Automate workflows to ease tax busy season
Steve Ash outlines the historic challenges of the busy season and explains how digital accounting firms are smoothing out this annual peak in the workflow.
November, December and January are traditionally an incredibly busy time for UK accounting firms. With December year-ends drawing to a close and the usual self-assessment deadline at the end of January, there is a lot of work to get through before the New Year.
But with the efficiencies that modern cloud accounting and automation can offer, there are fewer reasons the year end to be such a hectic and pressurised time for your practice.
Busy season traditions
Busy season has always blighted the end of the year for accountants. It’s winter, the days are short and your team is thinking about Christmas and willing the December workload to be over.
However, as finance professionals, you know this workload mountain must be climbed and that the busy season peak is all part of the cycle of running a successful firm.
The annual busy season tradition comes down to two key drivers:
A peak in client work – increased bookkeeping and tax return form-filling is required at the end of the calendar year to give firms time to meet clients’ compliance and tax deadlines.
Lack of capacity – the abnormal workload peak can expose the firm’s lack of capacity to cope with a spike in data entry, document retrieval and chasing clients for the required financial information. Lack of adequate resources puts real pressure on your entire team, resulting in long hours, tired staff and a great deal of stress.
At many firms only a small percentage of returns will be complete come December and it’s likely that many engagements will be running behind schedule.
Despite numerous reminders, clients generally still don’t provide the necessary documents, data and info before January, and the quality of the data they provide may not be up to scratch.
With staff in short supply and clients dragging their feet with the information you need to complete their returns, it’s easy to see why self assessment season is such a giant headache.
But there is an answer to these problems – to become a fully fledged digital practice and embrace cloud technology, software solutions and the benefits of automation.
The automated approach
By putting a cloud accounting platform at the centre of your firm, it’s possible to completely rethink the processes, timings and workload that occur at year-end. Online accounting makes it easier to spread the work across the entire year, while helping your clients’ to comply better with the existing and forthcoming rules around Making Tax Digital (MTD).
The cloud accounting platform can act as the hub through which you drive the client’s bookkeeping and compliance reporting, as Sage director of product marketing Chris Downing explains: “Having a slick workflow will be key for firms with MTD on the horizon. If you don’t have this by the time MTD for self-assessment comes in, you’re going to struggle.
“Small business owners are making the decisions on the accounting platform themselves and coming to the accountant. They want to digitise things, pull in data and they want the platform to do that. So we need to give the best tools to the accountant. Tools like Sage Business Cloud and Auto Entry, for automated bookkeeping, are all part of this.
“It’s about having the final accounts and tax online, so there’s an end-to-end workflow incorporating data entry, compliance and business intelligence with accounting in the middle.”
Putting automation into practice
Implementing automated workflows doesn’t happen overnight. It takes planning, forethought, research and time to get right. But, increasingly, the tools, the apps and the product support are there to assist you in this digital transformation process.
To begin the process of you digital evolution:
Set up your roadmap for an automated practice – having a plan is essential, detailing what you hope to achieve through automation, defining your key automation processes and choosing the core tools that will deliver seamless, automated bookkeeping.
Overcome the blockers to automation – getting to a point where your bookkeeping, accounting and tax preparation is wholly automated takes effort and time, but there are ways to plan for the potential blockers and to overcome these hurdles with the right forward planning and insight. With the blockers removed, you have a process that’s automated, fast and error-free.
Engage your team with automation – having your team on board with your automation strategy is vital. Think about including a mix of staff members on your automation committee and make sure there’s training, support and education for the whole team, so everyone is up to speed.
Get your clients up to speed – once your clients understand the true benefits of cloud accounting and automated bookkeeping, they will begin to see the value of changing their usual day-to-day finance processes. Give them demos of the software, provide employee training and show them how using a tool like AutoEntry will save them hours of tedious data-entry time.
Automated workflows will make the busy season less of a bottleneck by taking care of tasks such as data input and document scanning to help digitise their information across the whole financial year. The benefits don’t just come in the form of reducing workloads and saving time. Automation also opens up the firm’s ability to offer greater support and value to your clients, as Guy Armitage-Norton, general practice director at Milsted Langdon, highlights: “Automation has given me the time to see clients more, which gives us more time to interpret the data, explain the figures and offer more value.
“It also underlines that we’re on top of their tax planning and we can suggest doing new things around budgets, systems, tax solutions and so on. They can see the data and trust the data, and you can spend the time suggesting things that will be of benefit to them – the real added value stuff.”
Grasp the digital opportunity
Managing workload peaks during tax busy season is not the only value that the firm will gain from automation. With MTD for corporation tax and self-assessment on the horizon, your firm needs to keep the longer-term goals in mind. Sage’s Chris Downing paints a broader future for the fully-functional digital practice: “In 2021, your firm needs to be ready for MTD. Consider the software you’re using in the practice, but also what you’re recommending to clients. Don’t just think about ‘eating the elephant’ or how you can flip your practice to digital in one step. Work with new clients who are tech savvy to give yourself some confidence in those cloud tools.
“When you use native cloud tools, it makes you more efficient and gives capacity and profitability. It also means at the end of the year the bookkeeping and returns are all done without the usual craziness.”
Sage is on a mission to automate data entry and speed up admin for every accounting and bookkeeping practice in the UK. Start streamlining workflows and spend more time helping your clients succeed. Get started today