By Anthony Harrington
If used correctly, massive advances in smartphone and app technology allow accountancy firms to become more streamlined, finds Anthony Harrington.
If you remove all the technical skills and compliance issues, running an accountancy practice has a lot in common with any service-oriented operation. It all boils down to two major goals: making a profit and keeping clients happy.
You have to score on both counts to have a sustainable and, hopefully, a growing business. And, as certain high-profile and relatively recent practice failures demonstrate with great clarity, if you get in a muddle (or if business falls away and you can’t replace it), you’re on the road to ruin.
Knowing how the figures work will end up meaning no more than that you will see the writing on the wall more quickly than the average business owner might. But that will mean little if you can’t solve the problem.
So how does the huge technological transformation that we are now going through affect the task of running a practice successfully? The obvious answer is, in many and various ways. The app and smartphone combination has completely transformed both the way a firm can get information from clients and the speed with which it can gather that information.
Throw in instant messaging and a user base that is increasingly filling up with people who can use both thumbs to tap out replies on their favourite phone – and who do this day in and day out, regardless – and, yes, we are definitely in a different world by comparison with, say, a decade ago.
As a firm, if you’re not already taking advantage of this change, well, one worries for you. As Gavin Fell, VP EMEA at Receipt Bank observes, there’s no longer any excuse for clients turning up once a month with a shopping bag full of receipts.
More than 6,000 accountancy firms worldwide already use Receipt Bank to save time on their bookkeeping. Once subscribed, the firm can provide all its clients with the Receipt Bank app, for free. The client can then use their phone to snap and send any and all expense receipts. The app has built-in OCR capability and extracts data such as the date, the amount, any tax, plus the currency. The accountant can instantly publish this data to various accounting applications with no need for manual data entry or storing paper records.
For the practice this saves paying someone to spend hours sorting and entering piles of receipts. After all, no one relishes deciphering paperwork long since battered into illegibility by small change. Luckily, modern tools allow clients to help keep their books up to date as easily as they bank online or check social media. Bookkeeping becomes a little-and-often task, rather than an end-of-month nightmare to be avoided.
“We have a 99.9% accuracy rate on automatic data extraction from receipts,” says Fell. “Not only is this far higher than manual data entry methods – it’s cheaper.” Receipt Bank is also well advanced in using AI and machine learning to increase the speed and accuracy of its services.
The system, Fell points out, is dead easy to use. When accountants add a client to their Receipt Bank dashboard, it sends a download link straight to the client’s phone. This downloads the app and links it with their accountant. The client can then use it to send receipts direct to their accountant, making the bag of receipts a distant memory.
Joel Oliver, CEO at MyFirmsApp, supplies another instance of an app provider that can add significant value to an accountancy practice. As the company’s name suggests, MyFirmsApp is all about giving individual accountancy practices their own app, to be installed on the client’s smartphone.
According to Oliver, MyFirmsApp is now the leading app for accountancy firms across the globe. “If we look at the journey that digital has been on, we have moved from a largely desktop culture and environment to a largely mobile environment. Apps thrive in a mobile environment if they convey real benefit to users,” he notes. “If you look at where people are spending their time when they are online, we are all spending far more time using apps than we are in a desktop or laptop environment.”
The MyFirmsApp approach has been to enable an app that a business can badge as its own to list a whole menu of potential functions, not all of which have to be enabled for every firm. As Oliver points out, the universe of accountancy firms is not a homogenous one. Companies vary widely in their focus and in the emphasis they give to different skill sets and services. That said, there are functions that will be nice to have features for just about all clients, such as the currency converter and the 15 different calculators in the app.
The calculators cover everything from looking at the APR on loans to a capital gains tax calculator and a mortgage calculator to another geared to working out the relative merits of taking a salary versus taking a dividend.
“What we are providing to an accountancy firm is a single app that can house all their tools and features. We load the app with great content, which ensures that whatever sector you are in, this is an app that your clients will be using again and again. We take no revenue from any third party and we are not using the accountant as a sell-through for other products. They pay us a subscription and they can brand the app to make it their own. It gives them a strong footprint on the client’s phone, and that is a very valuable place to be,” he says.
Oliver points out that the company has seen many instances where firms have tried to build their own apps and have run into significant difficulties. “The problem with building your own app is that this is not a one-time thing. You have to constantly update content and add features to the app to keep it in demand,” he says.
Generally, firms very quickly find that they do not want the responsibility or workload associated with this, particularly when they can have a powerful solution via a subscription.
RBS recently announced the acquisition of Edinburgh-based accountancy software company, FreeAgent – founded by IT entrepreneur Ed Molyneux – in a deal worth £53m. Dawn Goddard, founder and director of Goddard Accounting and Tax Solutions, is a firm advocate of the benefits of FreeAgent for smaller businesses.
“We have been using FreeAgent since I set up the practice six years ago, and it has contributed significantly to the success of my practice, thanks both to the product itself and to the service and support I have received from the FreeAgent team,” she says.
What makes Goddard’s approach unusual is that, unlike many smaller practices, she is not looking to provide bookkeeping services for smaller businesses. She encourages clients to use FreeAgent to automate their bookkeeping. “One of the great benefits … is that it keeps everything in one place, including VAT returns, payroll and CIS reporting,” she notes.
Because it is a cloud-based system, it is a simple matter for the firm to assist clients on specific areas of difficulty as and when a need arises. This can be done remotely in realtime, Goddard explains.
“I try to get my clients to do their own bookkeeping while myself and my team focus on preparing the annual accounts, on other compliance work and on advice. FreeAgent is easy for clients to use, so most clients are happy to manage their own day-to-day accounting. However, I do have a few clients who are too busy, or not confident in doing their own books. In these situations, there are trusted bookkeepers I can recommend.
“Overall, though, by keeping FreeAgent up to date, the final accounts preparation can be a smooth process. And the more we can automate the day-to-day bookkeeping and the ongoing compliance, the more time we as accountants can spend with clients, advising them.
“One further advantage of real-time accounts is understanding my clients’ self-assessment positions ahead of the tax year-end, and then being able to discuss this with them, and take action, before 5 April comes around,” she says.
By the last week of March, for instance, she already knew what the self-assessment tax was likely to be for the majority of her clients, and she would have discussed the options with them – “for example, for taking more dividends or for putting more money into a pension scheme,” she says. “Getting the figures quickly also enables our clients to budget for tax payable well ahead of time and avoids any nasty surprises.”
Goddard points out that while FreeAgent and systems such as Xero and QuickBooks are proven, recognised accounting systems, and as such, are well suited to HMRC’s digital tax initiative, there is a real problem with the very low barrier that HMRC has set for suppliers to join its digital tax returns initiative.
“We would naturally prefer that HMRC looked harder at suppliers, particularly from the standpoint of the difficulties for suppliers’ clients if the supplier themselves goes out of business. I sit on the Owner Managed Business Tax Committee at ICAS and we are not at all happy with the absence of due diligence on the part of HMRC in admitting suppliers to the digital tax returns initiative,” she says.
The last word goes to Fiona Morgan, Head of Accounting and Business Solutions at Henderson Loggie, who says: “A key benefit of cloud accounting is the access to real-time information that allows the accountant and the client to see exactly how the business is performing and how profitable the business is at any given point.
“For example, access to more data means that clients can make more informed decisions. They can see if an area is underperforming and needing some attention or whether an area is performing well and therefore would repay additional focus and resources. Clients no longer have to wait until the year-end accounts to address these issues, saving time, energy and in some cases, cost,” she concludes.
This article was originally published on icas.com.