Practice of the Future Part 3: Tried-and-tested tools and techniques

By Jake Martin

10 min read

 

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This blog post is adapted from a ‘Practice of the Future’ whitepaper, part of a series written by John Stokdyk, editor of AccountingWEB.co.uk, and sponsored by Intuit.

Prefer to print out and read the article? Download the full whitepaper now

In the first two parts of our series on creating a sustainable practice of the future we looked at the changing face of accountancy, the trends you can’t ignore, and how you can adapt to take advantage of them. In this final article we’ll suggest some of the tools and techniques you need to future-proof your practice.

Technology features prominently in the first two guides of this series. It will play a key role in helping ambitious firms to thrive in the years to come. Here, we’ll help you define the direction and principles of your firm and discuss the best technologies to put your strategies into practice.

What are the components for success?

Steve Pipe highlights excellent service as one of 15 key drivers for successful firms: “They understand what excellent service means to the type of clients they want to attract, and have focused their energy and designed their systems in order to deliver that.”

In the future, the most successful accountants will be those who push Pipe’s vision to the fullest extent to create a “whole firm” culture that delivers consistently high service levels.

If you have noticed frequent appearances from some of the more gung-ho practice consultants in these Practice of the Future guides, it’s no coincidence. Their enthusiastic urgings may not be to everyone’s taste, but their strategies for growth and profitability are remarkably consistent – and produce demonstrable results when put into practice.

Accountant Bootcamps founder Paul Dunn, for example, advises breaking your business down into smaller individual processes. Examine every process and consider at every step how you could make it a “remarkable” experience for your clients. Once you have embarked on this systematic review, keep going and document all of the processes that touch on your clients within the organisation. Clients will make wider judgments about your practice based on positive experiences in seemingly inconsequential areas such as how the phone is answered or meetings are arranged.

The changing technology landscape

Consumer tools such as Dropbox, Twitter and Google Apps are finding their way into accountancy practices. If you don’t give your recent recruits the ability to use them, they will bring their own devices (BYOD) to work and access them anyway. But did you ever consider they may be using those devices to help clients? Or market your firm? Before you make a rule to disallow use of the devices, pause and consider the benefits.

Cloud computing and mobile phones make it possible to deal with clients queries and provide services and advice from almost any location. This is just as well, as firms are also coming under pressure from clients who use online banking and financial products, and wonder why they can’t do the same with their accountants.

Microsoft Outlook has formed the bedrock of many practices’ email, calendars and contacts in recent years, but the cloud is eroding email’s importance. Inboxes fill up with thousands of messages (much of them spam) and criss-crossing emails do not provide a good mechanism for sharing important information, collaborating on documents or completing a structured process.

Increasingly, firms are turning to client-specific web portals to transfer financial and tax data. Collaborative apps and private social media such as Salesforce.com’s Chatter system make it easier to share ideas internally and externally.

Technology continues to develop at a breathtaking pace with something newer and even better always lurking just around the corner. As one new innovation emerges to overtake the last one, practices will have to get used to all manner of hybrid systems. Accountancy firms could be left with a collection of fragmentary processes and operations if too many interesting experiments are allowed to run free.

By all means experiment – and encourage your teams to do the same – but always keep a clear eye on what you want the tools to do, and only use those that serve the strategy and objectives you want to achieve.

Communication tools: mobile, web and social media

Martini-style communication – “anytime, anyplace, anywhere” – is becoming the norm for all of us, both at work and play. The second Practice of the Future guide discussed harnessing these capabilities to tie accountants more closely to their clients. But there are also efficiency benefits to be gained: just ask those firms who already let clients see electronic copies of their returns and approve them for automatic e-filing with the touch of a button on their iPad or smartphone. Additionally, the digital natives you are hiring expect to be fully connected all the time and relish this way of working.

Mobile technology

Online accounting systems will work in a browser on almost any device, and some come with companion apps that make it even easier to capture expenses or timesheets. Web portals offer similar benefits and let both the practitioner and the client store, access and transfer files when and where they see fit.

Mobiles and tablets are also a great new way to deliver information and insights to tech-savvy clients. As well as developing an innovative business intelligence service that draws on clients’ management accounts, Practice Excellence Award-winner Milsted Langdon delivers its findings via mobile phones or tablet devices, so clients can pick up the information when they want.

“Making information available electronically has not only enabled us to engage with a new generation of clients and prospective clients for whom technology forms an integral part of their day-to-day business activities, it has also enabled us to work more efficiently, saving both time and money,” the firm reports.

Cloud-based collaboration

For all the impact online accounting has had, don’t discount the changes brought about by other cloud tools such as client portals, online meeting places and social media. If online services continue to grow at the current rate, the cloud will become the location for everyday computing by the end of the decade. And by its very nature, that environment will be collaborative.

Web-based accounts bring you right into the client’s business. So why not follow Milsted Langdon’s example and use the cloud as a vehicle for added value services such as monthly management packs, key performance indicators (KPIs) and cashflow forecasts?

Social media

Communication tools that have appeared in the 21st Century can all support your transition to becoming a more “relational” adviser. This is particularly true of social media. Blogs and status updates are a great way to keep your clients and prospects up to date with the latest developments at your firm, but don’t make the mistake of viewing it as a broadcast medium.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like are about building relationships with the people you do, or may do, business with. Treat your online socialising as a gigantic networking cocktail party: don’t buttonhole and sell to every guest you meet. Instead, listen to them and take the time to learn more about them and their areas of interest – some of which may coincide with the services you are able to offer.

As we mentioned in the second guide, you should track the contacts you make online and profile them in your prospect database.

Practice management tools: keep the focus on clients

Customer relationship management

You already maintain a database of clients with their basic contact details, correspondence and archives of past work. You should now be looking at ways to build on the data you already have to steer your client-focused future strategy.

A CRM database gives you new ways to analyse clients and prospects. It can help you assess the effectiveness of your marketing efforts and zero in on the areas where you have been most successful in winning new business. Used properly, CRM software can be a godsend for targeting new clients, managing referrals and generating follow-up letters.

As Practice Excellence Award winner Stark Main & Co emphasises in its client care charter, each client’s preferred mode of communication is one of the most important pieces of data that is recorded.

Less paper processes

Paperless systems can help your firm become even more responsive. Electronic documents mean less clutter (and expensive storage space) and will improve your efficiency as they are faster and easier to trace. The more you make your processes paperless, the less effort you will waste moving physical files around and searching for missing pieces of information. If you opt for a secure web portal, you and your clients could even access the files remotely on mobile devices. Portals also allow your staff to work remotely and flexibly, without loss of productivity.

An integrated approach to client care

Monitoring how services are delivered should be a priority for any client-focused accountancy firm, and both CRM and paperless facilities come packaged with some of the more sophisticated practice management applications.

Integration is your friend. The more you can work towards seamless, easy-to-manage automated systems, the better you will fare in the years to come. In addition to handling billing and resourcing, some practice programs allow you to create work assignments and compile individual to-do lists to prioritise work.

What goes in can also come out, so you should be able to review completions against assigned deadlines and assess the work carried out against the revenue from your clients.

The other source of data that should influence your analysis is what clients tell you. The Practice Excellence Programme has demonstrated that client satisfaction is key to growth and profitability, so devise ways to collect and monitor how well you are meeting their expectations. For example, one firm follows up every piece of work with clients to get feedback and responds to any points raised for improvement.

Measure what you want to manage – and use feedback to improve performance

We’ll turn once again to Steve Pipe for advice on the importance of measurement systems: “Successful firms don’t just rely on traditional accounting measures. They work out what really matters – what drives their success – both financial and non-financial.

“They find ways of measuring all those success drivers, set targets, use the results to inform decision making and make people transparently accountable for performance and results.”

Stark Main follows Pipe’s advice assiduously: “We measure, report and monitor the client’s service metrics within each manager’s portfolio, in terms of turnaround times, client satisfaction levels and financial performance.”

As a highly profitable practice and multiple award winner that keenly focuses on its client base in the Scottish Borders, Stark Main’s approach produces demonstrable results.

You may not want to emulate everything that such pathfinders recommend, but if some of the ideas in this Practice of the Future series have caught your interest, pick them up and experiment with them in your firm.

You’ll need to give yourself and your team the flexibility and space to test out and adopt new tools, but remember to allow for different technology tastes and working preferences among both staff and clients. Stick with the tools that suit your working practices, make things better for your clients and support your long-term objectives.

The future won’t suddenly appear in a bright flash in five years’ time. It’s already happening around you and will take shape as a result of the small, incremental steps you start taking now.

Download the full whitepaper now

The Intuit ProCloud Partner Programme offers a package of benefits and support to help accounting professionals looking to work with their clients online. The ProCloud Partner Programme benefits are free to accountants and bookkeepers with at least one QuickBooks Online active client*. Join now.

* Terms and conditions apply. Subject to ProCloud partner agreement.
 [Image courtesy of artur84/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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