BDO: using digital skills to become more than an accountant

BDO is now the world’s largest professional services network outside the Big 4.

Mark Sykes, Partner and Head of BDODrive UK, talks about digital skills, the need for brand differentiation and the importance of putting young accountants into interesting and dynamic scenarios.

Becoming a successful firm

“To be a successful large accountancy firm you need to be able to see things in the round,” says Sykes. “So BDODrive is about seeing what challenges businesses have, and how we can help them.”

Focused primarily in the UK but also global, “it’s about asking – how can we bring our worldwide expertise and make it relevant to everyday business life?”

Some of those challenges are about helping management, “from financial accounts to decision making,” and some are about acting “as external support to clients and helping them break down obstacles to growth.”

This in-the-round view means recognising when there is a skills gap in-house. “For example we might bring in experts from the wider firm to help clients on particular areas of VAT or tax – or we might produce dashboards to improve information and help with decision making.”

“Why” as well as “how”

Close to Sykes’s heart is the belief that “businesses that have a close relationship with their accountant are more likely to succeed, so it’s our job to help businesses do the best they can.”

It’s here that the importance of digital skills comes to the fore.

“We effectively have a GP’s role. We don’t claim to know absolutely everything, but it’s about spotting gaps and sensing opportunities.”

In practice, it’s actually really hard to be able to do this well, Sykes says, and has come about because of the way the industry has evolved.

Benefiting from technological changes

“As financial legislation, particularly tax, became more complex, all accountants realised they had to specialise. So they built specialist departments, which then got sub-divided as complexities continued to evolve, and then you’re faced with a dilemma – what kind of specialist do you want to be, when your overall desire is to be there for your clients?”   

Today’s digital landscape helps BDO go back to that original model of being there for clients.

“Digital technology does various things. It reduces the amount of time spent on process, by automating more and by judiciously employing machine learning. But it also enables us to connect more. We can quickly reach colleagues in other departments, ensure the right person is available, and track where we are.”

The technology helps BDO operationally, “and whilst this means we need to be very good at using tech, it means the time that is freed up can be spent helping clients. And you can’t do the latter without the former.”   

Heads up – the BDO strategy

BDODrive’s strategy is, unusually for such a large company, to move entirely to cloud-based.

“We are partners with Xero and the reason I single them out is that they were key in enabling us to make the necessary changes – they spent a lot of time helping us equip the team. The challenge was to work closely alongside the software provider.”

As Sykes explains, the “old school” method was, by necessity, “to send information to the client; the client made changes and sent it back to us; then we sent it back to them.”

This “you do yours and we do ours” approach was slow and ineffective – “the world doesn’t work that way, and the cloud has made a massive difference in terms of parallel working. We can be looking at the same thing the client is looking at, at the same time. We can see the problem straightaway, and we can see how to fix it – not a few days down the line.”    

All this enormously helps the 21st century focus on the accountant becoming a business advisor.

“If you ask any accountant why they went into the industry, they will always say it was because they wanted to be advising businesses, but process got in the way. Technology has revolutionised that and means we can focus once more on advising.”

This does not, of course, mean leaving the numbers behind. “Compliance is sometimes looked upon as a bit of a dirty word – but accountants are there to help businesses stay on the right side of wrong. We’re there to look after them, and if you need to say, you’re going to run out of cash in the next month – or you’re not being as responsible as you think you are – that’s absolutely the right thing for an accountant to be saying to their client.”

The future of accounting 

The focus on technology up-front means that BDO can ensure young employees get to undertake interesting work, soon after recruitment.

“In terms of attracting talent, we want our trainees to be engaging with clients early – and we also want them to be using their brains and skills to be different. There is no factory mind-set, no sense of being a standard accountant. We want people who are individuals: they’re there to be themselves and we want to empower that.”  

Sykes offers an example of this in action.

“What does adding real value mean, and what does it look like? Say I have a client who’s told me they want to expand into China. You can either say a variation on – that sounds lovely, and good luck. Or you can say – I want to help you.

“ We can say, have you thought about what the costs of expanding into China are? Do you need an office there? Do you have the right resources? What are the tax implications? Do you know who you need to speak to, and do you know what audience you need to target when you get there?”

The BDO Accelerate programme

The BDO Accelerate programme was set up with this kind of thing in mind. “At this point, we can say – we can connect you with people there. We can help you on your way and introduce you to the right places, people and ideas and get all the legals right.” In this sense, “we can be like an in-house finance adviser who’s passionate about the expansion. That, for me, is what advisory is all about.”    

Finally, how does differentiating your brand in the ways we’ve discussed – attention from individual accountants and technological proficiency – ensure clients keep returning to you, instead of going elsewhere?

“Our evidence is that this does work. We are not just there to give accountancy advice – we’re really focused on ways we can help clients. Getting the numbers right is only part of the relationship, and this approach massively changes the proposition.”

Finding the sweet spot between advisory and compliance

BDO wants to be “passionate, engaged, and focused on our clients. And that’s exciting – we don’t come into work each day for process. We are client-centric and we are about adding value to businesses, whilst reducing the stresses that affect them.”   

Ultimately, “we are unashamedly accountants – we are about navigating the day-to-day. But having said that, BDO is focused on finding the sweet spot between advisory and compliance. We’re not just consultants; we offer something very special.”

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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