Practice Insight: Automation, accuracy and client care
Blue Penguin’s website, Facebook page and even its founder Peter Watkins’ LinkedIn profile (where he defines himself as ‘numbers guy’) all reflect the same thing: He doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Yet, Blue Penguin are very serious about the services they offer and some bold statements on their website such as “If you’re looking for a once a year ‘letter in the post with your accounts for signing’ type service, we’re probably not for you” shows that they have a very clear idea of the kind of accountancy practice they are.
Peter is also very serious about work-life balance, and this is, in fact, one of the reasons why he decided to set up his practice and work only with cloud systems, to have the flexibility to work from anywhere.
Technology is essential to reach that work-life balance, so he uses tools such as Google Meet and Zoom for meetings with his clients and delegates tasks to his bookkeeper through Senta when he needs to.
“We also use Calendly, which allows people to book a call at a time that I'm free. So if I block one day in my calendar that stops everyone booking it. It's about being quite disciplined and making sure that when you are out of the office you don't get dragged back into it.”
Learning to say no to clients when necessary is also important: “In any business, you always think that if you just had a couple more clients then life would be rosy, but it's not.
“Something that raises eyebrows with people is that I will not take on a new personal tax client after 1 December because that sort of person is likely to come to you every December or January with their tax. It can be tempting to take them on, but you are storing up trouble for the future.”
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The importance of adapting workflows to your firm
“Originally we were using spreadsheets for client management but then we missed a few deadlines and realised we needed proper software, so we tried a couple and decided to go with Senta.
A couple of months after starting to use it, I sat down to do what I should have done from the start: writing down in a piece of paper what my processes were for preparing accounts, VAT returns, payroll and so on.
Then I spent a lot of time tweaking the workflows in Senta to match what we did, rather than trying to change what we did to follow Senta.
Every practice is different. Ours consists of me as a chartered accountant and the certified bookkeeper that works with me. But if, for instance, your firm has juniors and trainees you might make each task in Senta much more detailed because they may need more prompting.
That's the great thing about this software – I know that if I wanted to add 200 tasks to create a set of accounts, I could do that.
Automated emails with a personalised touch
We've recently moved all our email to G Suite, which integrates really well with Senta. Now, if I send an email from Senta it also appears on my Gmail, so when I need to work out what I've spoken with a client I don't have to log into two systems.
Truth is I don't know if our clients realise that we using Senta – and I think that's a good thing.
Usually, when you receive an email from a company, you know that it comes from a robot. I think we have to be careful about that. It's important to take the time to make the automated emails sound like they are coming from you as a person because everybody writes differently.
For example, the default payroll workflow sends an email to a client saying something like ‘monthly payroll for [name of the company] Ltd.’ I think that looks a bit odd, because my client already knows it’s their payroll, so why would I add the name of their company?
It would be great if everything was automated in the back end and we didn't have to do anything, but it is important to make sure that the client experience doesn't deteriorate.
Time-saving is what people always bang on about with automation, but small firms are a bit reluctant because it requires a lot of time and input to get it to work in the first place.
In our case, as we have a very small practice there hasn’t been a massive time-saving from the automation of emails yet. But as we grow, that's going to pay dividends, so I'm hoping that in five years we'll think this is the best thing we ever did.
At the moment it is more about not forgetting to email clients when we need to, which is important. But it’s also about making sure that things are accurate.
For example, when it comes to payroll, we have set up automatic emails on a client-by-client basis, telling them the information they need to pay their tax. Normally there would be a risk that you might type the client's UTR the other way around or something like that, so having the automation in place we know that it's going to be right 100% of the time. ”