TaxAssist is not your usual kind of accountant. “We define ourselves as a customer service organisation whose output just happens to be accounts, rather than as an accountancy practice where accounts are first and foremost” says Richard Lambert, Director at TaxAssist West Edinburgh.
And importantly, “we are a learning and development organisation – we actively encourage development and growth.”
How they maintain growth
For Lambert, successful growth comes from a focus on customer service. Whilst that’s easy to say, creating it involves recruiting and training differently, and having a radically different ethos to the traditional accountant.
“Many accountancy firms will get new customers by saying, ‘we’ll create accurate accounts for you.’ But how is that different from any other firm? Accurate accounts should be a given – you won’t last very long without them. So, we identified very early on that we need to do something extra, and that extra is service.” This can be something as simple as looking up and saying hello when someone comes through the door, “rather than being immersed in the books. It’s not a unique approach, but it is relatively unusual.”
Clients are mostly SMEs – “individual taxpayers, from accidental landlords to sole traders and SMEs, with turnover up to about £2 million. In my view, those smaller clients have been traditionally under-served by many practices. We want to come in with top quality service and accurate accounting and that’s a breath of fresh air for that kind of client. We charge those customers fair, but not unreasonable, rates.”
The company doesn’t charge for calls, individual meetings or signing off on accounts – “it’s a fixed fee and this frees us up to deliver service.” TaxAssist also doesn’t measure their accountants’ time on time sheets. “That’s the death for customer service. Our staff are free to spend time with customers and look after them.”
We’ve developed a relationship with AAT because the qualifications are practical
Passion for people
“We develop relationships with our apprentices, and we invest in them,” he says. “An example is someone we recruited recently who left a position where they had nothing to do but file papers. Here, they have responsibility, combined with support. The individual is learning about personal tax, has started doing simple sets of accounts and within 15 months is doing real work, which relates to their qualifications.”
AAT apprentices are given technical roles immediately, Lambert says. “Typically, an apprentice will start by running our technical admin. This means doing all the liaison with Companies House, HMRC and other bodies, getting answers to client queries and relaying that information to the customer’s contact so they can pass on to the customer.”
For the apprentice, this gives a broad-base background knowledge of the ecosystem TaxAssist works in. “At the same time, this job is based on our front desk so the apprentice can begin the customer journey at the same time.” Apprentices are also given simple bookkeeping on both spreadsheet and cloud: “the work they get to do with us supports the theoretical learning they get from studying. They wouldn’t get that knowledge if he was just filing.”
In order to make this career development happen, “we have a very flat management structure – we don’t have junior, senior and chief bookkeepers, for instance.” Instead, the company rewards on the basis of achievement. “If you produce more, you get paid more. People can see fairly immediate rewards for doing well – we have quarterly pay reviews. Our trainees can quickly see a direct link between their studies and what they are now doing.”
SME Employer of the Year
TaxAssist’s innovative approach led to it being awarded the Scottish Training Federation’s SME Employer of the Year Award recently. What does Lambert think the company did differently to achieve this?
“Perhaps the key is that our background is learning and development, rather than accountancy.”
The company is “effectively running a training company – everyone gets a weekly one-to-one, for as long as they need. Not all accountancy practices will run from a competency framework perspective. So as apprentices go through their learning, they can look a certain number of years down the line and see themselves running their own branch of TaxAssist if they want to.”
This people development programme is used heavily in the business – “it’s a win-win, growing us and them at the same time. The two people who set up TaxAssist weren’t accountants, and my background is sales and marketing. We need the accountancy expertise, but our people-focused approach is what makes us different.”
How have AAT’s qualifications helped?
“We’ve found that some accountancy qualifications, excellent as they are, aren’t relevant to a practice like ours,” Lambert says, “and this is where we’ve developed a relationship with AAT because the qualifications are practical, relevant and people can apply them on a day-to-day basis.” The AAT qualifications significantly help accountants get the hands-on experience they need, Lambert believes.
And why do you describe TaxAssist as ‘the GP of accountants’?
“99% of people come in with the accountancy equivalent of a cough or a cold, and we can help them. Occasionally, someone needs to be sent on to a specialist.”
Providing space to grow
Office space is important. “We’re based in an old clothes shop with huge eight-metre wide windows – everyone is open-plan and we are all visible. We have a dog in the office, who comes in to work with us every day. Other dog walkers will go past and stop, to talk to the dog. When I walk it at lunchtime, people will say, ‘are you the dog who knows about tax?’ That human element is so important.”
And being customer service-led means the company wants to hire people who have that ethos. “When we recruit from other practices we often encounter entrenched behaviours that don’t fit with the way we do things, so we have to provide additional development to align behaviours to our values. But a school-leaver, or someone who’s graduated but hasn’t had practice experience, is someone we can work with from scratch.”
This means more time investment on the company’s part; “a little more financially, and certainly in terms of initial support time. But it means we can provide them with the twin skills of learning about accountancy on the one hand, plus providing excellent customer service on the other.” As a result, it makes financial sense to help apprentices along their journey by supporting them with their studies.
TaxAssist’s innovative approach led to it being awarded the Scottish Training Federation’s SME Employer of the Year Award.
Creating future business plans
As a result of all these innovations, the company is expanding. “We have 15 people in our Edinburgh office now, and we are growing organically.” This growth plan is also innovative. “A member of staff came to us five years ago and said, I’d like to run my own business. We said, we’ll support you and give you background expertise. We agreed to go 50-50 on the finances, and agreed that they could buy us out when they were ready. And that’s what we do – run things equally, the individual has got up to 400 customers, and will buy us out when they’re ready.”
This plan is beneficial for both TaxAssist and the start-up – “it means we can support new businesses, but we don’t have to be there every day. In effect, they are running their own company with a kind of parental support, and when they step away they’ll retain the benefits.”
It’s a remarkable story, and Lambert is an engaging and personable leader. “We perpetuate it because we believe in it,” he concludes.
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.