Recent commentary on the completion of self assessment work shows that many accountants continue to complete much of their SA work in a few frantic weeks before 31 January, says Frank Woods.
Considerable attention has been paid to getting clients to bring work in earlier with many practices now offering incentives (or penalties) to encourage timely delivery.
Yet focusing on when work is to be delivered may be addressing a symptom rather than the problem itself. In many cases, the problem is what work the client is being asked to do.
We put off tasks we don’t like
Many, perhaps most, small business owners hate doing or even preparing the books. They are typically busy people who are good at what they do but accounting, or even just paperwork, does not come easily to them. As a consequence, they tend to put off these tasks. This is an entirely human failing - many of us put off the difficult jobs in favour of things that we are good at.
The ‘do it for me’ generation
Some believe that doing the books is an essential part of running a business and that owners should just grit their teeth and bear it. By this logic though, shouldn’t part of owning a home be fixing the plumbing? Or changing the oil a task for car owners?
Although the DIY approach once applied very broadly, we now live in an age where we outsource jobs we find tedious, complicated or time-consuming. In this environment, it’s understandable that small businesses owners might expect the same when it comes to doing the books.
The challenge for accountants is to understand what work each client is willing and able to do, and to cater to the different types of engagement.
Who does what
In any portfolio of clients there is likely to be a diversity of willingness and ability when it comes to doing or preparing the books. Small business clients might be divided into three broad groups:
- The DIY accountants – use small business accounting software to correctly and efficiently do the books themselves, providing their accountant with substantially reconciled accounts requiring checking rather than re-work
- The meticulous preparers – keep manual records or spreadsheets, but do so in a timely, well-organised fashion. While such jobs often require accountants to perform a lot of manual work, it’s at least relatively low stress as the information required is at hand.
- The ‘Do-it-for-me’ candidates – may use manual records, spreadsheets or accounting software, but tend to provide their accountant with incomplete or incorrect records. Chasing up the missing bits can be time-consuming for accountants and clients alike. Given the choice, these clients would be happy to hand most/all of the accounting process to someone else, provided the price was affordable
Identifying which clients belong in which category can be a sobering experience for accountants. Most will find a significant proportion are ‘do-it-for-me’ candidates (even though they may believe themselves to be meticulous preparers or even DIY accountants).
Accountants who feel they have an over-abundance of ‘do-it-for-me’ clients should take heart from the fact that this group of clients may represent the greatest revenue opportunity for the modern, automated accounting practice.
Embracing the ‘do-it-for-me’ opportunity
Our ongoing research study with AccountingWEB has shown that too much work is accountants’ biggest challenge – and not just at year-end. Likewise, the research shows that the cost of manual ‘fix-up’ work often surpasses the fees clients will pay; resulting in write-offs on 80% of such jobs. To profitably capitalise on the ‘do-it-for-me’ opportunity, accountants must therefore overcome two internal hurdles – capacity and cost.
Using technology to increase capacity & reduce costs
In the face of challenges like hiring and retaining staff, accountants are increasingly looking towards technology to get through their work.
Technologies such as cloud accounting are enabling work to be more easily shared with those clients who have the time and skill to do it, while practice automation technologies such as bank data feeds are allowing accountants to process vast quantities of client data with the press of a button.
As such, technology is allowing accountants to revisit the question of ‘who does what’ with a range of options to suit differing needs and abilities of clients. The DIY accountants, equipped with cloud accounting software, can stay on top of their business anywhere and share the data with their accountant in real-time. Meanwhile, accountants can be relieved of manually processing the work of the meticulous preparers using technology such as document scanning solutions.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, practice automation technologies are enabling accountants to embrace the opportunity amongst their ‘do it for me’ candidates. Technology such as automatic bank data feeds and transaction processing allow them to simultaneously relieve clients of the burdens of collating information, while effectively eliminating manual data entry and re-keying from their practice workload and cost base.
Addressing the ‘what’ rather than the ‘when’
Accountants frustrated by the late arrival of client records and/or the time they spend processing these should consider what tasks they are requiring their clients to perform, rather than when such tasks should be completed.
Delays and re-work are commonly associated with a mismatch between the tasks clients are being asked to perform and their willingness and ability to do them.
Accountants now have a range of technologies that enable them to provide different solutions to different client types – including those clients who wish to have as little as possible to do with their accounting.
This large ‘do-it-for-me’ group have historically represented accountants’ biggest headache but now, with the aid of practice automation technologies, may represent accountants’ greatest opportunity.
Frank Woods is the UK & Ireland general manager of Bankstream.