Judging from the articles which generated the most interest from our accountants in practice over the last 12 months, 2017 has been a tough year.
AccountingWEB saw key topics repeatedly cropping up throughout the year, whether that was the new money laundering regulations, practice management software and workflows, the Big Four receiving yet another slap on the wrist or the perennial issue of pricing.
But nothing garnered as many online column inches as the stress of running a modern accountancy firm, and how to manage it.
None of this should come as a surprise to accountants currently embroiled in self assessment stress and turmoil. The effect of the always-on culture was epitomised in a post from a stressed-out sole practitioner during the summer. “I feel like a complete failure at the moment,” the AccountingWEB reader confessed.
Time and again, keeping up with client emails were blamed for blurring the barrier between work and life. Bookending the conversation on Any Answers, AcccountingWEB reader Wilcoskip’s desires to escape the constant stream of emails and change were echoed nearly 12 months later by fellow AccountingWEB member Tickers.
Practitioners craving to overcome their professional crises caused either by self assessment blues or the barrage of emails was reflected by the popularity of articles such as Philip Fisher’s accountant’s guide to work/life balance series.
The consequence of this culture was highlighted in a November CABA ‘wellbeing in the workplace’ report. As CABA’s Lucy Whitehall explained: “This societal shift has wreaked havoc with employee wellbeing, with study after study highlighting how workplace culture is pushing employees towards burnout.”
With attracting and retaining talent becoming a headache for practitioners, many firms have tackled their practice’s workplace wellbeing culture head-on.
Farnell Clarke is one example of this. Founder Will Farnell felt that in order to appeal to the millennial workforce - both for recruitment and clients - the firm had to reflect its innovation in its work environment. As a result, the firm constructed the Tax & Pounds pub in one of its old storage rooms.
While the announcement of a certain high profile digital delay in July certainly eased stress for some practitioners other more pressing regulatory changes came into effect, including the new Money Laundering Regulations 2017.
One aspect emerging from the new regulations that prompted much furore was the new supervisory anti-money laundering regime. The fact the Office for Professional Body AML Supervision (OPBAS) is to be funded by an FRC levy on professional bodies caused Malcolm Trotter, the chief executive of the International Association of Bookkeepers, to slam the arrangement as “not morally right”.
The 4th EU anti-money laundering directive also included changes to the persons of significant control regime and the requirements when firms must inform Companies House.
In what’s become an annual staple in the accounting profession’s diary, October saw the culmination of the 2017 Practice Excellence awards. Countdown’s Rachel Riley presided over the award ceremony at the Brewery in The City of London.
Yet again, niche continued to thrive. New firm of the year The Accountancy Cloud, innovative firm Crunch, medium firm Dunkley’s and practice pioneer firm inniAccounts all bagged Practice Excellence prizes thanks to adopting the niche movement.
While trends like digital marketing and client training continued to become mainstays in practices, this year saw a proportion of firms shift their attention to building client-centric cultures with the introduction of client service manager roles.
What the Practice Excellence entries overwhelmingly offered was a clear trend of firms adopting cloud services. While some posit that these fresh converts turned to the cloud in response to Making Tax Digital, others point to the efficiencies to be gained from cloud adoption and argue that the real innovation is happening from the pioneering firms pushing into other avenues such as marketing and putting a greater emphasis on client relationships.
Pricing vs value
Regardless of these new trends, the hot-button debate around pricing dominated practice management discussion throughout the autumn. The fee battle first emerged following a slew of Any Answers questions highlighting what at first seemed like an undercutting trend.
At first, the driving down of fees was put down to “ham-fisted negotiation techniques” but as the current landscape was unpicked, other factors surfaced which could prove just as troublesome for accountants. In particular, as Elaine Clark argued, the rise of technology displacing accountants’ expected fees.
In fact, the debate over whether there is a lowballing trend inspired Clark to launch a new ‘name your price’ fee structure. “People are much more aware and familiar with what accountants do,” explained Clark, “so [this service] gives them the opportunity to get value for money.”
The debate will surely rumble on into 2018.
Big Four embarrassments
But at least practitioners feeling the brunt of 2017’s stresses should take comfort knowing their misfortune didn’t happen on a global stage.
For PwC, 2017 will be a year to brush under the (red) carpet. The Big Four firm’s year started in blunderous fashion when the two PwC partners overseeing the Oscars mistakenly handed the wrong envelope to the best picture presenters. The mix-up caused presenter Faye Dunaway to declare La La Land as the best picture winner instead of the real winner, Moonlight.
PwC’s fortunes hadn’t improved in August when the FRC dealt the firm a record £5.1m fine. It could be worse. An independent review panel appointed by the FRC suggested that a financial penalty of £10m or more for “seriously bad incompetence” from a Big Four audit of a major company would be more appropriate.
However, PwC was not the only Big Four firm licking their wounds this year, as Deloitte felt similar embarrassment at the hands of a cyberattack that went unnoticed for months, and KPMG found itself embroiled in a South African corruption scandal.
Whether you’re a big or small practice, 2017 has been yet another turbulent year. As practitioners repeat the cycle of self assessment season, the stresses of long working days and chasing errant clients do not look like they will subside during 2018.
How was your 2017? What were your practice highs and lows?
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.