The stories behind practice and software awards

Practice Excellence
Richard Hattersley
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The Brewery in The City of London saw countless dramas on Thursday night as AccountingWEB handed out 23 separate Practice Excellence and Software Excellence Awards.

The awards ceremony brought together the software and practice awards for the first time, which served to heighten the underlying tensions and trends that are swirling around the accounting profession. The core of our story is the rise of a new generation that has taken to cloud systems to challenge the established traditionalists and their desktop systems.

Countdown presenter Rachel Riley (pictured above) was a popular choice to preside over the ceremony, and showed her affinity to the 300+ crowd by revealing that her father was a chartered accountant and internal auditor. It was a relief for her for once to be surrounded by people who appreciated and made practical use of their numeracy skills.

Kicking off the Software Excellence Awards, the small business accounting and bookkeeping category saw the new generation laying down gauntlet. Since these awards were last presented in 2013, the proportion of the 3,000+ ratings for cloud systems doubled from 42% to 85%. As a result, Sage 50 Accounts was the sole desktop survivor on the shortlist, pitted against four cloud rivals: FreeAgent, Clear Books, QuickBooks Online and Xero.

The award announcement struck the first blow of the evening for the underdogs, with FreeAgent beating the multinational giants. It’s an impressive double for the Edinburgh-based developer, which spent the last four years as the reigning champion after winning the same prize in 2013.

The expenses management and financial planning & analysis (FP&A) categories cemented the gains of the cloud generation. Receipt Bank beat a shortlist of all-cloud rivals to the expenses award and cashflow forecasting tool Float overcame Futrli, Fathom, Spotlight Reporting and Microsoft Excel/Power BI in the FP&A category.

The old guard reasserted itself in the mid-market/enterprise accounting category, with SAP Business One proving that big industry leaders still know a thing or two when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Practice wars

Established players were harder to dislodge in the tax and practice categories, which were dominated by a titanic struggle between two developers that have dominated these awards for many years. BTCSoftware carried off the tax and practice management honours back in 2013, but BTC and TaxCalc point-for-point on their user ratings (4.8 out of 5) and recommendation scores (88%).

To resolve the impasse, both were given 2017 Practice Excellence Awards.

The constant race for superiority seems to spur both TaxCalc and BTC into trying to outdo each other every year, which makes things a lot better for customers of both companies. But dead heats are very rare in a mass survey like this, and TaxCalc pipped BTC to the accounts production award. With a slightly better score for practice management, TaxCalc completed a commendable trio of victories on the night.

To illustrate how seriously the developers take these user-voted awards, TaxCalc director Steve Checkley said afterwards, “It’s made me very emotional.”

But the well known names didn’t have it all their own way. Newcomer AccountancyManager came out of nowhere to nab the practice management award. Having launched the cloud-based work-tracking system for small firms in March this year, AccountancyManager has attracted more than 500 sign-ups and 150 converts in the months since according to founder James Byrne. And enough of them cast favourable votes in the poll to topple the giants.

Practice Excellence dramas

The same generational pattern showed up in the Practice Excellence Awards portion of the evening. Some august characters from the past reappeared to assert their authority, such as  national tax practice winner Milsted Langdon. Seymour Taylor, which achieved 54% growth in its centenary year, saw off a posse of four cloud challengers in the growth category.

But the cloud upstarts aren’t going away and overran the small, new and innovative firm of the year categories – won respectively by Evans & Partners, The Accountancy Cloud and Crunch.

Crunch has strong form in this competition after winning the growth category last year. Another returning victor was Kinder Pocock. After winning the 2015 growth award, founder Sharon Pocock admitted that the firm had lost a few clients. As she explained in our What sets the leaders apart webcast on Wednesday, she and set out to diagnose and correct the situation, recruiting a new “client champion” from the hospitality industry and devising a new process for on-boarding clients. The 2017 client service prize is her reward, demonstrating that it is possible to maintain service standards while continuing to grow a practice.

The Practice Excellence Awards included a couple of new categories this year to recognise the growing role of specialist teams with in the profession. The National Tax Team of the Year award went to Milsted Langdon, a multiple winner of the large firm award in previous years, while the Specialist Team of the Year prize went to Fitzgerald & Law.

The niche approach was a consistent characteristic across several categories, with nominees specialising in markets as diverse as dentistry, professional musicians, creative industries and tech start-ups. Practices playing specialist hands picked up the following awards: innovative (Crunch – contractors/microbusinesses), new (The Accountancy Cloud – international finance team outsourcing), large (Bishop Fleming – academies), medium (Dunkerly’s – dentists), and practice pioneer (inniAccounts – contractors/microbusinesses).

There’s also a new story line on the horizon. As she announced the Software Excellence Innovation Award for Sage Pegg earlier in the evening, Rachel Riley asked for someone to explain what a “text-driven, machine learning bot” was.

Sage vice president for bots and artificial intelligence Kriti Sharma was later seen on stage with Riley, so we hope she had a chance to enlighten the TV presenter. There’s no standing still in the AI world, however, and the headlines the day before the awards were all about Google’s self-learning AlphaGo system.

“It needed no prior data to learn,” said Sharma. “This breakthrough will give us the capability to do all sorts of crazy things that will have a big impact on accountancy practice.”

To emphasise how quickly things are moving in this area and lend weight to her predictions, the Practice Excellence Pioneer award for 2017 was won by inniAccounts, which is already building machine learning into its accounting and client interaction processes.

What better way to end this year’s awards saga than with a cliffhanger for next season? There is likely to be a new, new thing shaking up the profession in next year’s awards.

About John Stokdyk

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

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21st Oct 2017 12:59

The voting would be better if it was possible to score more than one product in each category. Many accountants will use more than one cloud-accounting package for example and can useful feedback on more than one.

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23rd Oct 2017 12:29

Thanks Mike, we're very appreciative of any feedback we get and will put this point down on our planning document for next eyar.

There shouldn't have been any restriction on you rating more than one product in a particular category. When you rated one product, you should have been able to go back and choose another one.

While looking through the results we could see a few people came back a little later and started a new sequence for different apps they were using - but that shouldn't have been necessary.

We're likely to revamp the rating engine a little bit to iron out a few kinks and will try to smooth out the process for multi-product ratings in 2018.

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