The Small Practice of the Year category is the heartbeat of the Practice Excellence Awards and with 78 entries this year, it’s also the hardest one to win.
The definition of “small practice” being one with one or two partners leaves the door open for a very wide range of accountancy firms, from highly streamlined operations focusing on the contractor market to boutique specialists operating in specific industry sectors.
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The trend that emerged most clearly in 2017 was that nearly half of the entrants to the small firm category were committed to the cloud-based trusted advisor model. It has been said before by the judges, but is worth repeating that presenting this as your business model is not enough to earn credibility for Practice Excellence - you need to demonstrate that your approach is delivering benefits for clients and that you have a wider vision about where your practice is going now that you’ve got these great new systems in place.
Client care has always been the foundation of the Practice Excellence movement and this year saw more emphasis on this area, particularly among firms who have put dedicated client service managers in place. Often non-qualified staff, these team members focus on the client experience and relationship and ensure that the appropriate technical teams are put on the case at appropriate times.
There was also a lot of digital marketing activity, from convening Facebook groups to communicate to clients, to wider social networking and email newsletters. We have already noted how it’s getting harder to tell accountants apart - even the good ones who enter the Practice Excellence Awards - so the profession’s big battle in the future is going to be less about the quality of the services they provide, but how you market it.
The following five small firms all showed that they had a handle on these key areas of Practice Excellence. May the best one win on 19 October:
Ad Valorem Accountancy Services
Founded in 2001 by managing director Nigel Adams, Ad Valorem now offers tax and business services to businesses in counties around Milton Keynes. During the past year the firm has continued to diversify, for example with a new cloud department bringing “real-time accountancy” to its client base along with training, free telephone support and fortnightly drop-in days.
The firm makes great play about empowering staff and partners to develop new opportunities - whether within the firm’s successful R&D tax credit department, which has helped clients recoup £4.2m or in partnership with a local solicitor to provide “white label” legal services. It cements this reputation by regular events and networking to build its client base into a cohesive business community.
Evans & Partners
Bristol-based Evans & Partners is a 30-strong practice that puts an emphasis on advisory services. The planned changes to the digital tax system prompted a strategy review that resulted in the sale of smaller, compliance-only clients and outsourcing compliance work to enable the core team to focus on more profitable clients who benefit from advisory services.
To support these changes the firm introduced a new job management system and recruited a production controller to support the existing client service and advisory teams.
On a quarterly basis, Evans & Partners holds advisory meetings with clients to review current figures generated from Xero by Spotlight Reporting and assess business performance. Clients respond well to this kind of service – with one who mailed back cost reduction plans the morning after their meeting.
Inca Caring Accounting
Lesley and Graham Carson set up Inca to be different from most practices and their people-oriented approach now extends to around 400 clients in Oxfordshire, Berkshire and beyond.
The firm deploys a wide range of strategies to ensure clients succeed, including business development workshops, online guides and networking online and in person. During the past year, Inca has invested significantly to create an engaged workforce that is motivated to carry it forward. This effort included signing up for Investors In People and increases in both training and salary budgets.
Feedback from clients and staff confirm this investment has paid off. Inca explains: “The new organisational structure and management feedback provides a more efficient service for clients and increased employee engagement has resulted in record-breaking figures delivered by a dedicated team who value our clients successes as much as our own.”
Sutton Coldfield-based Inform Accounting offers “proactive, business-focused financial support”. Led by management accountant Sian Kelly, Inform focuses on giving data-backed advice to help clients achieve their goals: “We look at our clients’ businesses holistically, not just at the numbers.”
Three-quarters of its clients take some kind advisory service, including tax planning, management accounts or face to face strategy sessions.
Inform does not just preach efficiency and automation to its clients, it has also adopted tech relentlessly to drive out manual processes and create a 100% digital practice, using a “stack of apps” including Receipt Bank and Futrli along with Xero to give clients insights into their data.
Behind the scenes, it created a two-year programme that recruited five school leavers and developed them in to practising advisers.
Operating out of Jersey, Purpose offers “financial direction” and external support via cloud accounting to a select group of 26 clients.
Acknowledging that its service is designed “for the few, not the many” Purpose explains that it may be constrained by the growth in client numbers - but not revenue. Retaining such a close focus enabled the firm to refine a consistent approach into get five reports and meeting checklists to give clients insight into their businesses.
Each bespoke reporting pack includes customer and staff profitability reports and analysis of the product sales mix. These figures are used to prompt discussions and potential ideas for change at regular VFD [virtual finance director] meetings.
When the opportunity arises, Purpose will ask to be paid equity instead of cash. Not only has this built up a very healthy investment nest-egg for the firm, it provides an extra bond and alignment to the client’s business goals.
The consistent approach carries through to internal reporting and mentoring, which takes place during monthly 121 meetings. Every team member has a jam jar into which they place green and pink and Post-It notes when something uplifting (green) or disappointing (pink) happens; these points are picked up at the next monthly meeting.
Practice Excellence Week is AccountingWEB's landmark festival of excellence, inspiration and celebration for the accounting profession. If you would like to hear more about the programme, please visit the Practice Excellence website or email [email protected].