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Safe Hands founders accepting the bookkeeping team of the year award from Tom Allen at the 2023 Accounting Excellence Awards
Accounting-Excellence

The Safe Hands way to bookkeeping

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From their unwavering commitment to client care to delivering consistent quality service as they scale, Safe Hands reveal the secrets behind their multi-award-winning human-first bookkeeping firm.

12th Feb 2024
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Safe Hands is as much an ethos for the award-winning bookkeeping team as it is a name. “We are a relationship business first, and a numbers business second, so people are at the heart of everything we do,” said Mark Bonney, the co-founder of the firm. 

He attributed this human approach to building trust and loyalty with clients and helping them to overcome hurdles and grow sustainable businesses.   

“We spend a lot of time thinking about why we do things, and then how we do them. Nobody's going to say isn't Safe Hands great for submitting a VAT return. It's about how we do that,” said Bonney.

“We want people to have an emotional connection to bookkeeping, and that comes with understanding what our clients do, and why to do it, what their aspirations are, and then how we can fit in around that to help them achieve their dreams.”

The firm’s dedication to client happiness, alongside their ambitious growth plans, resulted in Safe Hands picking up the 2023 Accounting Excellence Bookkeeping Team of the Year award, a prize that they had previously lifted in 2021. 

Bonney and co-founder Jason Dalton (pictured above collecting their award at the 2023 Accounting Excellence Awards, alongside host Tom Allen) will be revealing the secrets behind the success of their award wins and practice strategy at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping (FAB), which has a dedicated ‘bookkeeping retreat’. 

Client happiness

Client happiness is at the heart of the firm’s practice strategy. They have even built in regular ‘happiness calls’ with clients as part of the client managers’ processes. 

“The thing that we've tracked for a very long time, is people's happiness. Our goal is to make sure that our clients, our team, and our suppliers are happy and relaxed with the service we provide,” explained Bonney. 

He said that the focus of these calls is to ask the “simple yet powerful question” of ‘are you happy and relaxed?’. The reason why this is so important is because they want the clients to know that the firm is here to support them and it also moves the relationship beyond a transactional one into forging lasting connections. 

It also builds trust. The pair said that trust is key to a successful relationship because it empowers the client to openly discuss their finances and challenges, which inevitably leads to better quality advice. 

The human approach to bookkeeping extends beyond the founders, with the team members also encouraged to bring their own personalities to the role. Dalton said he often chuckles at some of the super personable ‘out of office’ replies some of the team set. 

Growth

Client happiness is so important for Safe Hands because Bonney and Dalton recognise how weaving it into the fabric of their processes leads to profitability. 

The team at Safe Hands made the decision five years ago to grow the business, and they recognised that in order to do that, they have to replicate at scale what works in the current business model. And key to the success of Safe Hands is the close relationships and the local approach. 

“We don't want to be the faceless bookkeeping company that has a massive office somewhere that you never meet, because that goes against what we want to do and build relationships with people,” said Bonney.

Replicating the success of the first office in the leafy Hampshire village of Hartley Wintney, the team opened a second office in the equally leafy Pangbourne, with further plans to expand their services across the region. 

Safe Hands partly ascribed their strong growth to tapping into strategic partnerships with complementary professions. Dalton said that setting a more formal relationship with HR advisers and accountants has led to a steady stream of client referrals and opened up new business opportunities. 

“We formalised relationships with HR advisers, accountants and others rather than just being a when an opportunity comes up, we actually nurture new relationships. I have regular catch ups with them and treat them really as part of our team.” 

The more the firm expands their services, the more the opportunities are for them to cross sell other services like payroll. 

Where Safe Hands are really able to win the trust of clients is through giving them the extra support that they might not expect. As a seasoned networker, Dalton has a vast spectrum of experts on his speed dial. These include businesses stretching from tree surgeons to photographers and digital marketers.

“Not only are these potential clients for us whether or not already, but they are also potential suppliers for our existing clients. So when someone is having a conversation with us, often during our happiness chats when we can talk to them about their home lives, the more opportunities we can spot to help them. For example, they might talk about their home extension, which is when we can ask them if they need a decorator."

This service that rivals the Yellow Pages only further strengthens the trust they’ve built with the clients. 

Confident in the above and beyond service they offer, Safe Hands have made it a priority to request referrals from existing clients. 

Processes

The engine ensures clients feel like their affairs are in safe hands with the firm’s processes. 

The difficulty for ambitious, scaling firms is providing the same service they were famous for as the team grows beyond the founders. That’s why Bonney and Dalton established the “Safe Hands Way”. These are the processes that ensure all team members can consistently deliver the quality service that attracted clients in the first place. 

The Safe Hands founders said these processes came as a result of a conversation with their business coach three years ago, where they voiced their frustration that people weren’t doing what they wanted them to do. However, the coach responded: “Have you told them what you want them to do?”

In that transformational ‘light bulb moment’, the pair realised that they hadn’t explained exactly what they wanted, the outcomes and why they wanted them to do it. From that point, Bonney and Dalton spent a long time refining their processes.

“It's not necessarily just about having the process, it's about explaining what the process is, training the process, and then checking that the process is following the way you want it to do,” said Bonney. 

One of the prevailing principles of an Accounting Excellence award-winning firm, and one which will be on full display during the Accounting Excellence Summit content sessions at FAB, is a drive for continuous improvement - and Safe Hands apply this ethic to their processes. 

“It’s about having a two way dialogue,” explained Dalton. “That means team members can come to us and say: ’Actually, this process just isn’t right and needs to be changed to this’. We then test it, make sure it’s right, and then it goes across the business.”

The ‘Safe Hands Way’ is not a bunch of flowcharts or dictats, but more of a destination.

“We can show [our employees] how we would do the task, but as long as the end goal is this, how they get there is up to them,” said Bonney. “We’ve got 17 people who have 17 ways of doing the process and every one of them is wonderful. So it’s not about telling people what to do or how they do it, it’s about how we make people feel whilst we go through that process.”

He added: “We believe that understanding the ‘why’ behind our processes is essential for staff engagement and success.”

A good example is VAT returns. The bookkeepers aim to submit client VAT returns by the end of the month. They say that process sounds straightforward, but they’re equally amazed how many clients come to them saying that their previous agent always aimed for the seventh of the month because that’s HMRC’s deadline. 

“If something goes wrong, then we've got a bit of breathing space,” explained Dalton, adding that their cloud accounting software has gone down over the past three years - and it’s always before the seventh. 

“Why would we put that pressure on you as our client or ourselves when we can aim for the end of the month? And if something goes wrong, it doesn't matter because we've got another seven days to sort out.” 

“It's about listening to the client,” he said, adding: “Clients don't like things being left to the last minute.”

This process is only further evidence that Safe Hands is more than just a name. 

You can find out more about the ‘Safe Hands Way’ at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping, where the award-winning bookkeeping team, alongside many Accounting Excellence winners, will be sharing strategies that will help you transform your practice. Book your FREE ticket today for the two-day event on the 13 - 14 March at the NEC, Birmingham.

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By johnjenkins
20th Feb 2024 16:23

I admire the success of your enterprise but isn't this what we all do anyway?
Client knowledge is of paramount importance and being able to be on their wave length is what being an Accountant, in whatever guise, is all about.

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