As one of the central compliance processes, accounts production is an area where firms could save the most time by removing tasks that have little or no value.
As the systems to make this happen are starting to become a reality thanks to the rise of connected technologies, machine learning, and better client facing systems we look at how this key workflow might look in the future.
The data challenges
Many of the issues around accounts production stem from the challenges of getting good-quality data during the early stages. Understanding what data is missing, and then the seemingly endless task of chasing and re-chasing clients can slow things considerably.
It’s also a process that retains many of manual inputs: moving data into and around various programmes (and sometimes just into a usable format), as well as collating and adding the required additional information. All of these processes are essential but contribute little value if much time is spent on them.
Removing as much of this ‘dead time’ as possible is a key aim of automation.
A new workflow
In the near future, it is likely that the key milestones of the process will remain broadly the same. However, how you get there could change radically.
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The focus will shift to removing the manual processes and increasing the effectiveness of communication, leaving trained staff free to apply their expertise at critical points (not only to complete the compliance process but also to add value to the client).
From a practice perspective, automation will also bring significant advantages in planning, tracking and the internal communication around work in progress, saving time and adding crucial insight into where further improvements can be made.
1. Digital record keeping
Cloud accounting software, OCR apps, and virtual assistants record essential bookkeeping data
- Categorising and posting transactions direct into bookkeeping software
- Automatic invoicing and chasing
- Sending and processing payments
- Automatic bank reconciliation learnt over time and rules
The client has control and visibility over their financial administration. Nothing is missed, data quality can be monitored and maintained through the year, reducing end of year chasing time.
2. Data collection
Year end reminders received direct to mobile, email or accounting application
- Automatic notifications to client after year end to complete outstanding data logging
- Creation of job and workflow tasks in practice management
Data is ready to go, and by communicating via their channel of choice ensures your messages get through and responses are acted upon. Quality data has already meant that less time will be needed later for repair.
3. Import to accounts production software
- API to transfer data to accounts production
Minimising the time need to map data, and the removing of human error transforms an up to two-hour process to a click of a button.
Requests for minimal extra data received and returned via chosen communication route
- Automatically request missing data and chase
- Remove manual data entry of missing data
- Alert accountant and trigger job tasks
Digital record keeping has already increased the quality of data, enabling the accounts production software to quickly identify and request the missing information. Returned data can either be entered manually or updated directly into the bookkeeping software, triggering an update in accounts production.
5. Accounts preparation and adjustments
- Machine learning teaches software to recognise and pre-empt adjustments. "This transaction, make this adjustment"
- Rules established where source data is known and trusted
Application of accountants' expertise and experience can be focussed here, and with the help of machine learning the software understands and can act more autonomously over time.
6. Additional disclosures
Requests for extra data and access to trusted data sources received
- Automatically send request for required data
- Pull through of data from trusted client and third-party sources
- Alert accountant and schedule time to complete
- Notify manager and schedule in review
Spending as little time as possible tracing and verifying data leaves staff to concentrate on applying their judgment and ensure required standards are being met. It also creates the opportunity to spend more time gaining insight that can be surfaced to the client during their review.
7. Internal review
- Access to prepared accounts linked directly from scheduled task reminder
- Presentation of projections and analysis tailored to client requirements automatically produced and inserted into accounts
- Presentation of timesheet and job analysis
- Scheduling of time for adjustments (internal)
- Schedule meeting directly with client
Efficient production and presentation of all documents and linked data sources means the internal review process can be focussed on quality assurance, and valued insight that can be presented to the client.
8. Client review
Meeting arranged via app or virtual assistant, advance documents received ready to view
- Better tools for business intelligence and ability to easily present
- Live interrogation and analysis of data
- Adjustments scheduled and meeting notes emailed directly to client
- Sending of accounts via a portal and request to client to sign off.
Review meetings become ‘live’, with access to source information and dynamically adjusted insights feeding directly into finished client documents.
9. Sign off
Notification of final account documents ready, digital sign-off via portal
- Receipt notification of sign-off received and an alert sent to accountant
Administrative task simplified and speeded up
- Filed internally
- Filed with Companies House
Administrative task simplified and speeded up
Better client experience adds value
Greater automation should be designed to deliver tangible benefits to the client, bypassing the endless merry-go-round of being chased for missing information. The speed final documentation and tax calculations can be produced increases, leaving accountants more time to deliver on their trusted advisor role.
Stepping towards automation
The benefits outlined above can be fully realised once some important factors are in place, some of which are relatively straightforward.
Clients need to be encouraged and helped as much as possible to keep their records digitally and up to date. Looking at how technology can be used to remove resistance, and surface useful features in a meaningful way to them is essential. Virtual assistants and making the bookkeeping process as invisible as possible will make the biggest difference.
Different software will increasingly become more compatible with each other. Minimising the friction between moving data from one place to another is critical as you look to reevaluate your software choices.
Machine learning, or the ability for the software to take action by analysing huge amounts of data, will be a key component in making meaningful automation happen. Keeping an eye on who is investing in this area, and what gains they are making should provide an indication of what actually is practical and provide you with the most advantage.
Automating accounts production could be the next step towards transformational change
Being able to realise increased automation around a service that is likely to impact 70% of your client base creates a huge opportunity.
Automation at this level could increase overall productivity by anything up to eight hours per client, which in a competitive market represents a significant increase in profitability.
The challenge remains to ensure that the client records are as clean and comprehensive as possible, but with the direction of travel increasingly digital (and arguably cloud), the cultural change required here would reap significant benefits to the whole client experience and cost.
Injecting value into a compliance task
“Creating a great experience for both accountant and client is not something you normally associate with an annual accounts process, but there is a real opportunity to challenge the way that we work and remove more of the pain points”, says Amy Noblett, Product Management Lead for Sage.
“Not only should we be looking to ease the data collection process at key points, but also teach the software to help leverage more of the advisory opportunities - for example, benchmarking, ratios and spotting anomalies. Insight that would make a difference to a business, and inject value into a mandatory compliance task.”
To read Sage's latest independent research including stats and opinions from fellow accountants on automation, download the new guide here.
About Richard Sergeant
Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.