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Accountex 2018: Sole practitioners endure unprecedented change

14th May 2018
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From Making Tax Digital to GDPR, sole practitioners have had an unprecedented amount of change thrown at them. But Elaine Clark from Cheap Accounting doesn’t think sole practitioners should call it a day just yet.

It’s been a nightmare for sole practitioners over the last few years to keep up with the regulatory change, not least the “overlaying negative noise” out in the profession at the moment, Clark said ahead of her ‘Surviving as a sole practitioner’ round table at Accountex this year.

It’s hard to argue with her. Whether it’s the timeline uncertainty of Making Tax Digital or technological disruption or compliance burdens, sole practitioners in particular have seen fees squeezed and working hours strained. It’s led sole practitioners like tony lecart to fume: “Only larger firms will be able to manage this piece of nonsense.”

Such is the stress of running a practice, ICAS assistant director of practice Jeremy Clarke relayed to AccountingWEB that practice owners are beginning to ask “why do I bother.”

Exit strategies are even spilling over on to Any Answers as of late, with AccountingWEB member PatriciaRr being a recent example of a sole practitioner taking retirement over the increased stress and regulatory burden.

Likewise, the negative tone and language often found in thought leadership blogs has exacerbated sole practitioners’ stress levels, according to Clark. “If I see another blog telling me that I am doing stuff wrong and I should be doing stuff this way, otherwise I am useless, I shall scream.”   

While Clark advises overwhelmed sole practitioners to break from the shouting and noise of social media, for some sole practitioners the inescapable noise is far closer to home: unappreciative clients. 

This sole practitioner stress was no better illustrated than an Any Answers post from last summer. The frazzled member detailed how unappreciated clients had driven them into feeling like as “complete failure” and dreams of “sailing into the sunset” where they can mentally clock off at the end of their shift.

So, how can sole practitioners dodge unneeded stress? For Elaine Clark it’s all about managing your clients before they manage you.

“We get into a habit of allowing clients to put stress on our shoulders because they're providing information late, regardless how many times we ask for them,” she said. “It's always the same ones. It puts the accountant under undue pressure to meet the deadlines.”

That’s why you should make sure clients own their problems and you own your problems, Clark said. In order to do this she recommends having a regular checkpoint set in stone every year, where you evaluate whether you actually enjoy working with the client.

“If clients aren't prepared to work with you and it is causing stress, it's time to say I'm not the accountant for you. With the amount of time and effort you're spending with that client, you can go out and get some more clients. It's better to work with clients that actually value the services.”

Importantly, what Clark wants the sole practitioner attendees to learn from her Accountex roundtable is that despite any regulatory burden “we chose to set up our own business, and they're our business, and people don't tell us how to run them.”

Elaine Clark will be hosting a Surviving as a sole practitioner round table at Accountex 2018. You can find out more details about this session and the timetable of other speakers here.  

Replies (20)

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Man of Kent
By Kent accountant
14th May 2018 20:25

Don’t recognise this standpoint at all.

Flourishing as a sole practitioner would be more accurate.

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By Jas28
14th May 2018 22:05

I do recognise the author's standpoint with respect to the ever increasing administrative and compliance burden. Now it's GDPR and MTD, but in recent years we have also had to contend with AE, RTI, money laundering regulations, FRS102, practice assurance etc etc, and as a sole practitioner with no staff, the administrative burden all falls on me, and I am spending an ever-increasing proportion of my time on administrative tasks, rather than on doing client work.

I am nearing retirement, and was planning to retire gradually, but the latest developments have made me seriously question how much longer I want to carry on.

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By Ammie
15th May 2018 10:05

I understand the standpoint but I also sense there will be opportunity too, the stumbling block being the initial burden of revamping much of how we work and what we work with.

Like myself, I suspect much of the frustrations of many sole practitioners, who are invariably older, is their dated habits and slow uptake on modern progression.

The solution is answered by whether the practitioner is prepared to take on the grief in changing how they work or not. There will be both end decisions which will result in more work. What will be crucial in many cases, and I have touched on this before, is that the quality of client and their attitude to their business and their accountant will become much more important, which will leave much "rubbish" on the market and probably also put pressure on fees.

I am not getting too excited at this stage, I will deal with it in a time honoured way and see what my blood pressure chart looks like at the end of it.

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Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
15th May 2018 10:11

Depends where you on the time line to retirement. If you are 65 with a pension or investments, I could you saying stuff this and cash in on your fee bank.

For me with 20 years to go there is plenty of opportunity.
This time of year I get calls daily from new prospects. As for "only the big will cope" not really sure about that.

If I remember from training getting 4 or 5 partners in their 60's to agree on big changes was never a quick process. As a sole trader you can wake up and change what you are doing in an instant. I set up 3 years ago and was cloud ready from the start so no legacy issues to deal with and totally geared up for MTD if it ever happens.

Bigger firms who have held back making decisions around software and systems are now faced with mass migration to cloud doing 1000 + client in a year. Regardless of how big your team is thats a massive task and will lead to a lot of fall out which smaller firms Hoover up.

I think its more a case of the agile will survive where the slow moving will fall by the wayside.

Its been a tough few years getting here but I am positive going forward with plenty of work coming in at good value.

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15th May 2018 11:17

Surely there has to be a limit of how many changes a sole practitioner could cope with. In recent years is one change after another, changes introduced by buraucrats that I am sure they do not have a clue what they are introducing or the problems they are creating. What happened to "if is not broken don't fix it?"
I have decided to call it a day but i wish everybody good luck with way things are going at the moment.

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By johnjenkins
15th May 2018 11:23

I'm 69 and still excited about my work. You just sit back and watch HMRC go through the motions of trying to control business (especially Accountants). We've had "Working Together" "Agent Strategy". Now we've got MTD. Great new pilot for vat, double posting. Well that should make life easier for all.
The only thing that went reasonable was SA. Why? because the concept of all income together for one year, so a tax liability could be easily worked out was right. Agent strategy had the makings of a brilliant partnership with HMRC but obviously MTD seems to have taken over.
So it's not really a nightmare when you understand that once the "coffers" dry up something has to give.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
By User deleted
15th May 2018 13:01

If I were 69 I'm sure I'd be excited too. As it is I'm in a different position.

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Replying to User deleted:
By johnjenkins
15th May 2018 15:30

Have you become a missionary then?

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Norman Younger
By Norman Younger
15th May 2018 16:33

The regulatory nonsense is all over this country like a rash, not just accountancy

Sole practitioners will survive if they are more choosy about client quality but too many have not got it in them to act firmly

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Replying to Flying Scotsman:
By johnjenkins
16th May 2018 08:52

Have you got hiccups? Get someone to give you a shock.

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Locutus of Borg
By Locutus
15th May 2018 22:02

We are just in an industry that experiences rapid change. Since it is knowledge-based and dictated by regulation of one sort or another, that is not surprising.

To be honest, I am happy that our profession has moved on from the one I joined in 1989, otherwise I would still be adding up poorly handwritten cashbooks, sending everything by paper, auditing every single limited company and appealing against tax assessments as they were "estimated and excessive".

Difficulties for some are opportunities for others.

In 20 years' time when a Chinese algorithm I don't understand is filing documents on a blockchain I can't fathom then, perhaps, that will be the time to hang up my calculator.

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By North East Accountant
16th May 2018 08:06

Unprecedented change will never stop as the turkeys will not vote for Xmas.

Politician's/Bureaucrats create new laws.
Companies flog publications, courses, software, etc on.
ICAEW etc have grandiose structures that benefit themselves.
Accountants have to deal with the nonsense the politician's introduce..
Lawyers then win charging when there is a dispute or someone is sued.
Then the whole process starts again.

I am a turkey and I vote for this madness to stop. Too many vested interests mean it will never happen.

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Replying to North East Accountant:
By johnjenkins
16th May 2018 08:55

All these rules and regulations didn't seem to bother Carillion et al.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
16th May 2018 10:16

Rules only apply if you choose to sign up to them.

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Replying to Glennzy:
By johnjenkins
16th May 2018 11:50

You're so right. You can be an illegal immigrant and do all the crime you want without fear of being deported, yet you sign up to a new life, spend most of your life working hard and contributing, then have the honour of being told your presence is no longer required.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
16th May 2018 13:51

@ john, what planet are you on?

Illegal immigrants are regularly deported, along with many who are in the country quite legally.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
By johnjenkins
16th May 2018 15:09

Then why is it that the Government openly admit to hundreds of illegals running around that they don't know the whereabouts of? You should watch border control.
Yep I'm on planet earth, UK, Great Britain, England, Hertfordshire.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
Glenn Martin
By Glenn Martin
16th May 2018 16:00

The country is becoming a joke with more new rules like amended AML requirements and GDPR.

Non stop or probably even deter the crooks and terrorists but the legislation brought in is to make it easy to prosecute those that make mistakes.

Hackers etc will still thrive and go un checked with data breaches, yet if your a small business and you fail to secure your data, even if does not cause a loss you can still get fined.

For me resources would be better spent chasing these people who do actual damage by crashing the NHS or Government systems, as opposed to fining people for not been good enough at protecting your data.

Although I suppose its easier doing the later as the first would take actual work.

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Replying to Glennzy:
By johnjenkins
16th May 2018 16:30

Soft targets is what brings in the dosh and saves on expenses and yes it's getting worse.
However I feel the climate could change quite dramatically soon. Most of the political parties are in confusion because they don't have the answers so I'm sure that in the next couple of years we will see a new political party come to the fore. Either that or the demise of Brexit and MTD might shake the Tories into action.

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By Diverse Synergy
22nd May 2018 10:49

I'm one of the few sole practitioners from what you might term the "younger generation". I have gone from starting out five years ago being excited at all the opportunities, to being thoroughly disillusioned at the reality.

I simply cannot generate a profit; all the extra workload imposed on us by recent legislation cannot be easily converted to extra revenue - because my small clients are already squeezed from all angles (living wage, pensions etc). The legislative straightjacket placed upon small businesses in the UK is untenable and they are drowning in a sea of red tape.

You cannot enforce Living Wage, Auto-Enrolment, RTI, GDPR, MTD, draconian employment legislation etc on a small business and expect it to survive long term. Many of my smaller clients, eg hairdressers and cleaning companies, simply cannot generate any margins after dealing with all of the above. Many of their own staff end up earning more than they do.

Big businesses LOVE red tape incidentally, because they can pay a whole department to deal with it, and it auto-strangles their smaller competition without them having to do anything.

The system will not change, because the politicans are in bed with big business, and do not give a monkeys about small business.

Incidentally, I used to be a die hard optimist. Five years of attempting to run my own small practice in a system of impossible-to-meet legislation has driven me almost to total despair. My mistake was going to university, getting a degree, getting qualified ACA, and working for a living. Clearly what I should have done was leave school at 16, had 4 kids - and lived off the state.

The modern UK is an utter joke of a country.

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