How small firms delivered big service during Covid
Big is not always better. Small practices demonstrated an unrivalled agility and personal touch as they put clients first during the pandemic.
Small is beautiful, according to celebrated economist E.F. Schumacher.
His argument that society ought to consider local, leaner solutions for the greater good was written nearly 50 years ago but is perhaps more relevant than ever today considering how smaller practices have stepped up during the coronavirus pandemic.
“SMPs are a key part of the financial health system for the SME sector,” said Aleksandra Zaronina-Kirillova, ACCA SME expert. “They have proven to be the ‘emergency services’ to small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic; providing enhanced business support and access to finance, enabling SMEs to make a contribution to overall economic growth.”
Although the true cost of the crisis may never be calculated such has been the level of pain wrought on supply chains and commercial activity, there can be little doubt without the agility of smaller practices, many more SMEs would have gone under. Being nimble and flexible enough to provide the personal touch has been key.
“For small businesses, the more personal customer relationships make it easier to listen and then act quickly on feedback provided,” said James Byrne, founder of cloud-based practice management software AccountancyManager. “We’ve found that a lot of small practices want to both give and receive this level of client care.”
In its most recent report, Responsible SMP Pacesetters, which surveyed almost 50 global small medium-sized practice (SMP) leaders, ACCA told the story of an “unprecedented mobilisation” of the small practice community.
Firms worked around the clock to keep businesses afloat, all the while facing their own challenges such as a lack of staff, delayed payments or the physical difficulty in conducting audits. Small firms not only guide their clients to the support available, but also make sure their clients’ struggles are put forward to governments, regulators and banks.
“Of course, big firms have their place, advising big organisations, but as an SME myself, small practices provide real value at the side of a company through good times and bad,” said Della Hudson, chartered accountant, author, and practice consultant. “It’s just part of the relationship.”
Hudson believes there are four reasons why smaller practices have been so well suited to help; empathy; tech savviness; small business acumen, and agility.
“The accountant you speak to knows what it’s like, and they care about their clients, there is empathy,” Hudson told AccountingWEB. “They have a much closer relationship, and it can almost be a downside sometimes because the client comes first and their own practice comes second.”
Smaller practices understand the troubles of running a small business better, and are more sympathetic to certain needs that may be missed at a major global practice. It is also often the case that niche practices will provide the good service first and charge later, where on the other end of the spectrum, billing rules all.
“Now more than ever, people behind businesses, big or small, are looking for the human-human element,” said Byrne. “The personal touch makes it easier to form strong working relationships that make a world of difference to the high-pressure working environment caused by the pandemic.”
Better technology = stronger engagement
The explosion in cloud technology and the greater availability of automated tools has helped more people start their own practices, to service an increasing number of business owners.
“Better technology means people are able to work remotely, able to automate, and can then focus on the client’s needs,” Hudson said. “Everything behind the scenes is then taken care of.”
The adoption of digital technologies is leading to a new era of engagement between SMP accountants and their clients, the ACCA found, which improves financial competence among small business owners.
Accountants in smaller practices are also likely to have built it from the ground up, and have a connection to people who have done the same thing, which partners in larger firms often don’t have.
“Small practice owners do everything from sales and marketing to customer service to making the tea and unblocking the drains, as well as preparing the accounts,” Hudson said. “They have the business knowledge of how SMEs work that larger firms don’t.”
The most important aspect, experts note, is the agility on offer at small practices. From new technology to marketing, any idea will have to go through multiple stakeholders at a larger firm, where smaller practices can make snap decisions and execute immediately where appropriate.
One Birmingham-based team of accountants doubled its revenue by adopting cloud technology and the latest data analytics offering itself as a fast and flexible practice. The firm quickly launched a series of webinars in response to Covid-19, and business boomed.
It’s a similar story across the industry, Hudson said. “If I make up my mind to do something with the practice it is done by the end of the day,” she said. “At the big firms it’s like turning an oil tanker; it can take months to get a change actioned.”
The personal touch
“From a software standpoint, we’re seeing a lot of accountants deliberately choosing to work with other similarly-sized organisations,” said Byrne. “What this then creates is a growing sense of community. It’s clear that the UK’s small businesses are pulling together to work through this challenging time.”
At the heart of the advantages is speed; small practices get things done fast and well. The onset of coronavirus has removed a lot of boundaries previously in place, and SMEs have responded by moving quickly, embracing remote work, and adopting cloud technologies that have allowed processes to continue.
All this has been possible because small practices are in tune with their clients, and as trusted advisers can offer the kind of unique, bespoke and flexible service that is beyond multinationals, however hard the big teams try.
“Clients will always be more important to an SME than to a corporation - and they know that,” said Byrne. “By working with smaller firms, businesses often receive a more personal and dedicated service with greater understanding of their needs and simpler communication.”
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