Should accountants become app advisers?

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App advisory is certain to be one of the themes at Xerocon London if the reviews of its Brisbane event are anything to go by. It builds on messaging from QBO and Sage, and is likely to be a significant marketing area for UK accountants in the next 18 months.

“What on earth is app advisory?” In last month’s From the trenches’ podcast’ David Boyar and Paul Meissner entertainingly interrogated the trend.  

And while AccountingWEB has tracked app advisory over the years, the antipodean podcast duo raised two new questions:

  • Do firms have the time to devote to becoming true ‘app advisers’?
  • And is it better to have really good referral relationships with the vendor sales teams and cloud integrators, rather than develop all the experience in-house?

Assessing the profession’s different opinions on this subject, app advisory is an area where pragmatism certainly rules. But the strategies behind it are not as clear-cut as the marketing would suggest.

Why should we do it?

“Why would you go into it? Is it a way to increase your awareness in this space or upskill and make this a profit-making business unit?” asked Dermot Hamblin from the consultancy firm Langdon Hamblin.

Reminding us also of the firms who rushed into creating outsource IT divisions, Hamblin added: “Many failed because it's an incredibly competitive space and the firm did not have the correct people and skills. Same conditions already apply in-app advisory.”

I’ll let the podcast explore this in more detail. However, as Xero’s Glen Foster points out, there is a more straightforward issue facing firms: “The big challenge is there are hundreds of them, so nobody can be an expert in all apps or industries.”

Becoming experts in the core

For cloud aficionados, there are a suite of apps that are now seen as standard, and the level of experience needs to be high. “There are apps that apply to nearly all businesses,” said Soaring Falcon’s Alex Falcon Huerta. “You can’t keep on top of all the new apps, but the generic ones like Receipt Bank and GoCardless, you need to be well on top of.”

Jon Toon from Beevers and Struthers concurred: “We’re good with the core generic apps, but don’t have the traction with our clients to implement the specialist things. With clients in many different sectors, you’ll be wasting your time trying to learn all the relevant specific apps they need.”

Interestingly they both refer to ‘generic’ apps, which show how ubiquitous certain applications have become.

Time to focus on specific challenges and sectors

But this is far from the complete picture. The ability to move beyond the ‘generic’ is an important part to deliver for clients, as Falcon Huerta explained: “I spend a lot of time deep diving into specific apps for clients that have identifiable challenges, but I see this as investment of time.”

Again Toon takes a similar approach. “If the client comes to us with a challenge we will investigate and help find a solution. We’re getting quite good at identifying areas for improvement, which often comes up during a conversation from a legacy system or manual process,” he said.

While Hilary Dyson, cloud accounting senior manager at Anderson, Anderson & Brown, observed there is also an opportunity to be more proactive: “We also look at our clients sectors, for example retail, ecommerce and agriculture and explore the sector specific apps available. This is about being able to be responsive to their needs.”

So to what extent do firms feel the need to have the complete range of expertise to become app advisers?

Having the expertise

Xero’s Foster sees a cross section of approaches. “I've seen some firms hire in or develop some great people to do ‘app advisory’. Equally, there are great external app advisers who do this day in, day out. So some firms have a relationship with them and it works perfectly.”

The journey for Dyson has incorporated a mixture of these. “Some areas we can't get involved with, but we know what are clients’ needs are – and there are lots of opportunities to replace legacy systems with an integrated cloud one. Some of these we have the capability to talk about and implement, others we work with the providers and specialists directly,” he said.

And not surprisingly, there is an opportunity to learn directly from clients. “When companies come to you with their stack already, they have implemented something that is working, so we can learn what works and use for others,” said Falcon Huerta.

Support from the app sales teams

Time and expertise being at a premium for firms, the role of external support from providers and integrators becomes significant. “Relationships with the sales teams and implementers are extremely important,” said Toon. “Without having them in the mix we can’t deliver the services.

“Over time and with the requirement, we could develop these skills in house. At the moment we don’t see the need.”

Echoing this Dyson sees it a way of delivering a better outcome for the client as well as building up their own experience. “We like to stay involved with the clients and the sales team of the apps. For example, as we know the clients systems, we can steer a demo to make sure it tackles the client challenges.

“Also working with specialist systems consultants like BlueHub means we can offer real expertise. This is a big step as we are recommending a third party, but we also get to expand our internal knowledge.”

Does size matter?

But is this deep dive into apps the preserve of larger firms? BD Academy’s Rob Brown seems to think so. “I deal with the top 100 firms – it's easier for them to garner this knowledge and cultivate relationships with the key software people – they have the manpower and resource. Smaller firms may struggle”.

This view is not shared by Hamblin: “The size of accountancy business has nothing to do with it. There is significant support, partner teams and resources available from the major platforms to make it a success if you want to focus on it.”

And given the range of firm sizes who responded to the research, Dyson makes a fair point that “the psyche of the firm is just as important as the resource and time you can commit”.

About Richard Sergeant

Richard Sergeant

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


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01st Nov 2018 10:48

Nice piece Richard. Frustratingly, you ask the question 'what exactly is app advisory' but don't give a definitive answer. So the rest of the article is based on assumptions.

Despite that though, you cover the issues well and bring in some excellent opinions. Since you've put Dermot's views against mine on the size of firm, let me finally add that while there is support from the major app providers as Dermot says, smaller firms still need to find the people to own and invest in that relationship. Only then will they be able to properly advise the client and sell app advisory to them. This is more likely to be done in a larger firm with more resource, intention and expertise.

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to therobbrown
01st Nov 2018 11:18

Hi Rob,
Thanks for the feedback, however "What is app advisory" is the title of the podcast, and I'll let that speak for itself!

I think we've covered that specific bit of the equation previously, so I was actually keen to just focus on the follow up.

Cheers, R

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to rsergeant
01st Nov 2018 11:31

Richard, you're wanting people to listen to the podcast to get the answers! Most don't have the time to do it all!

I tried, and it's 20 mins in before they even start talking about app advisory. Even then, they don't properly define it. That's where I was hoping you'd give some clarity to what it actually is.

But listen, you get the talk going, and if that was your objective, then you've been successful!

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to therobbrown
01st Nov 2018 11:45

No, I just don't want to get bogged down in the fog.

Paul and David ask the question, and do a great job in showing that it sounds kind of obvious, but really it's not that easy to get a grips with. To that extent I think they do a great job. Smacks of real life to me.

I'm interested in unpicking a few bits along the way that resonate, and think add another way in to the debate.

I'll leave the definitions to others...

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01st Nov 2018 11:02

the thought of it ... training clients to work APPs ... I'd rather chew razor wire .

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to KenKLM
01st Nov 2018 11:21

Ha ha, horses for courses.
But the principle is nothing different to showing clients how to use their spreadsheet, or Sage, or...

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01st Nov 2018 11:31

Great Article Richard. The whole issue of which app to use for the business owner is huge. Get it wrong and the business wastes time or potentially worse, money and lots of it. but with good advice and guidance from a trusted advisor who has taken time to understand the key apps is invaluable.

Will Clarke of Farnell Clarke ( summed the whole topic up brilliantly in his book 'The Digital Firm'. I am an engineer and business owner, not an accountant. Even so, I look at the host of apps that claim to be the answer to every problem I have and what do I use, out of the box Xero because I have not got time or resource to do the research and implementation.

Would I value and pay for advice, definitely. Would I tell everyone else I know to speak to the accountant who gives me that sort of 'app advisory' support, certainly!

Will Farnell offers a very sensible, practical strategy that really is a bit of a no-brainer.

I hope this insight helps those who wish to take advantage of this opportunity to add value and help business owners and clients be more successful in the running of their companies.

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01st Nov 2018 12:21

Sounds like the Rob and Ric show.
More tosh from marketing gurus who haven't got a clue what Accountancy is all about.

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to johnjenkins
01st Nov 2018 13:30

I'd prefer Rick & Morty.
If you look through the article it's pretty much direct feedback from accountants (couple of exceptions), and pretty good ones too. And David & Paul from the podcasts are very much so...

This isn't about marketing, it's about accountants sharing what they are doing with clients, in the face of marketing.

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to rsergeant
01st Nov 2018 13:57

No, Richard, it's all about marketing and the like. Unfortunately marketeers don't see further than their noses purely because that's what they do and they try and bring it into our profession. You've only got to look at what Marketing has done to the banking system (once the pride of British) crashes galore and more to come. MTD sold to HMRC as all singing all dancing which will be the biggest disaster HMRC has ever been involved with. The sooner the Accountancy profession is left to Accountants (not number crunchers) the better and it will come, just as in a few years time the banks will go back to being banks. Technology will have to plateau for a while or we will sink.

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to johnjenkins
01st Nov 2018 14:16

Interesting view, thanks johnjenkins.

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to rsergeant
01st Nov 2018 17:06

Interesting ?? It is reality . These APPS and cloud software that taxpayers will be forced into will be massive headaches .
Heard of "Rubbish In Rubbish Out" ? It is a fundamental computing term . Thats what you are going to get with most laymen taxpayers and once there are errors in software and no reconciliations ( because you need to be an accountant in the first place to do it properly ) then the time needed to correct it will be not be economically viable . All these APPs etc. and you want us to clear up the inevitable mess and advise ... not on your Nelly !! Your gonna need a bigger helpline !!

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By Dandan
01st Nov 2018 13:17

I am not sure how long cloud-based accountancy software and related Apps and messaging from the likes of QBO, Xero , etc will be relevant.

We are fast-moving into the world of blockchain ledgers and cryptocurrency. That is the area where I would suggest we need to focus.

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to Dandan
02nd Nov 2018 09:41

Agree with you here Dandan.

Just look at what Italy is doing from 01/01/19 with pre- approved invoicing for all sales through a central government portal to combat VAT fraud.

One persons sale is another persons purchase so the central portal could deal with the lot and make Sage, QBO, Xero etc and all us accountants redundant.

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By Dandan
to North East Accountant
02nd Nov 2018 13:36

Thanks for that. I did not realise the Italian government was bringing in mandatory e-invoicing through gov portal in January 19 for all businesses.

Accountants have been government agents for many years already. Their role of championing the cause of their clients stopped around the time self-assessment began.

Additionally, for quite some time cloud-based accounting software have been giving tax advice to users on a routine basis (eg Freeagent and their resident accountant emailing). Now doing it through links and messaging.

I think the winners will be "management"accountants. "Compliance" accountants will not do well in the future.

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01st Nov 2018 15:25

'App advisory' is the new improved version of 'advisory'.

Those who can do it, will (very few of these)

Those that can't, will - and badly (the sycophants who hang on every word of the software vendors and take it as gospel)

Those that see it as bullxxxx, will be aware of it, have limited used for it and if its required - call in a specialist to do it properly.

Relevant apps for most 'normal' small business will be limited to a maximum of 10-20. Accountants just need to be aware of these...

...and know their own limitations.

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to Mark Telford
01st Nov 2018 15:38

"A man's got to know his limitations". Something I always relate to Clint (oops sorry, Mark).

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02nd Nov 2018 09:16

For me Mark sums it quite but here is my view for what its worth.

For me apps and add-ons fall into 3 main areas.

In-House Tools
Xero should always be paired with RB or AE.
Reporting tools
Payment solutions like Go Cardless etc.

These are just a cost to the accountant and carried in their fees.

Cannot really see any fees in showing someone how to use them as so easy, and the benefit is it makes the accountants life easier so worth the small investment of time to set them up.

Nice to have - make clients life easier
These are things like Chaser, if clients struggle to collect fees this will help them improve but is not a total fix.
Clients view on apps is the App store where they get things free or for 99p. Getting clients to agree to £50pm apps is hard sell if the benefit is only moderate.

Again apps by their nature are easy to use and implement cannot see much scope for any chargeable time here, I would be keen to see how many people have charged £500 to roll out an app for a client.

You basically end up as a salesman for the app company in return for a small discount on your own in house subscriptions.

You just need a reasonable knowledge of common issues and the apps that fix them to support clients through it.

Specialist Kit
Things like advanced stock management like Unleashed
you would need someone to roll this out for you unless you had a team big enough to carry it which would only be a few firms.

Again you just need a working knowledge of whats available and who to speak to sort it out.

All of the above is just part of doing a decent job on behalf of your clients.

They will expect you to recommend the best options for them, but cannot seeing it becoming a good fee generator for me, as not into the conveyor belt model, and its outside my core skills to do well, as can earn better fees from other work.

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to Glennzy
02nd Nov 2018 14:03

Best comment of the lot @Glenn Martin - informative and useful!

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