How to start automating your practice

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Richard Sergeant
Director
Principle Point
Columnist
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Richard Sergeant looks at automation and discovers how accountants are already seeing the benefits from implementing the year's big new trend. 

Practice automation is turning out to be one of the hot topics of 2017. Seemingly few vendors wish to be left out, with some very specific visions of how future technology will shape the form and function of firms, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and connected systems.

The trouble seems to be that it sounds very disruptive (and don’t we all love big change projects), and expensive.

But which areas are the most practical in the short term, and where do you start? I asked accountants and vendors for their suggestions, and this was their top three.

Onboarding

Glenn Martin from Avery Martin Accountants, highlights the very beginning of the client process: “From a practice perspective the onboarding of clients is increasingly difficult and has that many steps involved it is hard to be efficient. It is ripe to be systemised and automated wherever possible”.

Increasingly the manual process of creating client quotes in an easy and consistent format, creation of engagement letters and following through with digital sign off, and setting up of payments is an area that has opened up. The value being in the sales process, and client experience and not the administration.

Brendan Allen from Practice Ignition, commented: “This is the next big 'puzzle piece' in running an efficient and profitable practice. Business owners are starting to understand the importance of an easy and transparent client experience from the second they walk in”.

So, the benefits are both to the firm and in the perception of service by the client. A win/win perhaps?

Olly Evans of Evans & Partners, however, would say not: “Onboarding automation is good to have, but 90% of our efforts are elsewhere - mostly managing bits of data from clients”

Data collection

Unsurprisingly, given the impetus of cloud accounting over recent years, bookkeeping and data collection features heavily.

Evans continued: “Accounting firms spend a lot of their time collecting data from clients - paper, bank statements, records etc. Automate this as much as possible - use Xero with bank feeds and Receipt Bank to collect paperwork”.

That’s something Martin also agrees with: “Products like AutoEntry have been game changing for client side bookkeeping, and can save 60/70% of data entry time if implemented correctly”.

So beyond scanning and indexing, we now have OCR and classification as well as nearing a new world of auto reconciliation through machine learning. Increasingly this is a theme being picked up by the major vendors as with Sage’s ‘invisible accounting’ and Xero’s ‘no code accounting’ - the sheer amount of data and the software’s ability to analyse it, learn and make decisions about what it means and how it should be treated is a huge area of R&D.

While signposting time savings, it also has another benefit: “If you can automate anything that reduces or eliminates the potential for (human) error, this should be pretty high on the priority list”, said Andrew Perrett from Taylor Cocks.

Workflows

So we have clients, and we have data, but what about how we handle the flow of that data and the tasks around it as services are fulfilled?

Alex Davis, Intuit, said: “The real opportunity is systemising the workflows and using automaton to remind clients about deadlines and commitments”. Which points to features of both the cloud providers accountants hubs like Xero practice tools and QuickBooks Online Accountant, and of course the new breed of practice management software.

Some of this new software looks promising. With products like MTrio utilising the capabilities of Salesforce, and Senta using APIs to display key data from apps used by many firms already such as cloud accounting and more recently direct debit provider GoCardless.

But is this true automation or just building software that provides more connected services?

We should note that it isn’t easy to pass data from cloud accounting software through to accounts production. Although there have been announcements of integrations between Xero and Thomson Reuters Digita, and also CCH, take up here so far does seem to be limited.

Connecting services and passing data seamlessly would make a lot of sense but progress is slow. There is also the more political angle of vendors not wishing to be too helpful to competitors, so it would be great to think that Sage’s Accountants Cloud might also integrate with Xero, but it’s unlikely to happen.

So although workflow is an area where probably the most efficiencies can be made, looking at it in smaller chunks is probably more realistic at the moment. As Alan Woods, Woods Squared suggested: “Look for the quick wins for those tasks that you (or your team) do on a repetitive basis and automate those first.”

The automated practice is still some way off

Given some of this insight, it would seem that a highly automated practice is still some way off. Even some of the vendors who responded noted that it is the direction of travel rather than something achievable right now.

Glen Foster of Xero noted that “automating current paper processes is necessary but also the easier option and available now”. While Andrew Garvey of FreeAgent added a further note of realism: “Maybe a slight alteration to an existing workflow will allow greater possibilities than trying to fit automation across the practice”.

About rsergeant

About rsergeant

Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.

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21st Sep 2017 12:34

Great article Richard, we believe automation will be the key to a successful accountancy practice in the future.

Our vision at AccountancyManager is exactly this, with automation at the heart of our operations.

We agree with Glenn Martin regarding the onboarding process, streamlining this is essential. That's why in AM the system automates proposals, letters of engagement and allows clients to fill out their information online with as little hassle as possible. To support this we've also built the function to automate requests of information from previous accountants.

And to remind clients of their deadlines once onboard (a common request from clients), we recently we just added "Client Deadlines" to their online portal.

Olly Evans has a point, collecting data from clients is very time consuming but already we are beginning to automate this process with the ability to set up automatic record requests and more importantly, currently developing an intelligent new system which will know when 'part records' are outstanding and automatically communicate this to the client.

And like Andrew Perrett says, "automate anything that reduces or eliminates the potential for (human) error" - this is what we're all about.

We should also mention that the opportunity that Alex Davis mentions regarding systemising the workflow using automation, again is something AM has already achieved. Our system works from the deadlines in the clients file and orders the workflow (specific for each staff member) in order of deadlines and then records received.

We do however agree that the fully automated practice is still a little way off. That's why our dream at AccountancyManager is to provide this, along with a "1 stop shop" from providing everything from marketing tools (hint - it's in the pipeline) to the final stage of filling accounts.

We're happy to work with other software in the market to produce this provided they share the same dream and are as passionate as we are about transforming the accountancy profession.

Thanks (1)
to jamesbyrne
21st Sep 2017 08:30

Hi James

Does AM allow for clients completing client's onboarding data? For example, UTRs, NI and DOB. Can you please clarify?

We looking at the possibility of AM as our practice engine.

Thanks (0)
to FirstTab
21st Sep 2017 08:36

Of course - they have the option to enter this information with a link our system generates for them and also gives them access to their own online portal. This also allows them to update details if for instance they change address or phone number.

Glad to hear you are interested in coming onboard.

Thanks (1)
to FirstTab
21st Sep 2017 11:02

FirstTab wrote:

Hi James

Does AM allow for clients completing client's onboarding data? For example, UTRs, NI and DOB. Can you please clarify?

We looking at the possibility of AM as our practice engine.

Nice.

Thanks (0)
to jamesbyrne
21st Sep 2017 11:06

Hi James,

Triggers and workflow are think are great features.

For me though the actual flow of data is a big frontier to be crossed, and I can't see it being too close just yet - unless you go with a single house approach at the moment, and actually I'm not sure who that describes when looking at client data through to in practice software.

Will be interesting to see if the next iterations of Xero HQ et al actually start to broker relationships with new accounts production and tax software on a meaningful level.

Thanks (0)
By IrfanS.
to jamesbyrne
26th Sep 2017 14:46

Hi James,

You mentioned that automatic record requests can be set up in AccountancyManager. Once you receive the data, what are the next steps? Does system process data itself or it is sent to other systems for it.

Kind regards,

Thanks (0)
avatar
23rd Sep 2017 10:20

These issues in practice also apply to commerce & industry.

For example, here's a real world example for a purchase & payment process.

1. Requisitioner - located at this operational site in, say, Poland - wants to buy something. Types it into Google Forms.
2. His line manager authorises - who works, in say, Portugal - it in the resulting Google Sheet.
3. It turns out to be above his limit, so a 2nd authoriser co-authorises it in the same Google Sheet.
4. Somebody now has to type in a purchase order number into the Google Sheet.
5. The requisitioner has to log into the Google Sheet to get the PO number and quote it on order.
6. The vendor's invoice goes directly to the accounts team in head office in, say, England. It should quote a PO number, but the vendor doesn't care.
7. Somebody has to go find the PO entry and manually match it.
8. In any event, the invoice arrived by email, is downloaded to a server (hosted in AWS, in a VLAN, cannot be connected to the Googleverse) and its header details are typed into an invoice register (a spreadsheet on the server).
9. Once matched to the PO, the PO number is also typed into the invoice register, at which point it becomes eligible for typing into the accounting system (which is also an AWS server, in a VLAN with no connection to Google).
10. The invoice is typed into the accounting system, which is the final resting place for the document.
11. The ordered goods fail to arrive properly, so the requisitioner marks as such in the Google Sheet (which contains space for the goods received process). The invoice can be part-paid, part-disputed. The requisitioner disputes it (the vendor is in the same country as him).
12. The payment clerk drafts a payment run and manually goes hunting for each PO to see whether it can be paid, and to what extent.
13. For those items qualifying for payment, the cheque run report from the accounting system is distilled in Excel to convert its legacy "printy-printy" format into pure data.
14. The pure data is copy-pasted into the banking system. (Yes, that's right, HSBCnet does NOT support the import of CSV files. Go figure.)

What off-the-shelf software might automate this?

Thanks (0)
to martinengland
26th Sep 2017 10:10

It's a good point, and like you say a real world example.

I have a certain insight into a SAP implementation for a multinational corporation which has outsourced finance and HR in eastern Europe and the far east...what could possibly go wrong now an expensive ERP system has been put in place?

Whatever scale business we are looking at, it's going to take a while yet.

Thanks (0)
24th Sep 2017 22:18

With Brexit and MTD being the issues that will be affecting all businesses in some way or another, by speeding up the transmission and processing of data between all of the parties involved will ensure the UK PLC will become much more flexible for the challenges ahead.

However integration across the various interfaces such as customer -> bank -> accounting practice -> HMRC is poorly defined. Poorly defined interfaces mean NO automation. Period.

Software vendors such as Sage, QB, Xero etc etc will obviously defend their market share and hence cooperating on the development and implementation of a new data interoperability standard is unlikely.

Standards for interoperability have to be driven by the industry. For example in networking the X series standards e.g. X.25 was specified by an industry body CCITT and all the software players supported it and layered their solutions upon it for the general good of the IT user.

The accountancy profession needs to lead the way and create an open standard for the communication of accounting data. If the end user e.g. the small business plumber is able to follow a simple prescriptive system for accurately entering their own figures, the accounting practices can focus on adding value to the business community rather than sorting through carrier bags of receipts. They can also pass on accounts to HMRC more quickly and have a chance of handling possibly 5 tax returns a year with MTD whereas at the moment some will be struggling to do 1.

Thanks (1)
to carlaccounting
26th Sep 2017 10:15

Thanks @carlaccounting

I was hoping it wouldn't come to an industry specific set of standards, and that more common global standards might prevail, but you could be right.

Open banking holds some promise of moving things forward, as does HMRC investment in the technical MTD infrastructure (enough of the quarterly reporting fixation already!).

Interesting..

Thanks (0)
to rsergeant
26th Sep 2017 10:39

No I agree with you. If the banking industry and the accountancy industry and HMRC work together they can put together a universal "vocabulary" for communication of core business financial data.

Imagine after Brexit that the Government decided to put VAT at different rates on different categories of goods, e,g 10% on petrol but 30% on champagne. (or maybe the other way around !). If a way of identifying a purchase transaction with such attributes could be implemented across supermarket POS -> bank -> accounting system then that would be interesting.

I'm not up to speed on Open Banking so I'll need to look into that. Cheers, Shaun.

Thanks (0)
By IrfanS.
26th Sep 2017 14:41

Great article Richard. No doubt data chasing and data entry takes a lot of precious time of accountants and their practice staff. And, not to mention, these tasks are not game changers for any practice, yet sometimes too frustrating. We found out this problem a few years back when we started back-office service for accountants.

To address this problem we have made Receipt Bot (www.receipt-bot.com). We aim to solve three problems:
- Flow of data from clients to firm should be automatic
- Data sharing from clients should be daily/weekly rather than waiting for months.
- Data entry should be automatic, and the system should learn to code the expenses to right categories.
- Enabling accountants to keep on the top of deadlines

Currently, we are in the final stages of our live beta. Receipt Bot integrates with Xero and QuickBooks Online, while SageOne integration is in the final stages.

Thanks (0)