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Moving clients to digital: What do you do about the awkward ones?

8th Dec 2023
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In this extract from Natasha Everard's book, The Bookkeeper Superhero, she looks at the challenges of getting clients to go digital—and how you can convince every single one to make the move.

Woman on the phone at a hairdresser's reception desk.
Sage

Here in the UK, the big development recently affecting all bookkeepers and accountants has been Making Tax Digital. This government initiative legally mandates clients use digital record keeping for their taxes, and make tax return submissions, too. 

So far, it’s been rolled out for VAT, and in a few years’ time it’ll be rolled out for income tax and Self Assessment. Following that it’ll be rolled out for Corporation Tax. That’s the extent of the plans so far revealed by HMRC, but it’s not hard to imagine other taxes like Inheritance Tax one day falling within its boundaries, too. 

MTD for VAT was a difficult transition back when it was introduced in 2019, but it forced VAT-registered clients to go digital with their accounting much more quickly than would’ve happened organically. 

And this is what we need as accountants. We need our clients to be unafraid of digital technologies, because that’s how they’re going to communicate with us, and send us the data we need. 

Plus, it’s how we’re going to manage their time and resources when it comes to working with us.

Dare I say it, but the Covid pandemic helped too, making useful tools like the Zoom videoconferencing software a near-standard feature of phones and laptops.

So, step one in managing your client’s time is to get them to go digital for their accounting. You then need to manage how the clients use those digital tools, so that they’re a part of the process—and so that they want to be part of the process, too. Any client who has opted-in to your processes is the best kind of client! 

Automation and time management

Automation is the way forward. Nowadays, terrific tools like AutoEntry not only banish many accounting work processes, but also provide a great example of how you can work with clients to manage time better. You manage how the app is used, and the rewards follow naturally. 

AutoEntry means clients can snippet pictures of expenses, while on the go using their mobile phone. The accounting data is automatically extracted, and it then comes to your desktop, where you can then process it and publish it through to the client’s ledgers. 

I tell clients using AutoEntry is as simple as taking a selfie. For example, I’ve got a client who works in construction. On a visit to his wholesaler, he can either take a snapshot of the printed receipt when he gets back to his van, or he can forward the email containing the receipt to his special AutoEntry email address. Either way the data and an image of the receipt then comes to me.

It’s also possible to scan-in receipts, invoices or statements on the desktop and pass them to AutoEntry for extraction, which is what I do when clients send me paperwork.

AutoEntry enables the bookkeeping to become digital quickly, and it also takes a lot of mystery out of the bookkeeping process for the client. One of the biggest boosts is that they can’t lose a receipt, and that little image of the receipt stays in the software for however long it’s needed—say six years for income tax.

One client I work with has hundreds of invoices from the same supplier each month. These tend to end-up here, there and everywhere, and I can never be sure I get every one of them. AutoEntry has a supplier statement reconciliation feature, and it takes seconds to reconcile the supplier account, and then tell me what’s missing. Previously, that would take four or five days.

This is great for me in terms of managing my time, but for the client it also means they can stay on top of their expenditure. Everything’s more accurate, there’s no risk of data becoming hidden (by accident or deliberately!), and the client can forecast ahead, too. 

Client discovery

A part of your work initially with any client is around discovery. You need to talk to them and probe them. You need to find out what kind of deadlines they have, and when they’re due. You need to ask questions about their existing bookkeeping to try and discover the pacing they prefer, and what kind of touchpoints they have with their bookkeeping and accounting, as well as how many.

Are they good with technology? How automated are they already? What potential do they have for taking this further (e.g., are they a Luddite? Or do they show signs of already embracing tech, such as making good use of their mobile for personal stuff?).

This isn’t just about time management. It’s also about figuring out the job costing. If a client is going to be more demanding of your time, then you need to take this into consideration. As I discuss later in this chapter, some clients might not even be viable for you.

From your own perspective, you need to figure out how this new client will fit into your personal deadlines. For example, for the VAT returns I handle each month, all of my client returns need to be completed and submitted by the 15th. So, I stagger the deadlines I provide to clients for their paperwork to ensure I have the capacity. And I then stagger when I’ll process and submit each return.

I also use technology to send out automated email reminders to my clients to ensure they collate and send through the documents I require. 

Educating clients about going digital

Here are some things you can tell your clients to help nudge them towards adopting technology, in order to better manage their time when working with you:

  • Sustainability: In the old days you might drive to a client premises, and sit there for a few hours using a computer they provide, crunching through a stack of paperwork. Or the client might drive to you to drop off paperwork. Going digital removes the need for mileage, and you can use the same single computer for every client. It removes the need even for paperwork in the first place if you do it right (although even this far into the 21st century, a paperless office remains a pipe dream—you’ll still need a filing cabinet or two in your workplace).  
  • Legal requirements: Like it or loathe it, HMRC wants us all to have digital accounting. MTD legally mandates this, and there’s no opting out of it, outside of a handful of fringe cases based on genuine need or limitations (e.g., your client’s physical or mental condition makes complying with MTD impossible, or they live in a remote location where there’s no internet). In other words, digitisation is inevitable. Why wait until the last minute when the government forces you to do so?
  • Making life easier: Digital accounting is just easier for everybody. Yes, those processes that your client uses right now—like stuffing folders full of invoices and receipts—might feel like the easiest choice. But the reality is that they’re just immediate solutions. In the long term they’re actually time consuming, and swapping in a digital process can save almost unbelievable amounts of time. People who use AutoEntry say it reduces the time spent on data entry processes by 90%. Days previously spent inputting data turn into just hours, or hours spent on that turn into just minutes. 
  • Accuracy: Digital technology allows us to increase accuracy without even trying. For example, mistyping numbers into accounting software—known as fat finger syndrome—is much more common than we’d all like to admit. But using an app like AutoEntry means you can get up to 99% verified accuracy. This accuracy can also mean a lower chance of penalties from HMRC should the client end-up being audited. 

More challenging clients

Of course, there are clients who just will never go digital. They may own a mobile phone but use the most basic models, and never do much more than actually make calls using it. They don’t have email, and they don’t use the web. 

A lot of bookkeeper and accountant clients are farmers from the older generation, for example. Now, there are many modern and progressive farmers making excellent use of technology. But it does seem to be an industry where you find a good number of people at the more reticent end of the spectrum.

My experience is often that clients like this won’t go digital, no matter how much you nudge them, or educate them about how it’s about making life easier for them, as well as you. It’s simply not an option. 

Sometimes a client might be reluctant because there are things they want to hide, or they’re scared because their existing accounting is such a mess, and they suspect they haven’t been fully compliant in the past. 

Maybe these kinds of clients aren’t right for you. Sometimes you just have to be brutal. You can’t manage the time of a non-digital client, and in fact, attempting to do so just consumes more of your work time. 

But do explore alternatives before making that decision. Even if you can just get the client to activate open banking, for example, then that could be a game changer when you’re handling their accounting because you’ll be able to reconcile much more easily. The client doesn’t have to be technical to do this and it could involve just a single call to their bank. 

You may have to think outside the box with difficult clients, and be creative. For example, in preparation for the introduction or MTD for Income Tax and Self Assessment (MTD ITSA) in a few years’ time, I’m creating an additional service offering whereby clients are provided with prepaid packaging. I’m exploring options with courier firms to find a secure way of doing this, because that’s obviously a key element. But the client will periodically send me their paperwork like invoices, receipts and statements. I’ll then process it using AutoEntry and send it all right back to them. 

This will be priced into my fees, and I use GoProposal by Sage to ensure that the initial letter of engagement explains all of this, and to consistently price my clients and future clients.

This was an excerpt from The Bookkeeping Superhero, by Natasha Everard and sponsred by AutoEntry by Sage. The eBook is available for free download from Natasha's website or to buy in paperback.