At AccountingWEB’s recent MTD workshops, BlueHub’s Matt Flanagan has been urging practitioners to take a disciplined approach to moving VAT clients into the new regime.
With just weeks to go, the MTD workload now is all about prioritisation. Setting aside some of the more subtle niceties of accountancy client care, BlueHub managing director Matt Flanagan takes a nuts-and-bolts approach derived from years working as a technology project manager. If you are unaware of some of these disciplines, now is a good time to start paying attention.
As a technologist, Flanagan acknowledges that sometimes the most complex part of the technology equation is the human element. “A lot of change management is about breaking habits,” he said.
Breaking through the behavioural cocoons that have insulated staff and clients from MTD so far will involve communicating with people effectively so they know what’s going to be happening, when, what’s going to be expected of them and most importantly, that they understand why they’ve got to do it.
To make this all possible in the remaining time before digital record-keeping for MTD goes live, you need a plan.
Step 1: Understand where firm is with MTD
Flanagan’s MTD masterplan starts with segmenting clients into turnover and VAT “stagger” group brackets and the record-keeping systems they currently use. He also suggests scoring them for complexity of implementation and their mindset and value as a client. What Flanagan euphemistically calls his “PIA radar” will help you to work out an appropriate level of attention within the remaining time – or whether certain clients are worth the effort.
Undertaking a client data audit can get you started: “Lots of accounting firms don’t have good client data. For around half of the firms we’ve worked with, this data is spread around different spreadsheets and desktop applications.”
Flanagan’s advice is to collect it together in once place – preferably a practice client database or CRM system – cleanse it and then analyse and act on it. “Base your solutions on the trends you see,” said Flanagan.
Good client data gives you a way to group clients and deal with them appropriately. For example, retail clients are likely to be the most complex challenge, so get a group of them together in one room at the same time and work with them collectively.
“With time in short supply, the one-to-many approach is a great way to accelerate the on-boarding process,” said Flanagan. “They don’t know that your top clients are getting a more individual service. They’re just happy to get the support and attention.”
Step 2: Engagement plan
Alongside the client segmentation exercise, Flanagan also urges firms to come up with an engagement plan about how to communicate with the different client groups and to assign responsibilities and resources for this outreach work. Prepare a frequently asked question document internally to guide staff on how to talk to particular clients.
Some of your team members will also need training and support to get to grips with any new software systems or processes you are putting in place to handle the MTD workload.
Step 3: Choose your platform
Flanagan subscribes to the view that cloud software is the most effective way to cater for MTD, and brings with it many additional benefits to the firm.
Practitioners can choose whether to deal with multiple systems or standardise on one. Flanagan favours the latter approach but acknowledges that this route is not open to many firms.
“With so many spreadsheet-based businesses out there, you may not be able to move them all by April. You are going to need to cater for these clients with a bridging solution,” he advised.
Step 4 - Implementation plan
The client profiles aren’t just for communication, they will also set out the sequence and resourcing for work to bring them into MTD compliance. The milestones you set down here should be used to track progress.
Based on experience with firms so far, Flanagan estimates it will take between 8 and 12 hours to migrate clients from spreadsheets or manual systems into cloud bookkeeping. So if the firm still had 50 clients to onboard with cloud software, bankfeeds, sales invoices and training, it would need to budget around 550 staff hours for the transition.
But that’s not the only consideration, Flanagan warned. Software training and support are becoming part of the job of accounting. “Whether you want to or not, you’re going to be dragged into software support by the operational systems,” he said.
Faced with this issue, the practice needs to determine whether to include the cloud migration as part of the overall fee structure (perhaps as a monthly subscription) or charge for it. Around 20% of the firms he’s worked have charged for cloud conversion, with fees averaging £550-£700 for the work.
Back to the human factor
Client profiling and proactive communication should have identified and addressed most of the hard case clients. But what happens if the client doesn’t buy into the process or respond to the firm’s approaches?
It is the business’s responsibility to comply with VAT regulations, not their agent’s. Yet responsible practitioners will seek to advise clients on the course of action that best serves their interests. The legal force behind MTD gives the practice an opportunity to reset the client engagement.
There are some hard conversations ahead, Flanagan warned, but the basic outlines are relatively simple: this is what the client needs to do to comply with MTD, this is how the firm is going to manage the transition, this is what it is going to cost, and here is what you can expect from the firm in return. MTD is an opportunity to impose your formula on clients, Flanagan advised.
“If you tell them what to do at this point, they’ll listen… or let them go.”
About John Stokdyk
AccountingWEB’s Head of Insight has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.