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Happy with your app stack? Or overwhelmed with options?

29th Jul 2022
Brought to you by
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Award winning CRM & practice management software

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Love or hate the term ‘app stack’ (it is polarising), the software your business uses and how these systems work together is a hot topic. 

At Accountex, Aaron Patrick from Boffix spotted a theme. “The opening conversation I’d have with most other business owners was: “So are you QuickBooks or Xero? AccountancyManager or something else…?’ It’s like this division in the industry…” 

One thing we don’t have right now, is lack of choice!” - Dermot Hamblin

With so much change in the industry and so many software options to choose from, we put app stacks under the microscope with five people ‘in the know’. 

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Our panellists:

Dermot Hamblin was the 44th employee of IRIS back in 1996. Today he runs Smart Digitised Practice, working with software vendors on go-to-market strategies and accountancy firms.

Nicolas Vrillaud heads up customer acquisition and partnerships at Mettle, a challenger bank for UK small businesses from NatWest. Mettle is three years old and has 50,000+ customers. 

Katie Hoare looks after the practice solutions and sales enablement team at Dext. Previously, Katie was a practising accountant for 13 years and was responsible for digital transformation.

Lydia Read-Potter owns and runs BookSmart Accounting, a digital-focused practice launched in 2021. 

Aaron Patrick is a chartered accountant, owner of Boffix and a certified QuickBooks trainer. Aaron is the earliest of early adopters and offers advice to businesses on their tech stacks.

What’s the ‘new standard’ for tech in accountancy practices?

Dermot: That’s a nice broad question to start with! Firms that adopt technology early on might hit brick walls, lose time or make poor decisions, but the knowledge they gain and the culture that generates is what a ‘true digital firm’ is.  

Saying ‘yes, we’re a Xero firm’, or QuickBooks or whatever, is pretty much basic at this point. A truly digital firm is one that puts clients first, interacts with clients often, gives clients a good experience and collects data. 

By putting technology in the hands of clients, you’re getting regular information drip-fed into the firm on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.” - Katie 

Katie: Using technology – like Dext – means it’s not so onerous or daunting for clients delivering everything once a year. By putting technology in the hands of clients, you’re getting regular information drip-fed into the firm on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, so it’s only going to benefit everyone. 

When I was an accountant, I had a client that’d call up and say “I want accounts for a mortgage application and I need it tomorrow…” It’d be ‘drop everything, get the juniors to help’ to get it done. Now, with technology, accountants have the most up to date information – and they can start to use that to advise clients in real-time too.

Lydia: Technology is just part of life now. The average age of the business owner is lower than it’s ever been. They want tech to be part of what they do, no matter what their business is. So it flows through that they’d want their accounts in an instant as well.

It also makes my life easier. I was laughing at the mortgage comment, we get that all the time, but now we can provide numbers straight away, if it wasn’t for tech we wouldn’t be able to.

What does your app stack look like?

Aaron: When I was looking at our app stack in preparation for today, it struck me how essential Microsoft Teams has become. We have it as our phone system now too, so staff can communicate with clients in there. 

Hubspot has been the biggest shift in our mentality as a business. The idea that you can turn an email into ticket that have to own and complete. Of course, AccountancyManager is one we always talk about – and how crucial it is. 

Before you know it your monthly subscriptions are 10-fold, but that’s the only way you can compete and offer that experience to your clients.”

Then it’s the tools you need to complete the work, so Quickbooks, Xero, FreeAgent… Then we have our accountancy production suite – Capium – that puts it all together and generates tax returns. Once you have that sorted, you can look at what else is out there. How you can improve onboarding? And marketing? 

How do you decide which software to choose?

Dermot: One thing we don’t have in the UK is a lack of choice! I think where a lot of practices go wrong is they don’t look at what they’ve got and they don’t continue training. SaaS software is continually improving, so it can be hard to stay up to speed. 

Have that list of essentials and nice-to-haves that you come back to. If you don’t have that framework, you get swamped.” - Dermot

Look at what you’ve got and, if it’s not fit for purpose, highlight where it lacks. Make a list of your critiques and stick to those core points when you speak to vendors. Look at no more than five, then narrow that down to three that you trial, and one or two that you go in-depth with.

Lydia: For our internal software, I went through many trials to find the software that was right for our practice and that staff were most comfortable with. The most important thing is: Make sure it’s solving your problems. Identify your problems and find software that solves them.

For software our clients use… practices approach this differently. Some people will only work with clients who are on Sage or Xero for example and turn away clients that don’t want to use it. That’s fine and that can lead to efficiencies. 

Don’t be afraid to be client led.” - Lydia

On the other hand, we work with whatever software works for the client. The biggest problem is when clients don’t use the software, there’s no use to that, so you may as well let them use what they’re happy with. Don’t be afraid to be client led. 

Clients are being advertised to directly and this has never happened before. Often they’ve signed up before they speak to you. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just make sure they’re making informed decisions not just choosing the next shiny thing!

It’s important that we’re ahead of that, communicating with clients saying, ‘these are your options, feel free to do free trials and speak to other businesses like yours.

 I look at the software I’m using and trust, then go to their integrations page – that’s normally a really good indication.”- Aaron

Nicolas: Practices are building full tech stacks around the accounting software they pick. And increasingly, banks are forming a part of that stack too. 

One of the challenges we tackled at Mettle was real-time bank feeds for Xero and FreeAgent, because that’s what we heard from accountants that they needed. Everything we do is to help accountants and their clients never come back to that shoebox moment!

How do you profit from your use of tech?

Dermot: As a business owner you’re always looking to improve that bottom line, whether that comes from direct ROI or improving customer experience which leads to greater retention and more referrels. 

...have standard operating processes, so you’re all operating in the same way.” 

One firm I worked with (of about 100 people) found 33 reasons why technology projects had failed in the past. 50% of these reasons was nothing to to do with technology, it was culture in the firm. You’d have partners saying, ‘well that’s fine for everyone else, but I’m going to carry on the way I’ve always done.’

One of the key things is to have standard operating processes, so you’re all operating in the same way. Map your processes out, then it’s the job of managers to make sure they’re followed.

I hear from partners that weekly meetings with managers are all about checking whether data is correct… And we all know it’s ‘Freddy’ – he’s always going to do things his way. One person out of sync it’s going to screw up your work. Get processes in place, follow them, then you can improve them.

Then those meetings with partners will be fulfilling meetings and not about checking data. 

To be perfectly honest, we’re at the stage now where tech enables us to go way beyond that.

Katie: That’s what we do as part of onboarding for Dext Precision – getting accountants to map out their processes. It’s amazing when you get everyone in a room and they write out how they do a VAT job, a Year End job, a monthly bookkeeping job… and it’s so different across the firm! I couldn’t agree more with Dermot, streamline those processes, align everyone.

Aaron: Over the last three years we’ve been laser focused on this and we’ve nailed it down to three areas: One, automating as much as we can. 

When I first started in accountancy, we had a room of admin staff and their whole job was answering calls and sending letters. We don’t have any member of staff doing that. We’ve automated the whole process so we can reinvest their time and expertise into having proactive conversations with clients. Shifting that over has increased our fees because.

Secondly, advising clients on software for their businesses. We're looking to automate our processes, so why can't we do that for our clients as well? That becomes another fee structure, gives us the opportunity to build stronger relationships with clients and makes us more sticky for them.

Finally, it's the social media and video aspect – which is all part of the tech stack these days too. Every time we bring on a new client, we don't do the spiel every time, we send them a video. If a client asks us how to make a payment, we send them a video.

We can see in our numbers that each one of those is adding percentage after percentage of percentage to our profit bottom line. So I really do see that tech is that way where if you've done right, there is definitely some major opportunities there to improve your practice.

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