Bookkeepers can help their clients more if all their office processes are transparent and consistent – not just their financial ones.
So what advice can you give your clients to make their lives easier – and by extension, yours?
Lucy Cohen is Commercial Director at Mazuma GB. “We don’t mind so much if clients are a little disorganised as it’s very much the arena we work in. What we do battle with is those who knowingly leave things to the last minute all the time, despite our constant nagging!” What do you always want to say to clients when they are ill-prepared or don’t understand what needs doing? “We always try to make our processes as clear and easy to follow as possible, so it can get frustrating when people just ignore us – especially as it ends up just causing them more stress. We always want to say, ‘just do it when we ask – please!’ ”
In practice, how can you help with broader processes – better filing systems, more effective time-management, better processes, more logical behaviour? All of the above. “Time management is key to minimising stress with accounts and paperwork,” Cohen says. “We always tell clients to get into a routine of sending us their documents. If it becomes part of your daily activities (like checking social media or emails), then you’re likely to get it done.”
Every bookkeeper will relate to the client with a chaotic office, not knowing where anything is and, inevitably, leaving things to the last possible moment. “In this industry we’ve seen everything from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Cohen says. “I once met an accountant who was working whilst sat amongst stacks and stacks of box folders.”
Emphasising the benefits of a neat and tidy working space, Cohen asks, “firstly how on earth did he ever find any clients’ files; and secondly the amount of mess simply uses up time and causes stress.” And the most entertaining or least helpful thing you have seen? “There was a chap who had a huge organisational chart on his wall showing all the positions in his company – there were about 25 different positions listed. But every job role listed just had his name against it…”
So what needs to be done? How can bookkeepers emphasise to clients the importance of neat processes and organisational tidiness – and get them to stick to it? For Wendy Tate, Owner of Bean Counters Bookkeeping based in Wellingborough, the key is to show clients that by having better processes in place, they will make significant financial savings.
“Many small clients, especially those in the trades – not to stereotype, but they know this is the case! – have few or no processes in place.” The results for Tate are obvious: “receipts fade while they are stuffed in the windscreen of the van; or worse get lost altogether. Invoices are missed as they rush from one customer to another. They can often forget where they have been to by the end of the day, and mileage is often not claimed as people forget to record it.” These small elements, added up, make for considerable daily shortfall. “In short these businesses owners are losing money – they are often stressed as the only indication they have on whether they have made any money is the balance in their bank account.”
Tate works with her clients to try to amend this. “Put some simple processes in place to banish bookkeeping stress. Firstly, set them up with some cloud software such as Xero. Now, for some this sounds terrifying as the reason they don’t do their accounts this way already is fear of using a computer.” This is easily managed, however, “by getting them to download the app – if you can get that far, the magic quickly starts to happen.”
The trick is to show that this move to technology is not as frightening as it looks and will, after the initial time investment, save clients both time and cash. “As they get those receipts, previously filed precariously on the windscreen, they simply take a photo from within the app, they are sent to the software – and I can do the rest.”
Overcoming fear of processes is the message to communicate. “Once I show people how easy this is and give them back control over their paperwork, their stress levels decrease and they are happier people.” After all, Tate says, “all that clients want at the end of the day is for their stresses to disappear.”
Finally, don’t be afraid of giving clients some tips on how to market their business and make themselves more efficient – they will thank you for it in the long run.
“I do still have clients who arrive with all their accounts ‘filed’ in a supermarket carrier bag (or two),” Tate says. She also recalls her first-ever client, “a personal trainer – a lovely guy who had been in business for eleven months. He had no idea whether he had made any money or not.”
The client wrote down what people had paid him in a book and had kept all of his receipts and invoices. However, “everything was going through his personal joint account along with his wife’s salary and all the household bills. As long as the bank was in the black he thought he was doing okay – this kind of behaviour does seem quite typical of a new sole trader business.” Alerting your clients to this kind of poor practice is not necessarily seen as within the normal remit of the bookkeeper – but it can be good for them, and good for you too.
Less stress, more process
- Emphasise the benefits of good time management. The skills to be an entrepreneur, work well with people and build your own business are not necessarily compatible with good time management and orderly behaviour. Help your clients to see the benefits of it.
- Mess equals stress. If you are in the habit of being orderly, it helps you financially too – receipts will not be lost or misfiled, claimable items will always be claimed instead of missed, and mistakes will be reduced.
- Technology is not to be feared. Demonstrate to clients that after the initial outlay, it will save them both time and money.
- Have a separate bank account. It means keeping an eye on your business income and expenses can be done at a glance. It also alerts you to other areas HMRC will want to know about – the proportion you use your car for the business, for example.
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.