The Sage Impact Award Winner (who never planned to have a practice)

31st Aug 2021
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Accountancy Manager
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Many people have itchy feet for a while before launching a business. Donna, however, loved her previous role and never planned to leave. It was exploring new technology that sparked an interest that would become Accrual World Accounting Solutions. 

Only one year into her business and Donna Hannaby has just picked up Best New Practice at the Sage Impact Awards. If only they had one for Best Practice Name Pun too… AM’s Jonathan spoke to Donna about her journey to becoming an award-winning business owner and her experience with AM. 

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When little girls dream of being accountants

Last week, AM user Caroline Hocking stated “No little kid dreams of being an accountant.” Caroline, meet Donna. “I always wanted to be either a teacher or an accountant,” she says. “I don’t know where either of those came from!”. Donna still couldn’t decide at university, so did a degree in English, before finally settling on accountancy. 

I got the job, then cried for a week. Not with happiness, with absolute dismay at the tiny salary they were going to pay!”

“At the time, I was working the check out at Asda while studying at uni. I wrote letters to about 40 local accountants, asking them to take me on. I got a couple of lovely replies saying ‘no, but good luck.’ Lots of rejections. Lots of no replies at all. And I got one interview at a practice in Durham. I got the job, then I cried for a week. Not with happiness, with absolute dismay at the tiny salary that they were going to pay!”

…and discover the nightmare of audit work

Once on the career ladder, Donna spent a few years zero-ing in on her ideal role, trying out an audit role in Hartlepool. “I had a knack for audit, but absolutely detested it. So I set about finding a role where I wouldn’t have to do any audit. That’s when I moved to a practice in Sunderland ” Donna would stay, very happily, there for the next 15 years. Until, by Donna’s own admission, they shot themselves in the foot… 

MTD creates a passion for efficiency and client experience 

“Until about three years ago, it was great. I just kept my head down, churned out Limited Company accounts quite happily. Then MTD came on the horizon and the partners asked me if I would take on the role of cloud champion and rolling out MTD across the client base.” 

“Choosing the software, segmenting the client base, finding out who it affected… I taught myself what needed to be done, how to do it and rolled it out.”

I’m quite happy being the accountant nerd, I love bank recs. But this was a different side to it…”

“What that did was spark a real interest in technology and how we can use it to change the customer experience and the accountant’s working experience. Less of the mundane, data entry stuff and more time really getting into the figures and delivering value.” 

AM – providing a complete foundation for new practice owners

Donna set up Accrual World Accounting Solutions in 2020 from her home in Easington in County Durham. Now she has a varied online clientbase. “It ranges from landlords with one property and CIS contractors. Then there’s steel fabricators and cafés. Also some larger businesses who have other accountants that do the Year End compliance and tax and I do bookkeeping and reviewing their systems.”

AccountancyManager was the first software I chose for my business.”

Ready to use – straight out of the ‘box’

“I had a trial with AccountancyManager and what I liked straight away was that it was ready to use out of the box, which is what I needed. I was starting from scratch with no experience of how to run a practice.”

It’s all of the stuff that comes with being a practice owner rather than an accountant that I find is most valuable in AM.”

“It’s particularly useful for me, because although I’ve got lots of experience in practice, it wasn’t at the level of running the practice. I’ve worked with deadlines my whole life. But for me it’s the onboarding and the compliance, the risk assessments, the AML checks – all that stuff that was outside my remit before, that’s very much inside my remit now. And really, really important to get right.”

Onboarding: The beginning of a great ongoing client experience 

In the past, Donna had to rely on others to gather new client information. “That was one of my main bugbears. We had a client onboarding sheet but it was never filled in properly. Now, with AM, you’re never going in blind. You have everything about the client that you need to know. And if you don’t, the system tells you the missing date or missing deadline or whatever, so you can chase that.”

It’s just seamless. You get your client in, send off that email saying ‘here’s your proposal, this is how you get on your portal to sign and send your ID over”

Letters of engagement don’t have to be painful 

“In previous roles we had a bank of engagement letters but you’d have to tailor them for every client. It was painful. Now, I’m confident that the engagement letters are going to be up to scratch. I can just send that initial onboarding email and then almost forget about it.”

Client reactions to the Client Portal

“It’s mixed, to be honest, some of them love it. Those that do are just: ‘this is amazing. This is great.’ They’re straight on board. And they do everything through the portal.”

I think they feel much safer uploading their ID on the portal rather than sending it over an email.”

“We do seem to have an issue with some clients still emailing documents rather than uploading them to the portal for some reason. Which is probably something we need to work on. In terms of onboarding though, it works.”

Notifications: Keeping an eye on all portal activity for you

Every day, Donna has AccountancyManager constantly open on her computer, like a sort of mission control. “So whenever I flick onto AM, I check the notifications. Obviously, some are just ‘you’ve received an email’, which you can clear off straight away. But then you have ‘so and so has signed this.’ ‘So and so has uploaded a document to the portal. They’re useful, because you’re not missing that somebody has done something.”

New: Automated Letter of Engagement resign

We recently added an automated process for getting letters of engagement re-signed after 12 months. Donna has spotted this and is now using it. 

Now the system sends it out, the client logs in and signs it. It’s painless. So why wouldn’t you use it?”

“In the past, part of the ‘preparation checklist’ was that the engagement letter should be less than three years old. But more recently the engagement letters were being constantly updated. It seemed that things were changing so much. A few years ago, you probably could get a bit longer out of an engagement letter. But now the system sends it out, the client logs in and signs it, it’s painless. So why wouldn’t you use it?”

New: Onboarding workflow (in one click)

AccountancyManager’s automatically generating Task List also allows you to add manual tasks and breakdown any task into smaller steps. Many users – Donna included – create a breakdown for onboarding tasks for example. 

But we’re always keeping an eye on anything ‘manual’ and seeing if we can make it automatic. So that’s what we did with the onboarding workflow button…

“And I like how you added the onboarding workflow as well. That helped as well. Before that, I’d created my own and it was easier to miss off a couple of bits.”

Risk Assessments – now with more questions, risk ratings and yearly tasks

Around a year ago now, we refreshed the risk assessment section in AccountancyManager, with help from two former HMRC tax inspectors. We added more in-depth questions and the ability to give clients risk ratings. 

Donna has been going through a satisfying process of reviewing clients’ risk assessments that she onboarded last year and adding more detail in line with the new structure.

“In my Task List at the minute, there’s a few risk assessment reviews coming up for new clients that I onboarded last year. So I’ll be working my way through them and putting them from the legacy risk assessments onto the new ones. Obviously newer clients are already on the new ones.”

New: Automated risk assessment review tasks (internal)

“At the moment I create a manual task on my Task List to do a risk assessment review for the legacy ones. But now that you’ve got that new automation in the new risk assessment, obviously that task will be auto generated nearer the time. And so that’s another thing. It’s cut down on another job that I don’t have to do: manually create the task to review the risk assessment. That will pop up by itself.”

Automated emails – maintaining constant personal touches with your clients

While onboarding is by far Donna’s favourite part of AccountancyManager, she has loved exploring the possibilities of the automated emails. “I use the automated requests for information, reminders if you haven’t signed a document, or if you’ve got uncompleted forms in the portal. I use all of the reminders…”

As you grow, these are the tools that become more valuable, because it takes that bit out of your head and puts it somewhere else.” 

“As long as you put the right information in there, AM kind of ‘spits out’ the right reminders. I’ve got my emails paused as I like to check them before they go. But there’s that little red dot that tells me they’re sitting there waiting for me to have a look at and send them out. That’s really useful. Nothing gets missed.”

Tax payment reminders for everyone – no matter how many clients you have

“With tax payment reminders… it’s usually, ‘we’ve done your tax, this is what you need to pay, job done.’ And you just moved on. But if you can send those payment reminders, the clients are getting a better service and they appreciate that.”

You don’t have to think about it anymore. But the client’s service is at the same level because they’re still getting these little personal touches.”  

“It’s the little touches that, if you didn’t have the automation function, you might not do. So you might not think to send a tax payment reminder 28 days, 14 days and seven days before, for every client. Maybe with half a dozen clients you’re on top of absolutely everything all the time. But as you grow, these are the tools that become more valuable, because it takes that bit out of your head and puts it somewhere else.” 

It was only right at the end that Donna remembered her recent award. “Oh, I won a Sage Impact Award yesterday! I didn’t nominate myself because that’s just not how I roll. But my account manager said that I should put an entry in. And then yesterday Fearne Cotton announced I had won, new practice award.”

Huge congratulations Donna!