For the latest edition of ‘The Business of Marketing’ on AccountingWEB live, our MD Mike Crook led a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities accountancy practices face as they seek to grow.
Joining Mike were PracticeWeb clients Sam Patel and Bal Gora of Diamond Accounts and Diamond Outsourcing; Will Farnell of App Advisory Plus; Chris Gough, MD of IT support firm Mintivo; and PracticeWeb account director Alex Tucker.
A recording of the on-demand webinar is available on the AccountingWEB website but here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.
Vision and values are vital
“Vision and values are everything, for every part of the business. If you don’t understand who you are, why you do what you do and where you want to go… you’re not going to get there.” – Will Farnell
Clear, inspiring vision and values support everything from motivating your team to go the extra mile to connecting with the kind of people with whom you want to do business.
Chris suggested that a strong sense of your firm’s identity allows you to, in effect, recruit the right clients and to turn away those who just don’t fit with your ethos. “Recruitment is a big pain,” he said. “We’re trying to be different which means we’re not just looking for technical skill but also cultural fit.”
Will pointed out that it’s also about recruitment: establish and embed the right culture and you’ll attract the brightest and best. “Why should people come to us?” he said. “Because we’ve got a pub in our office!”
There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here, too, as Alex observed: attracting and recruiting the right people strengthens your brand identity.
New ways of working
“COVID forcing flexible working has driven flexible changes in a matter of months that would otherwise have taken years.” – Will Farnell
A key theme in the discussion was the need to shake things up and adapt, rather than mindlessly doing things the way they’ve always been done.
For example, Will talked about the pod structure he uses at his firm, Farnell Clarke, which puts one manager in charge of a senior accountant and two trainees. Each pod can handle a hundred clients and draft in help from other pods if the need for specialist support arises.
Bal reiterated the importance of culture when it comes to outsourcing. Firms with a strong culture, he argued, are better placed to take advantage of outsourcing because the overseas teams can more clearly understand the standards they’re expected to meet.
“What’s holding firms back is being stuck in the old ways – paper-based systems, not moving forward with technology and advisory.” – Sam Patel
Everyone agreed that taking full advantage of software and technology is central to achieving efficiency.
“It’s been a journey with software,” said Bal. “Cloud software is more responsive, faster to update and it’s facilitated a quicker way of working.”
Chris talked about the shift to a digital-first mindset. Recruiting new staff using video interviews and electronic contracts not only saved time and money, it also helped attract the right kind of people. “Digitally-native decision makers are what we’re getting now,” he said.
That was echoed by Will: “There’s never been a more exciting time to be an accountant.” He argues we’re seeing a generational shift in the industry with millennials, at home with technology in every way, increasingly in charge.
Technology brings challenges, too. Chris pointed out that scams have become more sophisticated and more targeted. “Because they work, it’s worth the time and effort to construct a convincing scam,” he said. “It’s not a technical challenge – it’s an education and training piece.”
Outsourcing vs hiring
“As you grow, you’ll want someone 100% focused on marketing, but there’s always going to be a degree of outsourcing. Who can afford to hire a copywriter or graphic designer?” – Alex Tucker
Mike observed that accountancy firms often employ a marketing professional and think that’s it, job done – why should I have to pay for any other marketing services? “There’s no budget, no designers, no copywriting,” he said. “They can’t do everything.”
Chris said this chimed with his experience in IT: “Can one person handle alerts in the middle of the night when things break? How do you cover holiday? From fixing printers to IT strategy – that’s a broad range of stuff for one person to cover, or even a small team.
Outsourcing can give you access to 20 people with different skills for the price of two permanent staff.”
Sam, who runs Diamond Outsourcing with Bal, is a strong advocate of outsourcing, as you might expect. It can save on the cost of hiring; allows you to take on jobs beyond your expertise; and frees you up to concentrate on upselling and advisory work.
Talking to outside experts is also a good way to diagnose problems in your business you might not have noticed yourself. For example, Sam said requests for outsourcing sometimes turn into systems reviews. “They haven’t had time to look up at the horizon and see what’s out there,” he said.
Chris agreed, saying that his IT support clients often “think they need support but the bit they’re missing is strategy”.
“We often get people saying they need help with social media or some SEO,” said Alex, “but, really without understanding the challenge they’ve really got.
What needs to be fixed fundamentally? What are your goals, what are you trying to achieve, what does success look like?”
Mike’s final thoughts
It takes a holistic approach to become efficient and achieve scale in your firm. Make sure you assess each corner of your practice to identify the challenges and create a strategy to fix them.
This might mean taking a blended approach to building your team. There are huge benefits to having both in-house and outsourced support to achieve the scale and efficiency you’re looking for.