“When I started my career, there was one typewriter in the office and adding machines with reams of paper coming out the back,” recalls AAT Licensed Accountant, Victoria Cooper FMAAT, now owner and manager of the almost paperless Red Shoes Accounting.
Already a proponent of cloud-based accounting tools like Xero and automated bookkeeping applications such as Receipt Bank, Red Shoes Accounting has recently introduced digital signatures and folder sharing so accounts and tax returns can be signed, sent and received entirely online. “It’s going to save a lot of time in January,” she adds.
The digital shift
Indeed, accountants and practices that have shifted to more digital provision of services and, ways of working see increased efficiency as one of the biggest rewards. From software that automates data entry and processing, or management reports; to tools like Trello and Slack that can improve internal communications and how clients are managed, the time saved can be used to create new business opportunities, explains AAT Licensed Accountant, Andrew Sullivan FMAAT, director of digital accountancy firm Numbers (UK) Ltd.
“We’ve expanded our service offering because of the technology we use,” he says. “Forecasting and reporting were things, for example, that we weren’t previously able to do because they took too much time to build in Excel. Using Spotlight [Reporting], I can do that in half a day. It’s worthwhile to us because people pay a lot of money for that. Once you’ve got someone who has bought into a five-year forecast, they’ve almost bought into a five-year development plan too.”
The firm began its transition to digital almost five years ago and a recent office redesign means there is no longer space to store manual records. This commitment to new ways of working has had a knock-on benefit for recruitment, says Sullivan: “Six months ago we recruited two people who wanted to move into a more digital practice. It’s good for us to know we were attractive to them and that we’ve got people who want to work the way we do. It breeds the right accountants going forward.”
Cloud-based accounting and virtual communications and meeting tools have also helped with retention, allowing the practice to easily offer full-time remote working to a member of staff who recently had to relocate. For AAT Licensed Accountant, Caroline Trevenna FMAAT, founder of Mona Accountancy Services, the flexibility that technology offers is perhaps its biggest benefit: she can work from anywhere, not be tied to 9-5 hours or have to be in the same place as her clients.
“Most of my business will be in the UK but I can work from anywhere and just knowing I have that option is fantastic,” she says. “This fits especially well as my partner is in the forces, so not being tied to a fixed location for work means I can move around with him as needed and not risk my client base.”
Her flexible, digital approach has, in fact, helped expand this base: “I am finding Instagram is where I get most interest, particularly from wellness clients. The way I work appeals to them because it’s the way they work too. I try to bring a slight personal tone to my posts so people feel they’re connecting to me as well as my business.”
Ahead of the competition
Embracing technology “helps you stay ahead of the competition” and shows clients you are aware of wider industry trends and changes, adds Cooper. Whether it’s preparing clients for Making Tax Digital or introducing a new app or software that could benefit their business, positioning her firm as digitally capable reassures clients, especially the less tech savvy: “They know we will be able to do it for them, that we’ve the expertise, rather than them having to adapt to an environment with which they aren’t familiar.”
All three agree it is best to trial new technologies on your own accounts or teams first so you can assess their value and anticipate any questions or problems that clients might have. Using your own practice as a guinea pig allows you to test how secure new systems and software are, where data is held and how it’s backed up, and whether a new tool fits in with other software packages and applications or simply adds more steps to a process.
“You can end up having an app for everything,” says Trevenna. “It’s much easier to find a few that you really get on with otherwise you can lose track of where things are. It’s good to experiment but best to use a few things well.”
“The way the industry is going there are so many software providers they can push things on you so you have got to do things gradually,” adds Sullivan.
Start the change with receptive clients
With clients you may wish to phase things in too, says Trevenna: “Always start with people who are more receptive first and then try to get those who are less receptive excited. You need to find their Achilles heel and apply technology to them and that problem.”
Internally, it’s important to get staff buy-in before rolling out new tools, adds Sullivan, and to keep tabs on how greater flexibility and cloud-based working can affect practices and client relationships.
“Because all the data is now live we are less reactive in some situations and we can notice things happening with our clients in real-time,” he says.
“On the other hand, it [more digital-only ways of working] can be a bad thing because people expect 24/7 contact so you do need to weigh that up.”
Work clients fears
Cooper knows that taking the time to set up clients and train them on new digital tools along the way will make things smoother in the long run, especially in January if it encourages more digitally-submitted accounts and tax returns. For those resistant to change, adds Trevenna, it’s about “working with their fears”:
“Whatever tools we are using, it’s still their business and I’m still there to guide them and help their business be the best it can be.”
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.