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Firms catch tech adoption fever during pandemic

As accountants catch their breath from this intense period, Richard Sergeant explores how government restrictions have accelerated technology adoption and its respective systems within firms.

23rd Jun 2020
Director Principle Point
Columnist
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In the heat of the crisis, the first person many business owners turned to was their accountant. Managing the sudden influx of questions has been one of the profession’s biggest challenges of Covid-19. 

The most frequent questions related to the different government support schemes and how they would impact client businesses.

Email management and other, more interactive communication tools suddenly became essential aids in helping practices offer their own support services to struggling businesses. 

Practice commentator Mark Lee suggested that Covid-19 accelerated a shift towards more regular and personal communication that has been building for some time. “Some firms may just be catching up, but they are seeing the benefit and have moved a long way very quickly. The gap between those who do, and who still don’t, has suddenly grown even wider,” he added.

Woods Squared director Alan Woods explained how his firm moved away from email to more immediate mechanisms when the panic struck: “That included a shift in mindset too, as I had been prejudging many clients before Covid by not even thinking that they'd be willing to meet via Zoom”.

“Emails are a great way to get things off your to-do list, but over the last few months the power of actually picking up the phone or sending a WhatsApp message has shown that email is just a lazy way of doing things,” said Woods.

For Paul Barnes, director of MAP mobile chat apps have come into their own as a means to get specific information to the clients when they need it: “Engagement through WhatsApp has been very positive. I think people find it seamless and normal. But the fact that our clients all have common issues and interests with the Covid measures is the real driving force.”

Focus on internal systems

Firms have been talking about working remotely for some time, but since March they’ve been forced to get on with it.

Irish firm Keogh Ryan Tierney is a case in point; partner Peter Keogh commented: “Having good tech has allowed our team to migrate home seamlessly. The feedback is really positive. Being flexible employers has always been a goal for the firm and now with the easing of restrictions we have staff returning to the office, but it will be their choice in the future as to how they want to work.”

As AccountingWEB documented in March, lockdown intensified interest in practice management. Discussions of the subject surged in Any Answers and in accountant Facebook groups between firms that suddenly decided to act on decisions they’d been putting off for months. 

AccountancyManager reported that the number of emails dispatched by accountants to clients via its program had surged 430% by the end of March compared to the previous month. Text message traffic had also doubled.

Onkho founder Emanaur Rahman said his customers had been building more custom workflows and sending communications to specific categories of their clients during the past month.

James Kilford, CEO of cloud-based practice management developer Senta concurred: “It’s been incredibly busy, both in terms of sign-ups but also in the amount of configuration work. Unsurprisingly lots of new workflows around processing and recording data from the various government schemes.”

Looking beyond the office for the right team

Working remotely has also prompted new thinking around ideas like outsourcing and staffing. “Being able to sit back and form the right team without being influenced by the people already around me has been really telling,” said Paul Barnes at MAP. “I’m working with suppliers dotted around the country rather than local or inhouse. Finding the best people to help with that specific job - a virtual team.”

While many industries are furloughing employees or making them redundant, some firms have been recruiting. But accountants like Cone Accounting CEO Ben Naccahave had to adapt their hiring practices around new travel and meeting restrictions.

“I've had to up our game with hiring – although we’re a remote team we usually hire and interview in person. This time around it’s been entirely virtual, so that's been a very different process for sure.”

Services: a shift to the future

As client businesses start to think about what comes next, practitioners have to work out whether they’ve got the full range of services in place to cater for their expanding needs and expectations.

Renewed focus on tailored client communication, a focus on practical cash issues (and advance planning), and shoring up internal processes are among the full list of advisory services.

“Scenario planning is a big one. In normal times it’s a challenge enough getting a client to keep one budget – now they want multiple!” said Barnes. 

Woods is already seeing scope to re-engage clients with some of some cash basics: “More credit and cash control - the advisory bits around managing money, maintaining cash flow, and keeping or building the war chest for if there’s a second and of course when the loans and tax bills need repaying.”

Predicting the future

For many practices flexible working is still a work in progress.

If it’s going to become part of the fabric of practice, practice owners, managers and staff need to develop collective trust until it can be proven, out of Covid-19, that the trust is there from firm leaders.

The big challenge firms confronted when the crisis hit was the sheer workload of dealing with client queries. As the difference supports schemes and client scenarios have evolved, practices are now trying to assess whether they can come up with new processes and services to dial into and support each client’s specific needs.

As we have seen, automated systems have been helping some firms advise more proactively. Now they need to design service and billing structures that allow them to maintain this emergency-level of service sustainably. Even the interest and necessity in specifically dialling into each client’s personal needs creates a major overhead in time which is probably unsupportable in the long term.

In the wake of the financial crash, a lot of practices attempted to deal with cashflow issues by moving clients to monthly direct debits as a way of reducing the exposure to bad debt. That may have rebounded this time around when clients stopped their mandates, but will the Covid-19 crisis bring something else out of the blue, such as interactive online client reviews?

But perhaps the biggest winners will once again be the cloud ledgers, having already solved flexible working, remote access and real-time data. 

Our forthcoming webinar –‘How to focus on services to drive practice goals’, will explore the new post-virus accounting services in demand.

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