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Do you need an IT support service?

10th Dec 2012
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At what point should a firm drop the DIY approach? Mark Lee asks Adam Maurice for advice on the IT support options for accountants and their clients.

ML: What are the principle options when it comes to choosing IT support?

AM: There are three main options:

  1. On- site - generally used by larger organisations where there is sufficient work to keep on-site staff busy.
  2. Outsourced - for smaller organisations, or firms that don’t want to have the hassle of managing internal teams and keeping them trained and updated with new technologies.
  3. Mixed - some businesses see the benefit in having a friendly face on site but also want to streamline their support by outsourcing the back end (network, server and storage), but keeping the helpdesk on site. Others do the opposite and prefer their staff to know personally the helpdesk person but allow a specialist team to manage the back-end off site.

ML: When I was in practice there was sometimes a conflict between the level of expertise required to resolve on-site problems and the seniority of the head of IT. Is that still an issue?

AM: The head of IT role varies. Some businesses will want someone to help with the IT roadmap/budget/suppliers, but not be too hands-on. Others will want the head of IT to be all-encompassing. So it can still be an issue. This tends to happen most often when the head of IT doesn’t want to keep getting their hands dirty fixing day-to-day problems. They end up either recruiting someone to do this, or turning to one of the other options we’ll talk about in a moment. These days there is rarely a need for a highly paid head of IT in smaller businesses, unless perhaps they are themselves involved in providing IT-related services to their own customers in some way.

ML: I must admit these days I come across far more smaller businesses and accountancy firms that outsource their IT. How does this work in practice?

AM: It’s quite simple really. It means you have no need for on-site specialist IT expertise. Instead you effectively buy IT support as a service. As you say, many accountancy firms and smaller businesses do this because frequently it can be much faster than trying to resolve things yourself. The support service will have the facility to remotely take control of your computer systems and to fix things without having to come to your office.

ML: I’ve worked in offices that do this. It’s quite spooky. Does it always work the same way?

AM: There are various operating models. At the most basic there is the telephone helpline. Virtually all day-to-day problems can be resolved either over the phone or through allowing the support engineer to resolve things via remote access to your systems. If the engineer who takes your call can’t help they should have more experienced colleagues to whom they can refer issues. Beyond this there may be occasions when someone has to come out on site. This will generally only be necessary if your physical hardware actually fails.

ML: How often does that happen?

AM: Less than it used to in the past. The move to cloud computing means that the need for on-site servers is fast receding.

ML: What should we look out for when choosing an IT support service provider?

AM: There are plenty of very small reactive companies out there who don’t always have capacity when you really need their help - for example when your whole system fails.

In terms accountants would understand, many of them are effectively unqualified. Obviously I would encourage everyone to use qualified providers. One of the leading industry standard qualifications is awarded by the Service Desk Institute (SDI). The Internet Group, for example, has a 3* SDI accredited service desk. We are audited and have a rigorous quality assurance check each year to ensure we continue to meet the highest standards as set down by the SDI.

ML: What else is important besides qualifications?

AM: These days every business should be thinking about what’s coming around the corner. So it makes sense to have a three-year rolling plan that the firm buys into and the service provider can meet. You don’t want to find that your IT support will be unable to keep up with your plans or to help you keep up with developments. Accountants often consider it important to keep up with those technologies that affect the efficiency of the practice and also importantly, the technologies that may affect their clients.

ML: I guess it also makes sense for the provider to also know something about the accountancy profession?

AM: Yes, absolutely. It’s the same as the way accountancy practices often specialise in particular areas where they can become trusted partners. That’s true for other service providers and other business sectors too. You want them to understand the nuances, needs and necessities of your business. So do check that whoever you use has adequate relevant industry experience.

ML: It would be easy to ask, “Do you understand about this or that?” But anyone with any sense would answer “yes”. So instead let me ask you what in your experience are some of the key issues to keep in mind when providing IT support for accountants?

AM: By understanding their needs the IT provider should raise areas that may need deeper thought. For example, if there are any outsourced payrolls, we know to avoid and to resolve any problems around paydays. Equally we know how busy accountants can be in December and January. And there are other crucial deadlines.

A good IT support company will offer clear service level agreements (SLAs) around their service and should be willing to provide regular reports on their performance around these SLAs. This is surprisingly uncommon. Of course there are occasions when something serious happens and we are called on to respond urgently and we will pull out all of the stops. Then there are all of the practical issues related to online filing with HMRC and Companies House. Beyond this, we understand the need to prevent data leakage, the need to maintain client confidentiality and disaster recovery processes to ensure business continuity - especially where staff want to use their BlackBerrys, iPhones and tablets.

ML: What other challenges need to be addressed?

AM: One of the biggest practical issues is the need to ensure that all data stored on laptops, tablet devices, smartphones and USB sticks remains secure. The same applies to giving partners and staff to office systems from home to support flexible working. And security is also an issue when any aspects of an accountants’ work are outsourced – whether to local on-shore bookkeepers or to larger overseas-based providers.

Backups are easy enough to arrange, but synchronisation is important, as is the need to avoid old versions of files overwriting newer ones stored elsewhere. Then there’s the cloud and the need to provide assurances to clients that all of their data is secure – and to be confident of this yourself.

Compliance is critical for accountants and things like long-term email archiving, disaster recovery and business continuity in the case of a major incident. These are all areas that every practice should consider and ensure they have adequate protection and processes in place.

ML: Is it really all that complicated? I imagine there are plenty of bright accountants who enjoy dabbling with IT.

AM: You’re right. There are lots of areas where tech-savvy accountants can bring great ideas to the table. But generally those same accountants earn more focusing on their accountancy work and getting experts to cover the IT support issues. Think for a moment about how the mobile phone has developed over the past five years – from a simple Nokia that called and sent texts to a modern smartphone that manages your diary and email and allows you to surf the web and watch films on your train journey home. The IT industry has progressed in a similar way. By engaging with people who are surrounded by this all the time, accountants can reap the business benefits.

ML: I take your point. If a one-man band wants to do it themselves, that’s their look out, but I think it’s huge risk for larger firms. And I would hope that everyone considers the opportunity cost of a partner focusing on the firm’s IT. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AM: When accountants provide business advice to their clients I would hope that they share best practices on IT support and security. Both issues are important from a day-to-day perspective. These issues are also something to consider whenever a client buys a new business. I always encourage my accountancy clients to arrange for IT due diligence in such situations.

ML: Many thanks for your time today Adam.

Adam Maurice is managing of The Internet Group, an internet managed service provider with particular expertise in providing support to accountancy firms. The Internet Group can be contacted on 0800 007 5797, by email via accountancypractice[AT] or via the firm’s website.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and writes the BookMarkLee blog for accountants who want to overcome the stereotype of the boring accountant – in practice, online and in life. He is also chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax experts. His Twitter handle is @bookmarklee and his Twitter lists can be accessed through this link.


Replies (7)

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By chatman
11th Dec 2012 11:20

If a one-man band wants to do it themselves, that’s their look o
Does "If a one-man band wants to do it themselves, that’s their look out" mean that a one-man band should get someone to manage their IT? What exactly is there to do for a one-man band?

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Replying to josephjohn3:
By kevin.shah
11th Dec 2012 13:50

One Man Band



I think Paul's comments further down cover the various tasks that might be needed. Of course it depends on what you focus is but things like DR and problem solving (when google doesn't help) can sometimes be easier to manage if they are dealt with off site (which is pretty much where the cloud offers real value add for the small business community.

Thanks (1)
By Chambers Accounting
11th Dec 2012 11:39

IT support

Marry your daughter off to a Microsoft trained IT expert - it worked for me!

Thanks (1)
By Oppco
11th Dec 2012 13:17

My advice is to make sure you have an IT specialist client. We have, and for over 10 years they have dealt with all our IT systems, recommending, ordering and installing hardware and maintaining all our applications including IRIS. Any problems, they log on remotely or ring IRIS, or BT or whoever

Thanks (1)
By Paul Scholes
11th Dec 2012 13:28

Or ship the lot out to a hosted environment

We had a good IT support company for many years, they installed & maintained servers & workstations and we only paid £750 pa for remote phone & login support with their engineers being charged at £70ish ph for call outs, perhaps twice a year.

The problem is that without the luxury of an onsite IT person, the small practice (ie me) takes on that role and so, the every day stuff of backups, Windows updates, firewall conflicts, network problems, virus/security protection, software updates & instals, downing (crossing fingers) and booting up servers when a problem hit or just kicking the bloody thing when it wouldn't boot up plus a lot of worry, was down to me.

Now it's all hosted and I would never go back to DIY, the downside? I'm forced to spend my time doing accounts and tax.

Thanks (1)
By Oppco
11th Dec 2012 13:56

yes, if I was starting out again I would go the hosting route.

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By Malcolm
22nd Jan 2013 22:02

IT Support

Check out our support packages at We offer no nonsense, no geek-speak, help and support for anyone baffled by technology. We're at your service 24/7 even on Christmas never know when you'll hit problems.

I look forward to hearing from you!


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