Industry survey: Pandemic impact on accountants
We conducted a survey back in April, to see how our accountants’ and bookkeepers’ lives had been affected by COVID-19. It’s hard to believe that was 6 months ago.
As we move into winter and towards busy season, we’ve taken another health check of the industry. Last time we only surveyed our users, this time we went further and invited the wider accountancy community. It’s a good opportunity to take a step back, see how other practices have responded and consider steps you could take to ease the pressure moving forward.
Client support: How’s it going for you?
What support have you given to clients in the last six months?
The top three types of support that accountants and bookkeepers have been providing are no surprise. Naturally, ‘advice on government support’ has dropped from first place in our April survey, to third, as Rishi Sunak’s announcements have become less frequent.
What’s interesting is that the second three are ways that accountants have used their strengths to respond. Email updates have been the most popular, which was reflected by a giant surge in bulk emails sent through AccountancyManager in April. Rishi hasn’t finished yet and there are still a lot of questions hanging over your clients’ heads. So if you haven’t already, planning how to update specific clients with the right advice en masse is a good idea.
Providing advice and support ‘en masse’
Mass emailing is just one way that accountants have prevented having to field multiple calls about the same thing. Webinars are another option (for the brave) giving you the chance to explain things in more detail and answer questions in front of a live audience. If you’re considering webinars for your clients, our advice would be: don’t overthink it. The more natural and ‘to the point’ you are the better. You know your stuff, so there’s no need for scripts.
The bittersweet statistic here is the emotional support given. This won’t necessarily have been intentional, proactive support, but a natural result of the relationships accountants have established with their clients. This kind of support often goes under the radar, as you can’t track it, generate data on it or easily charge for it. Of course, this takes a toll on the accountant’s own emotions. Talking to firms for our ‘AM in Practice’ series recently has really brought that home to us.
We had to support them with their finances as well as emotionally, but all the software we’re using was helpful - without it, it would have been difficult.”
How has the level of client service been affected by lockdown and remote working?
It’s good to see that the majority of respondents were able to continue providing the same level of service to their clients, whether that be hitting deadlines or actively connecting with them. These practices are likely to be primarily cloud based, so when everyone started working from home, disruption was minimal.
Even better, however, is the fifth of accountants that report delivering a better level of client service. No doubt, this is in part due to the increased attention that clients have needed - and always received. It may also reflect new approaches that practices have implemented, such as Zoom calls and practice management software like AccountancyManager.
With AM, accountants can make more time to give clients individual support by automating various internal processes, such as onboarding new clients, chasing clients for information and managing your time.
Furlough claims: To charge or not to charge?
The decision whether or not to charge clients for furlough claims and COVID-related advice was an easy one for some - and had many others scratching their heads. As expected, the response was a mixed bag. Some respondents processed every claim for free, some charged a minimal set amount and some charged normal hourly rates. Overall the ‘nos’ had it, with 55.2% of practices not charging for furlough claims and advice.
We spoke to one accountant that went the full nine yards and kept going. Samantha Senior at SAS Senior Accounting Services set up a Facebook group to tackle the misinformation being shared online. “Overnight, there were over 800 people on there from small businesses. We made sure everything was sourced and checked, then we put it online. We were working with a really good lawyer as well. Then a board member at the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) was so frustrated by the misinformation being shared on their [FSB] forums that, at one point, he started directing everyone to our group!”
If you haven’t (charged), do you plan on commercialising that goodwill?
This is a tricky one, which brings to mind the morality question ‘Is any act entirely selfless?’ - as much of the free support accountants have provided, may unintentionally garner future loyalty or catch the eye of prospective clients. It was the people that consciously answered ‘yes’ to commercialising goodwill that piqued our interest.
Accountants and software developers alike, we care a great deal about our customers. We went into business for them, we wouldn’t still be in business without them and they shape what we do every day. But equally, we’re all running businesses that need to survive. Taking advantage of difficult situations is one thing, being there for your clients, then using that altruism to support your business goals further down the line, is quite another.
So how will people be ‘commercialising goodwill’? Answers ranged from the subtle: “We have looked at it as great service delivered and hopefully if and when we need to introduce a price increase, our clients will still be on our side.” ...to the more direct: “Valuation of free work in email.” With the marketing award going to: “Testimonials from clients on how we have helped them through the crisis, video if possible.” And our favourite: ”I hadn't thought about it till you asked the question. - we will talk about it now.”
One respondent has used COVID to kickstart a monthly webinar series: “I have built my mailing list for our weekly top tips and now have a series of monthly Money Matters webinars to keep people engaged.”
Working from home: Productivity and future plans
This time last year, the idea of a whole company working from home was, for some, a pie-in-the-sky dream. But COVID forced us all to test our remote-working infrastructures almost overnight. The switch in most cases proved a positive one, with 39.4% reporting a more productive workforce when working from home.
Has your team been more or less productive whilst working from home?
The more productive people referenced a home environment conducive to working remotely, as well as the right cloud-based tools in place. So it’s important to note that under ‘normal’ circumstances, with children at school, the ‘more productive’ percentage is likely to be higher. (Though you’d still have to contend with Zoom-bombing dogs and cats.)
Productivity hasn’t been hampered at all. We’re cloud accountants so working from home was just an extension of what we do anyway. AccountancyManager was great as it controls workflows without the need for us to be in the same office.”
- Anonymous survey respondent
For Marcus Bellis, Head of Sales at AccountancyManager, his ‘kids’ actually enhanced his productivity. “As my kids are all of working age, we had our own little ‘office’ - AM, a large American bank and a multinational insurance provider, all around the kitchen table.”
For those that responded ‘I don’t know’, systems like AccountancyManager can be a huge help in tracking time spent by the team and reducing unbillable hours.
Are you going to be expanding or continuing your working from home policy for staff?
Now, for the majority, remote-working in some form is a serious option going forward. 72.7% of respondents said that they’d expand or continue their current WFH policies. Having the right cloud-based software in place is at the heart of this decision.
In-house impact: Furloughs and redundancies
At AccountancyManager, we furloughed a brand new member of the sales team - so we could find our feet before training her up - and our office manager. We also had to let our events manager go, which was a real loss, personally and professionally. Statistics are all very interesting, but none should be considered without reflecting on the lives affected. Not least the more gut-wrenching statistics around the pandemic as a whole. Far from a ‘paid holiday’, being on furlough is fraught with isolation, boredom and uncertainty. Facing unemployment in the current economic climate is, obviously, even worse.
Have you put any staff on furlough?
Thankfully, the majority of practices in our study (60.6%) didn’t need to furlough any staff. Digging a bit deeper, it looks like business support/admin departments were the most affected at 42.3%. After that, practices cherry-picked roles from a variety of departments at 19.2%, with bookkeeping coming in third at 15.4%.
If yes, what departments have had staff furloughed?
Many practices are finding that automation software like AccountancyManager can replace certain admin functions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean retrenching. It could mean empowering staff to fulfil more analytical roles, managerial roles or strengthening your talent pipeline with trainee accountants.
Have you made any staff redundant due to COVID?
...And that’s exactly what we see here. Furloughing may shine a light on areas that software can help to cover, but the robots aren’t taking over just yet. Only 10.8% of practices have had to make staff redundant. Of course, it’s not all about software. Practices may have lost clients and had a decrease in work and income.
Technology and your clients: A new way forward or flash in the pan?
So how have your clients responded to the increase of online technologies, such as video calls and online document sharing and e-signing? Incredibly well. 97% of respondents think clients will want to continue with some form of tech. 72.7% preferring a mixture of online and traditional communication and a quarter perfectly happy with the new approaches.
Clients are used to us going to see them, but now they're saying “Why didn't you introduce [the portal] sooner?! You could have saved so much time!” - Sam Patel, Diamond Outsourcing
Do you think clients will want to return to traditional work methods or continue using tech?
Pre-COVID, video calls were rare. Now we’re all at it - keeping in touch with loved ones, quizzes (remember those?), even government cabinet meetings. Here at AM we’re finding that firms are a lot more open to having a catch up over Zoom, which helps as we can do a quick screen share if they’ve got a query while we’re chatting.
94% of respondents thought that video calls are ‘as good as’ or ‘a suitable alternative’ with only 6% either struggling with the technology or just preferring that face-to-face contact.
How effective have you found video calls for meetings?
Overall impact: How are practices fairing?
What impact has COVID had on your business metrics?
We end on a high note (just about), with a somewhat surprising figure. 43.9% of practices report a positive impact on their business metrics over the last 6 months. From chatting with AM users, we know that a more comprehensive adoption of their cloud software has helped many practices become more efficient and effective and cope with the pandemic. Releasing accountants from time-consuming tasks like onboarding, emailing and chasing clients, AccountancyManager can give you the time you need to focus on client support and actual accounting.
The 66.6% reporting positive or no impact to their metrics are likely to be those that were already unchained from their filing cabinets and utilising cloud technology. The remaining 33.3% - by no means, an insignificant number - have suffered from client losses, too many unbillable hours and potentially an internal structure incompatible with rapid change and remote working.