Career profile: Practice bookkeeper

Bookkeeping isn’t just about calculators, spreadsheets and ensuring the numbers add up.

Carole Alexander is director of Carole Alexander and Associates, which specialises in bookkeeping for small businesses. In our interview, she talks about the importance of staying on top of employment law, ensuring accounts make sense to clients and playing the psychologist for worried business owners.

What led you to pursue a career in bookkeeping?

After starting a family, I ran a procurement department in the Home Office. I completed a part-time RSA bookkeeping course, and soon realised I could do bookkeeping for my own clients instead of working for somebody else. I did the AAT NVQ4 in 2000 while building my business, then formed a limited company with my business partner Lorna Bennett in 2012. Since then, we’ve helped lots of small businesses and start-ups, and even put full-time bookkeepers into some businesses we’ve helped grow. It’s so nice to see them fly.

Where can an AAT qualification take you? The choice is yours

An AAT qualification can open so many doors for you in your career, giving you the change to explore roles in any industry you can think of – from fashion and sport to banking or forensic accounting. After all, every business needs someone to look after its finances.

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What does a typical workday look like for you?

They’re all completely different. But I’ll usually go out to clients in the morning, work on their computers, collect information, then go back to the office for 11am. I regularly receive email queries from local accountants that I can then raise with our shared clients. I try to meet all our clients quarterly, regardless of whether they’re VAT-registered, to go through management accounts and discuss where their business is going. Sometimes people will drop in for a meeting without an appointment, usually when they have something new on the go and want some advice.

What are the main challenges involved in your role?

Even if we’re not doing payroll for a business, getting clients to appreciate the legal side of employing somebody else is crucial, so we need to know more about employment law than you might think. For example, we support several catering businesses that rely on casual part-time labour, and we help them understand things like they can’t keep workers going for 12 hours without a rest.

What should students thinking about a career in bookkeeping know about the job?

We probably deal with forty businesses, and every single client has a different package, so my advice would be take what you learn during your studies but be open-minded and malleable. Somebody that’s setting up a little retail shop might have £200 to spend on new advertising, whereas someone in the construction industry might have £1 million to spend. I can start talking ratios for a big industrial unit and the managing director will understand, but you’ll probably have to find a more everyday language for the lady that runs a local wool shop. Communication is key: if you can’t make a spreadsheet make sense to a client then there’s no point in doing the spreadsheet.

What aspects of the role might students be surprised by?

When you go into bookkeeping, you think you’re going to be talking to people that know know how to run a business, but they often don’t know as much as you’d expect. We have a couch in our office, and it’s like being a psychologist sometimes. A client will come in with a worry that can take you two or three hours to sort out, whereas the actual bookkeeping for them might take an hour a week. If you can’t get on their wavelength you won’t be able to have them as a client, so it really is all to do with communication skills.

What are the benefits of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for a bookkeeper?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep up with CPD as a bookkeeper. We’re always on the internet or going on courses because the law and regulations change so much. We have some good accountants to call on when we don’t understand something ourselves, but they don’t usually have the time to give us the full story, so we need to be on top of what’s happening.

Ebony-Storm Halladay is editorial operations assistant at Flibl. She researches and writes about finance, business, sustainability and technology.

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