Practice Excellence 2017: Where's the cutting edge?

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Feedback from both the Practice Excellence Awards and the Software Excellence Awards confirms that cloud systems entered the profession’s mainstream during 2016-17.

The pool of firms entering this year’s Practice Excellence Awards was considerably bigger – 127, up from 82 last year – but this meant there was a bigger bulge of highly professional and credible, but average firms in the race. And while the overall standard is definitely rising, the bigger field makes it harder for individual firms to stand out.

In spite of repeated instructions, many of the firms who didn’t make this year’s Practice Excellence Awards shortlist appeared to think that now they had put cloud accounting systems in place, they were part of the innovative vanguard. That may have been the case a few years ago, but now almost all of our entrants are doing it and the real pioneer firms are pushing into new territories.

Rather than seeing great leaps forward, the judges this year found a lot of incremental innovations in different areas such as offering marketing services to clients, dedicated account managers and community-based digital marketing. It’s no coincidence that a lot of these approaches emerged first from big, specialist contractor firms. Serving thousands of clients focuses the mind on efficiency and once again several of these megapractices were prominent in the Innovative firm and Growth categories.

Niches continue to thrive

The contractor market is accountancy’s most visible specialist sector, but elsewhere the growing niche movement continues to thrive in 2017. The new Specialist Team of the Year Award proved to be a hotbed of good ideas, confirming that larger practices are enthusiastically zeroing in on the niche approach to business development.

Specialisation extends to the tax market, where the Tax departments among our nominees often have teams supporting clients on particular issues such as R&D tax credits – a particularly popular area – and share incentive schemes.

“In the wider [tax] arena we can see more firms starting to develop niche areas, and this is essential in the current market,” commented tax awards judge Rebecca Cave.

Community on the rise

One of the words that cropped up again and again in this year’s entries was “community”, which is closely linked to niche strategies. As Louise Herrington at Specialist Team of the Year nominee Performance Accountancy explained: “The Classical musician pool can be very tight, so a good job tends to lead to many referrals, and as a small community, if your name gets mentioned a few times, then people call.”

If you are aiming to work within a specific sector, it makes sense to show up at the places where clients gather – or as several of this year’s entrants are doing, build somewhere that they can meet. Face to face meetings are still the gold standard for business development and client care, but online tools massively extend the potential for accountants to meet sympatico business people.

Several firms have created their own Facebook groups to connect directly to clients and prospects and influence their thinking with with regular posts on topics relevant to their business interests. These community-builders include last year’s new firm winner KFH, as well as 2017 nominees including Performance Accounting, Soaring Falcon and inniAccounts.

The Accountancy Cloud, meanwhile, has stepped beyond social media to build a Slack chat channel for its clients to “share knowledge, ideas and resources and grow their business”.

Training clients and staff

Training showed up last year as a rising trend, but is fast becoming a major surge – thanks in part to the need to start educating clients about the implications of HMRC’s ambitious digital tax plans.

As US accountant and lecturer Geni Whitehouse emphasises, training is a great marketing vehicle that lets the accountant get in front of clients and show off their expertise (as long as you aren't boring about it). At the same time, you’re equipping them to be a better business and turning them better clients who will be easier and more profitable to work with, and who appreciate what you do for them.

In many cases the seminars, webinars and workshops this year’s training enthusiasts put on focused on cloud computing or digital tax. But those focusing on niche sectors also found this to be a particularly fruitful strategy. Sayer Vincent has a specialist team working with charities and put the case for client education very effectively: “We continually invest time to produce free user-friendly guides on complex subjects such as tax, Gift Aid and more recently an in-depth risk publication which helps charitable organisations effectively manage project, operational and strategic risks. These guides are designed to empower clients to undertake more finance tasks themselves.

The client training movement is on the rise, but across the board Practice Excellence firms are investing a lot of time and effort in developing the skills and expertise of the people in their teams.

Particularly among larger firms where it is hard to sustain personal relationships with every client, employee engagement is vital in sustaining client satisfaction and future growth. Successful firms are investing heavily to develop strong client service cultures and supporting their people with all manner of appraisal frameworks and reward systems that align staff to their strategic purpose and reward those who innovate and respond to changing client needs.

Client service managers

A significant proportion of firms on the Practice Excellence shortlist have specialist client managers in place to manage those relationships and ensure the right people and expertise are deployed at times when clients need their help.

For example, when PEA17 Client Service nominee Kinder Pocock picked up signals from clients that that its onboarding processes weren’t as slick as it hoped, the firm recruited a “client champion” from the hospitality sector “to help our clients feel loved and contacted regularly, whilst keeping them organised”.

Client managers are fundamental to the rapid growth at Brighton-based microbusiness specialist Crunch, where they collect “financial health check” data on clients and use this information to steer their regular phone calls with each one. Following each conversation, the client manager sends over a traffic light-style report with recommendations and tailored advice.

The rise of the client manager reflects once again how the technical side of accountancy is becoming a smaller component compared to the marketing-client care cycle. Real practice innovators take pride in technical excellence, but recognise that this is unlikely to differentiate them from any other firm, because few clients are sophisticated enough to know the difference.

In the coming weeks and months AccountingWEB will delve more deeply into all these topics. This year’s winners will be announced during Practice Excellence Week in October, which will also feature online webcasts on MTD, tax, digital trends, marketing and leadership and a one-day conference in London on 19 October. To find out more visit the Practice Excellence website or email [email protected]

About John Stokdyk

John Stokdyk is the global editor of AccountingWEB UK and AccountingWEB.com.

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