Whenever I talk with people who are starting their own bookkeeping or accounting business, or even those who have been running their businesses for a while, we agree that the technical part of what we do (ie the debits and credits), is much more straight forward than the practical management of running a business.
One of the most confusing areas can be understanding what the client really wants.
Many potential clients, especially those at the start-up or even pre start-up stage will often be very motivated and knowledgeable about their business, but will often be very uninformed about what is required from a compliance point of view. It is usually at this stage that we as accountants are approached for help and advice.
For example Mr Smith calls you to say he needs some help with his VAT. Seems like a straight-forward request doesn’t it? But, if you think about it, there are is a list of things he might need, such as:
- Bookkeeping to calculate the entries needed for his VAT return
- Filing of the actual VAT return
- Advice on whether items are VAT-able or not
- Help with unravelling an incorrect VAT return that he had previously completed
- Assistance with an HMRC VAT enquiry
- Does he need to be VAT registered?
And here is another example.
Mrs Jones emails you to say she urgently needs a bookkeeper as the previous one has left. You need to ask yourself:
- Is she looking for an in-house (employed), or self-employed bookkeeper?
- Would she be happy for you to work remotely using your own software?
- Are there set times that she needs your help?
- Might there be other duties, such as answering calls from her customers?
- Does she want you to perform credit-control duties?
So, what can we do to clarify the situation?
When I started my accountancy practice, I made devised a simple interview template that I could use at that initial meeting with the client to understand their need.
This was split into the following eight main areas:
It pays to be clear about what services you are licensed to offer. If your client requires services which you can’t offer you will have to either decline the business or alternatively refer this part of the service to a colleague while taking on the work you are licensed to offer.
This can work quite well for all parties but you need to ensure that there is clear responsibility for who is doing what. This can usually be clarified on the engagement letter. The most important thing to remember is to only offer to perform tasks that you are licensed for, confident and competent in.
Where your work is conducted needs to be clarified from the outset as it will influence how much time will need to allocate to this client. Will they be prepared to pay for your time travelling to/from the assignment? Or, are they happy for you to work remotely? If so, how will they supply you with the documentation?
When you perform the service will depend on the clients needs. With the example of Mr Smith, would he be happy for you to prepare all of the information on a quarterly basis, to tie in with his VAT cycle, or would he like some more regular support,perhaps on a monthly basis?
It could be that sole trader would just like you to prepare a set of accounts, once a year, so that he can have his tax return completed.
In every case, the most important thing to clarify is what deadlines you are both expecting to work to. This should be clearly detailed on the engagement letter and the scheduling system you use, to ensure that these deadlines are met and that you can confidently allocate the time required.
You need to understand who will be expected to do what. With Mrs Jones, say you had agreed that you could carry out the work at your premises, will she supply you with the required information, or will you go and collect? Again, this needs to be detailed on the engagement letter.
Software is an important consideration. You may decide that you only want to use the software that you are familiar with, however this might restrict who you can work for, so flexibility can be beneficial.
Start-ups will benefit from your advice in choosing the right software for their needs. An established business may already have software in place that they prefer, but your advice in upgrading to appropriate systems, particularly cloud software is valuable.
On a side note there is an opportunity for continued professional development to ensure you are up to date with the software available to best advise clients.
What additional services do you offer? Suppose Mrs Jones wants you to update her accounting system on a monthly basis. Could you also prepare a simple, monthly profit and loss statement, so that she can see how her business is performing on a more regular basis?
Or in Mr Jones’ case, you could advise him that by implementing a cloud-based accountancy package, you could perform the work twice as quickly as his old paper-based system.
Any add-on service that you could offer, will impress the client and usually add to what you can charge.
Many potential clients may say, “oh, my records are immaculate” or “there are only a handful of transactions, this will be an easy task for you”. Whilst this may be accurate it is always wise to see examples for confirmation.
This is also a good opportunity to find out a little bit more about your client, which can help to give you a better picture of their needs and wants. For example:
- Are they a new business?
- How long have they been trading?
- what made then start their business?
- Are they in a certain trade sector?
Equipped with the above information you will be better placed to give your potential client an accurate quote of your likely fees.
If you are charging on an hourly basis, they will expect an estimate of how many hours per week/month you will likely need. If you are proposing a fixed fee, make sure you are confident that you can achieve the task in the estimated time. In all cases it might be prudent to suggest a “bedding in” period, where at the end you can review what has been achieved so far and, if required, make any adjustments. Again, make sure that this is clear on your engagement letter.
Whilst all of the above may seem quite daunting for the person aspiring to set up their own bookkeeping or accountancy business, over time it will get easier.
Once you have been through the potential client interview process a few times, you will start to get a feel for the sort of issues you will need to deal with. And don’t forget, you will still need to go through the process with your existing clients as their business (and yours) evolve over the years and as you get to know each other more.
Henry Cooper FMAAT was AAT's 32nd President.