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Strength in numbers for the accountancy community | accountingweb
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Accountants know the strength in numbers

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Running your own business can be a lonely experience but, thanks to the power of community, accountants now know they can count on each other for support.

8th Nov 2022
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Ever had one of those days where it feels like everything has gone wrong? Your website goes down, a client complains, and the very important response you were waiting for from HMRC shows up as a missed call on your phone?

We’ve all been there. And when you’re working for yourself, then those days can be ever so lonely.

I remember back in the early days of Mazuma, during one of the first winters, seeing the light fade outside and knowing that I’d be working well into the depths of the night to get everything that needed doing, done. I felt utterly, utterly alone.

One-sided pictures

In 2006, before social media was the beast that it is today, the only insight I had into other people’s businesses was either what they told me, or what got reported in the local press. In Cardiff at the time there was a set of small businesses that had high growth on their minds. I’d meet them out and about at networking events and was in awe of what they were telling me they’d achieved. I couldn’t believe the numbers they were talking about. I’d go home feeling disheartened and down – never realising that people were painting a one-sided picture of how things were going.

Back then, when I turned to the accounting profession for guidance or support, things were less than ideal. As disruptors in the space, we were eyed with suspicion. How was I supposed to counter these concerns with my limited resources and reach?

Those first few years at Mazuma were exciting, yes. But they were also fraught with tension as we navigated not only being newcomers, but also doing things so very differently.

Different world

Fast forward to today, and the profession looks very different from the world that Mazuma started in. I see new firms being supported and encouraged by more established practices. I see mentoring, both formal and informal, between founders. And I see a set of businesses that cooperate more than they compete.

Competition exists in all areas of life, but it always struck me as odd when we started Mazuma, that the abundance mindset wasn’t more prevalent in accounting. After all, each firm had its upper limit of clients that it wanted to service, and parameters by which they selected their clients. Not every firm can be everything to everyone – and what we’d seen was a gap in the market for our offering.

Now, however, we’re delighted that we are able to collaborate with other firms to achieve the best result for their clients. 

But what has given rise to this shift in attitude?

Love it or hate it, social media has played a huge part in building a community within accountancy. Of course, there is an element of people only sharing the highlight reels of their lives, but there is also a healthy dose of realism in a lot of the posts. Seeing newer firms talking about their challenges as they grow is heartening. I wish when I was starting out, that I’d been able to know that we were not alone in the challenges we faced.

This very publication has also played a huge role in building a community in the space. Since 1997, AccountingWEB has been bringing the profession together to talk about the most pressing issues of the day. At the start, that was focused mainly on the latest forecasting tool or budget updates, but it has evolved into a community that discusses a whole range of issues from tech, to growth to mental health.

Loneliness of the long-suffering accountant

So why does this matter?

As I mentioned, running a business can be incredibly lonely. You have to wear all the hats, all at once. Marketing, sales, recruitment, networking, admin, getting the actual work done – it’s a lot. Friends and family may nod along when you talk about what you do, but in their heads, you’re just an accountant. The endless work that accompanies running your own practice won’t even occur to them. So when you go to a family dinner, or out with friends, and they say, “How’s work?” you end up mumbling something about “Oh, busy!” and then leave it at that.

But when you have a community of people who you can share your peaks and troughs with, suddenly, the world seems a little less grey.

That nightmare client who rings your mobile at 10pm on a Friday? Someone else has experienced that too. Feeling like you’ve never got time for yourself? Yep, been there! Finding it hard to say no to a client who still owes you money for the last urgent work you did for them? Oh, I could tell you some stories!

It might not seem like much, but you really can’t put a value on the sense of relief of knowing other people are facing the same challenges as you.

It seems that the accounting community has become a safe space for practitioners to share things outside of asking for the odd bit of quirky tax advice. Gone are the days when we’d only dare to post a question on a forum if it was definitely something weird and wonderful. Now, I see people discussing best practices and staff stories, as well as the usual tax trivia, of course.

The power of community will undoubtedly allow us all to thrive as professionals, and drive the profession forward. It’s true that there really is strength in numbers – pun fully intended!

Lucy Cohen is one of the curators at AccountingWEB Live Expo, which is the perfect opportunity to connect with your peers in the accounting community. Register today to attend.

 

Replies (21)

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By Ralphgab
08th Nov 2022 10:56

After another frustrating morning where a client is due a CIS refund but HMRC say they can't find where the tax has been deducted and waiting for replies to 2 letters because different officers are dealing with different tax years and are even at different addresses, and the phone to one officer has no-one available and the other is busy at 10:11 and 10:12 but has no-one available at 10:25, why, If there's strength in numbers, aren't we demanding better service from HMRC?

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By Ian McTernan CTA
08th Nov 2022 13:04

We demand it all the time. It falls on deaf ears, as our Institutes don't want to rock the boat and so don't really push hard, and HMRC can ignore agents (and indeed exclude them from lots of things).

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By johnjenkins
08th Nov 2022 13:04

I trained in the mid sixties and Accountants always discussed things. Maybe on the golf course or in a pub a bit more than today but HMRC, investigations and tax planning were always discussed. I have seen no difference through the years. The only difference now appears to be a perception that social media has increased that discussion.

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By Paul Crowley
08th Nov 2022 13:21

The difference was that people knew who there were talking to

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Replying to Paul Crowley:
Morph
By kevinringer
08th Nov 2022 14:36

Also, we usually spoke to the local tax office that was staff by experienced people who knew tax. Today we have different "helplines" for each tax who know nothing about the other taxes, and are often staffed by people fresh out of training who can't do anything that isn't on their script. The HMRC of 2022 is full of Information Technology, but we have less information that we did in the days of manual records.

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By Open all hours
09th Nov 2022 09:11

Exactly. Local tax offices with experienced staff. A world that worked for everyone. I caught the very tail end of it, now, I wish I hadn’t. It would make it so much easier to accept todays abomination of a ‘service’.

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By Geoff56
08th Nov 2022 14:35

In the 80s and early 90s in the town where I work, we even had a couple of get togethers every year with people from the local Inland Revenue offices (as they were then). These engendered a huge amount of goodwill, as well as understanding of things from the other side's perspective.

As a sole practitioner with just one employee (part-time), I agree with Lucy's point that it can be a very lonely and difficult role. On more than one occasion, in situations of real stress and worry, I have been immensely grateful for the support of fellow accountants. Sadly two of my stalwarts have now shuffled off this mortal coil.

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By johnjenkins
09th Nov 2022 08:49

I remember those soiree's well. Then suddenly HMRC started to get quite aggressive. An attitude of "if you want a fight, we'll give you one". It was round about the time when Gordon Brown decided to have a go at the self-employed. Can anyone else remember the change in attitude?

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By Geoff56
09th Nov 2022 09:06

John, my perception was/is that it was partly a consequence of the closure of the local tax offices. Personal relationships vanished and HMRC became a faceless and, yes, a more aggressive organisation.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Morph
By kevinringer
09th Nov 2022 09:44

I recall the change in attitude and I agree with Geoff's comment that it occurred at the time the local tax offices closed. Prior to the closure of the local offices, HMRC often referred to itself as an "enabling" organisation. In those days, not only did it host local Working Together meetings, it also held workshops of agents and taxpayers for SA, PAYE and CIS. Also, when a client registered for VAT, HMRC would phone them a month or so later to enquire whether they were coping with their VAT obligations. HMRC wanted to nip problems in the bud so that the first VAT return would be correct. SA clients could even turn up at the local office with their records and the staff would help them put their figures together. That is such a far cry from the HMRC of 2022. HMRC chose not to continue with these levels of support when the local tax offices closed. That's when HMRC ceased to be an enabling organisation. I personally don't feel they wanted a fight, because in fact the level of enquiries dropped off. I would say about 1% of my clients went under enquiry when we had local offices, now it is 0%. HMRC are certainly distant and have lost touch with their "customers".

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By johnjenkins
09th Nov 2022 13:54

Certainly the level of "low risk" investigations reduced. I would assume that part of the reason for that was "less staff". It took 5-10 minutes to sort out a CIS refund for Ltd Company on the phone, now it can take years. You really do have to ask the question. Is Higher technology in our profession (I include HMRC in this) really needed? I feel the that when progress and higher technology is "natural" then things progress rather nicely and in order. This mandatory attitude won't work.

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By User deleted
09th Nov 2022 10:03

In the "good old days" the local tax office knew you. I could phone my local office and actually speak to someone within minutes, or I could walk in and speak to someone face to face. Time the visit just before lunch and there were several who would have a pint in the 'pub over the road while we discussed problems.
Now you phone them in the faint hope that you might get to speak to someone in a couple of hours and maybe, just maybe, they might actually know what you are talking about - but it's highly unlikely.

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Replying to User deleted:
Morph
By kevinringer
09th Nov 2022 10:20

When we phoned our local tax office, the person who answered the phone knew each one of us by voice alone. They never needed to ask who we were and in those days the caller's phone number wasn't displayed. We knew all the senior staff by name (though in those days it was usually on a formal basis). It was also a two-way relationship: they would sometimes phone us if they had a general enquiry eg company law. All the senior staff would have retired by now, but I wonder if any of the young HMRC staff from those days still work for HMRC today, and if so, what their view is of the HMRC of 2022.

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By Jimess
09th Nov 2022 11:28

I suspect it will be pretty much the same as ours. It's a real shame as HMRC lost a lot of good and extremely knowledgable staff when they closed the local offices in our town, people who really knew their stuff and were helpful and considerate towards taxpayers (and agents). I have worked in practice since 1976, with the exception of three or four years out, and for around 20- 25 years of that time built up good relations with the local tax offices, district inspectors and staff. The tax office staff were very much respected and in turn respected agents, it was very much a feeling of "working together", particularly in the late 1990's when self assessment and the current year basis were introduced. Issues were debated and local tax office staff were sometimes sent on the same CPD courses as agents so that they could get a "take" on what the issues were in relation to a particular topic from our point of view. The cull of local district offices has in my view resulted in a fragmented service and I am getting the feeling more and more these days that the HMRC centralisation project has not only resulted in HMRC being too far removed from the taxpayers, but it has made tax management at HMRC far too big to handle. Unfortunately they no longer have experienced staff with sufficient knowledge of the tax system and the needs of the people that are involved - i.e taxpayers, agents, HMRC staff, to help get it back on track.

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Replying to kevinringer:
Lone Wolf
By Lone_Wolf
09th Nov 2022 16:29

Having only ever worked under the "new" HMRC, your tales of times gone by are rather depressing :(

How did HMRC get to be in the mess that it is in today? Trying to speak to anyone who knows what they are talking about is near impossible. I almost got through to a technician the other week. Almost. They cut me off when transferring!

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By kevinringer
09th Nov 2022 18:35

Is having a shambolic national tax authority something unique to Britain, or does this occur in other countries too?

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By johnjenkins
10th Nov 2022 09:13

That's a very interesting question but really does anyone care about other tax authorities (except international Accountants and tax advisors). I've got a client who has to do an American tax return - it's like a book.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Morph
By kevinringer
10th Nov 2022 09:58

I asked because in the early days of promoting MTD, HMRC often sited other tax authorities and how much more digitally advanced they are. It's all very well HMRC holding up other authorities are digital-goals, but I'm wondering how HMRC itself compares.

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By User deleted
10th Nov 2022 09:53

In some South American countries if you don't pay your tax you "disappear". Maybe we should be grateful for small mercies.

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By johnjenkins
10th Nov 2022 11:15

In Russia you disappear even if you have paid your taxes.

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By FirstTab
16th Nov 2022 10:33

Disagree. Not a huge deal has changed beyond the window dressing as support for each other.

In the end, we are competitors. Claims of community and support are mere puff and self-promotional.

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