses but they need to take it to the next level. That’s where I will step in – the advisory part of the business.”
The second area is on helping clients with wellbeing.
“This, increasingly, is very important. Lots of start-ups and entrepreneurs can be running highly successful organisations, but it can be lonely and you can be vulnerable. My wife is currently training to offer a wellbeing service, so that will come into the business in the future.”
What skills are your clients missing?
As well as looking at the skills gaps in your own business, look at the skills gaps that your clients have – and see how you can fill those gaps. “Many businesses in the micro- and small business arena don’t know about forecasting tools, they don’t know enough about data, KPIs, and so on. There is a lot of accountancy support available, but I want to do more here for our clients – I can see us moving into that type of support.”
Skills young accountants need
What are the skills that young accountants need to brush up on? “I think the key skills gap is knowing how businesses really work. Identifying why a client wants something, or doesn’t want something, or doesn’t understand something.” This is not something you learn from textbooks and studies, Donno adds, “essential as those are. This is the part that you only learn on the job, with us all spending time learning and training ourselves as the job develops.”
Donno’s company is very much a family affair – his daughter Jade is Practice Manager. “I organise everybody’s workflow,” she says, “and I also do much of the marketing for the business – in effect, everything that isn’t accounts-related.”
She has an understanding of how businesses work “from my background in musical theatre; I was a director of several productions and this has given me leadership skills.” Whilst Jade is Xero certified, “I am the person everyone else looks to for non-accountancy skills, and vice versa! I’m open to training opportunities or webinars, of course, especially in marketing – I would like to learn more there and keep up with the times because things change very quickly.”
What skills do you wish you had?
“I’d like to learn more about how to help other businesses, and I’m not an accountant so more accountancy skills would be useful as I’m working in an accountancy practice!”
But she is keen to point out that “we have a range of skills across the office, and that makes us work better as a team – we don’t all have the same skills or there wouldn’t be the different jobs for us.” The office is open-plan, “so if people can hear that you need help with something in particular, they can offer it. We all communicate very well – weekly meetings with the whole team, and daily meetings to discuss workflows.”
“I’d like to learn more about how to help other businesses, and I’m not an accountant so more accountancy skills would be useful as I’m working in an accountancy practice!” But she is keen to point out that “we have a range of skills across the office, and that makes us work better as a team – we don’t all have the same skills or there wouldn’t be the different jobs for us.” The office is open-plan, “so if people can hear that you need help with something in particular, they can offer it. We all communicate very well – weekly meetings with the whole team, and daily meetings to discuss workflows.”
Skills lacking in the accounting industry
“I do think the industry is failing to keep up with the fast developments in technology. The gap is huge in terms of the latest software and trends, and in terms of how software integrates.” says Dunno.
For example, “we’re getting lots of enquiries at the moment from clients who want to switch to us because their current accountant doesn’t fully understand the software, and what it’s capable of, and that means their staff don’t know either.”
Sometimes it’s that the understanding is not there; after all, the technology can be highly sophisticated, and a lot of it is new; “but just as importantly, sometimes the will to help those clients is not there. They have the rather old-fashioned view that it’s their job to produce the accounts or the VAT returns and then the rest of it is up to the client. We don’t operate like that.”
There are many lessons to be learnt here for other accountancy practices
- Are you up to speed with the software?
- Are you offering your clients an in-the-round package?
- Do you consider fully what clients need, rather than thinking about what you can offer?
You can follow our series on Twitter with #AATPowerUp
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.