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Rebecca Benneyworth and Emily Ellison at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping
Richard-Hattersley

What’s keeping you awake at night?

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From dealing with HMRC to increasing fees, accountants and bookkeepers are confronted with plenty of nightmares while running their businesses. That’s why Rebecca Benneyworth attempted to help practitioners deal with these challenges at the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping. 

14th Mar 2024
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The past few years have provided plenty of challenges to keep accountants and bookkeepers awake at night. The opening session in the Any Answers Live theatre on day two of the Festival of Accounting & Bookkeeping at Birmingham’s NEC looked to address some of those perennial issues in the profession. 

Rebecca Benneyworth and Mercia’s Emily Ellison took a number of wide-ranging questions from the audience on marketing to increasing fees and the regulation of the profession. However, the challenge that was keeping the majority of attendees up at night was contacting HMRC as an agent. 

How do we cope with the frustration of dealing with HMRC?

Before Benneyworth offered her tips, she admitted that she tends to avoid contacting HMRC “like the plague” and if she can “self serve” she will do it herself. 

She illustrated the struggles practitioners face through the example of her recently retired friend, who sold her practice, but still looks after four or five clients. Every now and then she contacts Benneyworth because she’s waiting to get her agent numbers and then when she gets them, she’s not able to log in. 

While Benneyworth couldn’t put the attendees’ minds at rest today, she pointed to the regulation of the tax profession consultation document, where there is a section on changing the way HMRC registers agents, and the tax department wants to hear from agents who have recently registered and are finding difficulties. “It might not solve the problem, but at least you can input into what HMRC are doing in future,” she said.  

However, she noted that this is “just one level” of going through hoops with HMRC. She also advised established agents who are members of a professional body to not ignore the letter from HMRC about money-laundering supervising. 

“If you don’t answer that letter, they will pull your plug out. So you need to go back and there’s a little bit of information you’ve got to get from your professional body to provide back to HMRC to genuinely show that you are regulated by whichever body,” she advised. 

How do we deal with the variability of HMRC’s service?

Another concern she raised was around the variability of the service. During January Benneyworth said she took on a lot of clients and then she dealt with the “authorities” in February. She generated around 25 agent authorisation codes and has only had around three or four come through. Those that have come through are those that have their registered office assigned to Benneyworth’s office. 

Likewise, she said PAYE authority “just doesn’t work” and instead she’s “cut out the middleman” and she’s doing paper 64-8s instead. 

She added that clients are “gobsmacked” when she tells them that HMRC has a team looking at post that is more than a year old. However, Benneyworth said that HMRC has promised to move things over to the new Enterprise Tax Management Platform (ETMP) and switch off the old machines. 

Adding to this, she said HMRC spends a lot on “just keeping the machines alive”, revealing that the machines it uses for self assessment are from the 1990s.

The conversation turned to challenges when dealing with the Agent Dedicated Line (ADL). Benneyworth shared that she told HMRC at FAB yesterday that there are complex issues where she needs someone on the other end of the phone “who knows their stuff”. She suggested to them that if they could have a triage service set up, a lot of the ‘can you sort this’ calls would go really quickly, leaving the experienced HMRC staff to manage the more technical and complex issues. 

How do we market our firm?

The next question from the show floor was on marketing. Benneyworth informed the attendees that she took the decision when designing her practice’s website to focus on her local area of Stroud, rather than the work she does as a continuing professional development (CPD) lecturer which is of “no interest to a plumber”.

“I’ve sort of created that persona [of focusing on Stroud and highlighting photos of the town on the website], because although I have got businesses elsewhere, I want to help the people around the town where I live and make their businesses really, really successful.” 

She has also leaned on her son and daughter who work at her practice to list the practice on Facebook, which she was initially sceptical about, but five days after setting up the page she had five new clients. 

She also echoed a comment from the show floor about the power of comment. As an example, she said her daughter had written an overview of the key tax points to share with clients half an hour after the Chancellor sat down. 

How can we increase our fees?

Linked to the topic of growing your practice was the follow-up question on raising your fees, especially when clients are struggling with the cost-of-living squeeze. This question came from an audience member who expressed guilt at increasing fees and passing costs on to clients, but recognised that freezing client fees just means the costs are on the firm instead. 

Benneyworth advised the audience member to use this as an opportunity to engage with clients about their own pricing. She has a number of pubs as her clients and one of the first things her daughter does when they take on a pub as a new client is to ask the landlord what their most profitable lager is and then follow up with: ‘Do all your bar staff know?’

“That’s really important because if someone says: ‘I’ll have a pint of lager’ you should reach straight for that one,” she said. 

There was a similar example with a local pizza restaurant. Her daughter was processing the client’s invoices and taking into account the ingredients, she realised that they weren’t making any money on the pizza. Benneyworth sat down with the client and did a costing exercise with him and he ended up putting his prices up. 

“It’s not just cutting but it’s also looking at pricing, which you’ve got the insight to be able to do. And oh my goodness, how does that help your client be successful? Having done that, they then will absolutely not bat an eyelid when you say you have to put your prices up.”

She also added that if she’s going to put her prices up, she tells clients four months in advance. “They have then got a little bit of warning and time to get their head around it.”

Covering everything from HMRC to pricing and everything in between, the session demonstrated that running an accountancy or bookkeeping practice is full of sleepless nights, but there are ways to deal with whatever is thrown at you. 

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By Open all hours
15th Mar 2024 09:01

Keeping me awake at night?

Personally - York City. The numbers just don’t add up to survival in the National League.

Professionally - the mindset of HMRC and those who have told them that MTD is a worthwhile viable project.

Politically - the whole damn substandard lot of them.

Seriously - nothing, I always sleep well and just once slept through a smoke alarm, which was 8 feet from the bed - maybe that thought should keep me awake?

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