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Automation in practice: Guy Armitage-Norton, Milsted Langdon

Steve Ash spoke to Guy Armitage-Norton, general practice director at Milsted Langdon, a mid-size accounting firm with offices across Bath, Bristol, London, Taunton and Yeovil, about how tech and automation have transformed their accounting services.

15th Jan 2021
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Guy Armitage-Norton discusses automation at Milsted Langdon
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Running a multi-office accounting firm and keeping your workflows and processes consistent across all offices can be a challenge. But with the increasing use of software solutions, cloud storage and process automation, it’s becoming increasingly easy to streamline the basic compliance work and to spend your time working directly with your business clients.

Q. How did the use of software tools first get introduced to the firm?

We’re a broad church at Milsted Langdon, with a wide range of clients, from large to small, and we’ve always aimed to keep pace with the use of technology. Chris Downing, who’s now director of product marketing at Sage, was originally a partner in our firm and his real passion was around the software and the benefits for the firm and our clients. 

Chris created a role around the tech and software side, looking at the commercial aspects of using software.

Sarah Jenkins, our audit and general practice partner, has now taken the software side in a different direction and that’s become our business innovation (BI) department. Sarah and our “Cloud Champions” look at every aspect of how software can help our business clients, and using these apps and tools is now front and centre of how we add value for clients.

Q. How big a part does technology and automation now play in the day-to-day running of the firm? And in the run-up to tax season in particular?

Probably 50% percent of our workload is now based around tech. As you grow to become a mid-sized firm, you have this legacy of bookkeeping and the low-level work that brings in minimal fees. 

Clients still need the bookkeeping, of course, but it’s not really how we’re geared up when it comes to fees and revenues. By reestablishing what the clients need and what market we’re in, we’ve moved to using the tech and automation for much of the bookkeeping, especially since Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT came in. 

We’ve got clients set up with cloud accounting and tools like AutoEntry or Receipt Bank to automate the bookkeeping – so, the training wheels are off now and we can do that. The technology really is huge now for us. We’ve been using analytics tools to process the client data and do a health check on their accounts, so you can come up with any anomalies. That gives you things to talk about with the client and results in more meaningful conversations.”

Q. What are the main cloud apps and tools in your current tech stack?

A well-set up Sage Business Cloud system is excellent, but we go with the platform and apps that are best for the client. The choice is client-led and, ultimately, it’s about what’s right for the client and what they’re used to. Things like AutoEntry and Receipt Bank are quite collaborative, and allow us to automate the bookkeeping and keep in touch with the clients spending. 

We do a lot of work at the moment around credit control, using Chaser and Satago and helping clients to get through the crisis. We have conversations about using the software to automate the debtor tracking, improving aged debt and making sure clients do get paid on time. There’s been less pickup around cashflow forecasting tools over the pandemic than I thought there would be. Clients generally want the assurance and the logic of an accountant behind the cashflow and forecasting side – and that’s really where our advice comes in.

Automation is incredibly useful but it will never ever take away the niche areas of professional advice we offer. Software is really interesting for me, because it allows us to spend more time with the clients. They get the cost savings and we get more capacity to have client conversations and offer added value, so it’s a virtuous circle really.

Q. How have you got your staff and your clients up to speed with tech and automation?

Clients have been very receptive to the move to cloud and digital, on the whole, especially with MTD driving things. Once you talk about the benefits, they get it and then you can take the baby steps of setting up bank feeds and getting automated bookkeeping set up. Within half an hour of looking at the software, clients are up and running and we can throw additional ideas at them, like adding in Satago to automatically chase up late payments etc.

We have around 250 staff, so there was obviously a need for software retraining. We had an internal programme to get people up to speed, but once we started to get people moving in the right direction you could really see the benefits. Our BI department also offers regular updates and we have a Cloud Champions Day each month to talk through new tools, new solutions and new ideas – and we then feed that back to the BI team. We can then react proactively to client issues, using the software. 

That ability to pull in the data, spot the issues and interpret the data while you look for a solution is where the tech really comes into its own.”

Q. What would you say the key benefits of automation have been for the firm. Has it helped to reduce the pressure and stress?

The benefits of automation do make the workload less pressurised, for sure. But my personal bugbear is that you can rely on the software too much. The apps are very good and there is a tendency to rely on them, carte blanche. You do need to go through and check the accounts and take that analyst's point of view – so the numbers might need new mapping or new codes to allow it to make sense to the client. 

Our challenge is getting the trainees aware of the fundamentals of the accounts and helping to bridge that knowledge gap. 

Automation has given me the time to see clients more, which allows the owners to interpret the data more, and you don’t have to explain the figures so much. Full MTD, with quarterly reporting, is on the cards, so owners know they need to get there, and they can see the value of changing their systems and getting the digital software in place.

The cloud ecosystem is constantly evolving and updating, so you can’t stand still. We’ve won the first battle but the war isn’t over. We have clients on a digital cloud solution but, for me, that’s just the start and there’s so much more that tech and automation can offer.”

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

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