With 2018 data confirming that cloud systems are widespread among Accounting Excellence Award entrants, John Stokdyk turns his attention to how firms are using these tools to improve the services they offer clients.
Last week we noted how nine out of 10 AEA18 entrants supported clients on cloud accounting systems, but the use of internal cloud systems like Taxfiler, Capium, Senta and Practice Ignition was rising even more quickly – doubling from last year up to 40% of the practice software ratings in our companion software survey.
Regular client meetings and phone conversations remain the gold standard for client service, particularly when the accountant makes the running and uses the numbers they produce to alert the client to underlying issues or new opportunities.
For small practices in particular, client service is all about building relationships. The problem is, it’s difficult to add new clients if you don’t the means to replicate that personal relationship with a different member of staff.
The firms entering and winning the Accounting Excellence Awards take advantage of new technologies at every opportunity to attract new clients and deliver a consistently high level of service. By automating time-consuming tasks and helping accountants use their time more effectively, technology allows them to extend their reach to a wider network of clients.
For example, data capture and management app developer Receipt Bank monitors the performance of its accountant partners and the success of its software by the ratio of clients-to-accountants that it can support – 20-30 for accountants and even more for bookkeepers.
As part of the improvements that helped win Kinder Pocock the 2017 client service award, the firm set up a shared client contact calendar, showing key deadlines, but also allowing the client services coordinator to schedule ad hoc conversations to keep in touch and see how clients were doing. While the technology takes care of admin, the team can focus on providing the human touch.
Talk of the “customer journey” is very common in the digital marketing world, with suppliers obsessing about their interactions at each touchpoint – from first enquiry, to follow-ups, orders and fulfilment and feedback.
All of these steps have equivalents in accountancy practice and early cloud adopters in the Accounting Excellence community have pioneered new approaches, including automating client communications and relationship management, dedicated onboarding processes and managing digital workflows within the firm and with clients. These methods are now moving towards the practice mainstream.
Client acquisition and sales automation represents the first accounting service touchpoint, but as proposals are dispatched and clients taken on, the administrative drudge work of anti-money laundering checks, letters of engagement, and setting up work and billing schedules is being automated by onboarding systems such as GoProposal, Practice Ignition and tools built into practice management systems.
Among Accounting Excellence Awards, practice entrants onboarding doubled from 16% of in 2017 to 32% this year.
Kinder Pocock overhauled its onboarding processes in 2017. Once founder Sharon Pocock mapped out the steps she wanted to take, the firm deployed Google Forms and Sheets to collect client information, and started tracking tasks, letters of engagement and billing through Practice Ignition and Xero.
Other client service systems – including regular surveys whenever a piece of work is done – allow KP to track a number of client service KPIs such as its net promoter score (how many clients would promote the firm to their peers) and turnaround time for work.
The digital service infrastructure
“We live or die by client experience” says Farnell Clark’s Will Farnell. Cloud technology such as Xero has turned accounting on its head, he explained to AccountingWEB last month. Instead of relying on the old purchase and sales ledgers, digital accountants now look to feed live transaction data into their cloud accounting systems.
Capturing the data at the earliest possible stage with tools like Receipt Bank and Xero bankfeeds is the bedrock for Farnell Clarke’s client-focused model. These cloud tools let Farnell Clark staff contact clients on a regular basis to talk them through up-to-date figures.
The first thing Farnell Clark team members do each day is pull in transactions from bankfeeds and Receipt Bank, reconcile them and then deal with any anomalies. They can review the figures at any time to look for underlying patterns or issues that prompt an exploratory call to the client.
Using digital technology to underpin client service in this way makes the firm more “sticky” and encourages clients to buy more services, Farnell told AccountingWEB.
The virtual FD model
Farnell is modest enough to admit that he’s still striving to live up to David Maister’s “trusted advisor” ideal, but the wider acceptance of the underlying philosophy among Accounting Excellence firms has been bolstered by a surge in firms offering outsourced finance or “virtual FD” services after a small dip last year.
Cloud accounting is an essential component of the virtual finance approach by giving firms direct access to the clients’ books. That insight provides a great platform for offering advice, particularly when backed by regular management reporting and strategy reviews.
As with many of the specific client service ideas mentioned in this overview, the virtual FD model will be the subject of another Accounting Excellence article in the next few weeks.
Other areas where technology is playing a part in client service excellence include:
- Tech training made a big spurt last year as practices grappled with the prospect of getting clients into the Making Tax Digital regime. The trend has continued this year, with 32% of entrants offering some sort of training. Practices can offer that support for free, but it’s also a great fee-growing service line that has all sorts of service and satisfaction benefits. As they learn how to use new technology, clients become more efficient themselves and are easier to serve and everybody benefits.
- Mobile apps are back, with mentions up from 10% to 23% this year. The service experience for clients is increasingly mobile, according to Daniel Richards at MyFirmsApp. While practices are investing in cloud systems and working to link together their digital processes, smartphone apps can put all the calculators, data capture tools, reports and communication links they need into their hands. “The future is going to be more integrated,” he told AccountingWEB in May.
- Digital marketing, with continuing growth in social media, blogging and web and SEO investment - the latter mentioned by 42% of firms compared to 30% last year. Yet prospect tracking was only undertaken by 31% of entrants in 2018). Our analysis last year show that this was one of the most effective things firms could do to drive fee growth, so we'll be building a piece about CRM into our summer content series on using technology to improve the customer experience.
To find out more about how technology can help, tune into the Accounting Excellence Talk How to deliver better client service in the digital age at 11am on Thursday 19 July.
About John Stokdyk
AccountingWEB’s global editor has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.