Behind the numbers: insights from the SME community

by | Jun 30, 2020 | Research

Our SME insight report, produced in collaboration with brand strategy consultancy Insight 101, told us a lot about how SMEs feel their accountants handled the COVID-19 crisis.

It showed that the incredibly hard work that accountants have put in over the past few months has not gone unnoticed, with more than a third of business owners saying they’re more likely to recommend their accountant as a result.

It also demonstrated just how important communication and human connection has been throughout the crisis.

But there’s only so much you can tell from the numbers alone. To help bring the data to life, we analysed activity on our sister website and insights platform, UK Business Forums (UKBF).

We’ve picked out some key quotes that give context to our survey results, looking at the experiences small and micro-businesses have had during lockdown, and the role their accountants had to play.

“I never had reason to question it until now”

On the whole, responses to our survey told a positive story, with the vast majority of business owners saying their accountants had met or exceeded their expectations during the coronavirus crisis.

That said, a consistent minority did not feel their accountants had gone ”above and beyond”, and were considering changing accountants as a result.

On UKBF, we saw a few examples of small business owners who were let down by their accountants at a time when expert support was crucial.

In May, one user reported that they had been rejected for a grant through the self-employed income support scheme, on the basis that their trading profits did not include the money they lived on.

It emerged that despite being a sole trader, their accountant had put them on PAYE, making them ineligible for income support.

The user expressed their shock and confusion, having relied on their accountant to understand the fundamentals of their business structure, but knowing little about it themselves.

“I truly don’t understand what is right or wrong as I never had reason to question it until now,” they said. “I never sat any exams for business, you just learn as you go and focus primarily on getting the money in.”

It was clear that the user had unknowingly received an inadequate service from their accountant, which only came to light once the crisis struck.

The result was disappointment and frustration, as they had no way of accessing the same support that was available to other self-employed individuals.

This user won’t be the only one in that situation. As economic challenges continue to bring businesses’ existing accounting problems to the surface, more SME owners could be on the lookout for a new accountant who they can trust to get it right.

“My accountant isn’t available to answer queries”

We also know from our research that communication from accountants is more important to business owners now than it was in 2019.

In a survey we conducted last year, communication came behind sector knowledge as a quality SME owners looked for when choosing an accountant, but it’s risen to the top position in 2020.

In a similar vein to the thread above, another user said they did not know whether they were operating as a sole trader or company director.

Having planned to change to a limited company structure in 2019, the user took a year-long break from their business due to personal circumstances.

“By the time I came back to business I’d forgotten I was a limited company and continued as usual,” they said. “But I didn’t speak to my accountant or HMRC or put anything through PAYE, as I have no access to it nor any idea how to do it.

“Communication with my accountant hasn’t been great, on my part and his.”

Again, the business owner only became aware of the problem after coronavirus had adversely affected their business, and a long-term breakdown in communication made their situation worse.

Even when they had noticed the problem and tried to ask about it, the user said they were unable to get hold of their accountant.

Another user who had a question about their company accounts felt they had no option other than to ask on the forum, because their accountant was “not available to answer queries for a while”.

Of course, COVID-19 has put a significant strain on accountants’ resources, making it difficult to answer every client’s questions right away – but it’s important to think about the way you manage your client’s expectations when your workload is heavy.

Dedicating a set time to answer queries can be a helpful strategy, and producing content that answers clients’ questions for you can help too.

However you choose to approach it, make sure you communicate clearly with your clients so they’re not left waiting for your response, or seeking advice elsewhere.

“Find someone you trust”

Although many aspects of life might feel less social at the moment, human connections and personal contact were still highly valued by business owners when choosing an accountant.

Some 47% of people who responded to our survey said they chose their current accountant because someone else vouched for them – and none had based their decision on price.

In a thread posted at the start of June, a UKBF user who was starting a new business asked others for advice on finding the right accountant:

“Ideally I want someone who can advise, will submit end-of-year tax returns, has the correct accreditation and insurances, is easily contactable, has experience in my industry and charges a fixed fee.”

This long list goes to show the range of factors business owners need to consider when they’re choosing an accountant – a decision others agreed was a “minefield”.

One user said they had bad experiences with accountants from large firms, and were much happier working with a small, local firm:

“I shopped around for [my current accountant]. I met a few local folk in my town, discussed how they work and asked some questions about particular scenarios. I’ve found a great little firm who are good value, easy to get hold of the one or two times a year I need them, and nice to deal with.”

While this particular SME owner didn’t demand a huge amount of attention from their accountant year-round, they still wanted someone responsive and pleasant to talk to – and it’s this personal touch that so many business owners seem to value.

The same user added: “I would speak to a few [accountants] and work out who you might get on with. Ask your mates for a recommendation too if you can.”

In this thread and others, forum users offered similar advice: “Go and meet with a few… Then go with the one you have the best rapport with”, “Look around and find someone you trust and get on with”.

Although there are plenty of practical considerations for business owners, conversations around choosing an accountant often seem to come back to this sense of instinctive trust.

This has to do with your own personality and that of your team, but it should also come through in your firm’s brand.

Your website and wider digital marketing activity can play a big part in building rapport with clients, and creating an identity that they feel connected to.

For the full results of our survey, and practical guidance on what your firm can learn from the COVID-19 crisis, read our SME insight report.

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