Webinars have become the new Marmite. Some love’em, some – not so much. We took the plunge with our first live panel discussion last week and were delighted to have hundreds register.

Live online content is just one way technology has stepped up during the pandemic. We asked Rob Brown, host of the popular Accounting Influencers podcast – to host a discussion around how else accountants have turned to technology in recent times. 

Jeff Neil from Move on Accountants and Matt McConnell from Certax – Durham, joined AccountancyManager’s CEO James Byrne on the panel.

“We’ve not known anything like this before. In the accounting profession, we’re on somewhat of a frontline – so we’ve brought together a few accountants to share their advice, in the hope that can all come out of this bigger and faster and stronger” 

– Rob Brown

The big move back to the office… for some

While the panel waited for attendees to join, they had a chat about returning to the office. But for Jeff Neil and his team, there’s no office to return to.

“We don’t have an office anymore. In February we went totally virtual. I’d like to say we brilliantly anticipated what was about to happen, but really we’d decided to go totally remote anyway” 

– Jeff Neil

Jeff is certain that this is the future, adding “I spoke to a client the other day and they have over 500 people working from home, now – with so many asking whether they have to return – I’m sure many of them won’t”.

“Everyone works from home, everything’s in the cloud and everyone can access everything from anywhere” 

– Jeff Neil

So, is remote-working the future?

While Jeff has embraced total freedom from the office, Matt McConnell’s team in County Durham will be returning – but with a lot more time on their hands.

“Just by changing some of our systems and using AccountancyManager to its full potential, we’re now saving more than 150 hours a month across the team. Just these changes have freed up the equivalent of one team member’s time a month to spend on clients.”

– Matt McConnell

In Matt’s opinion, using technology to save more time and offering workplace flexibility is the way forward. There’s “a lot of admin and unnecessary work that can be streamlined or even cut out, if you just sit back and look at it”. 

Matt McConnell (left) with his partner Jonathan Tait

Matt McConnell (left) with his partner, Jonathan Tait.

“I don’t think remote working is necessarily the future, but flexible working. We may change the work hours to 10am – 3pm and the remaining hours can be completed whenever and wherever they want.”

– Matt McConnell

James landed somewhere in the middle. “I think there was a fear before Covid around working from home for big and small companies. But it’s made people realise that actually our businesses are adaptable”.

“Using productivity monitoring software (Teramind), we now know who is capable and happy working from home. So for some of the team, they’ll continue to have certain days working from home.”

Communication: Existing tech, new approaches

As the topic turned to maintaining both internal and external communication during the pandemic, it seems Matt and his partner at Certax, Jonathan Tait, were ahead of the curve:

“Around the 16th March we had an idea that we might need to work remotely, so we invested in 15 work laptops for those that didn’t already have them and a shared VoiP app.” 

– Matt McConnell

Matt chose HiHi as their VoiP (voice over internet protocol) system, allowing his team to make and receive client calls via Android apps on their phones – using the normal office number. Matt also noted an overnight switch from using Zoom for ad hoc client meetings to relying on it for regular internal meetings too. 

Technology brings Jeff’s nationwide team together

Jeff has experienced an even larger shift thanks to Zoom and AccountancyManager. “Because we were using Zoom so much, we started to go to the office less and less. That prompted us to go totally virtual. I’m in Northumberland, my employee is 35 miles away and I have three or four subcontractors – my payroll guy is in Dorset! You can’t get further away but it doesn’t matter, we could all be in the same house because of the technology we use.”  

“We mainly communicate through the tasks in AccountancyManager. So my employee will update the progress notes in tasks. She’s part-time, so when she’s not in, everyone’s kept in the loop.”

– Jeff Neil

A glimpse inside AccountancyManager

When James and his accountancy practice were the sole users of AM, he relied heavily on the notifications linked to specific clients and tasks, stored on a shared timeline. James Byrne revealed that he wished he’d built another system – one to manage a software company!   

Now, his 20-strong team, spanning development, support, sales and marketing use a combination of AM and Slack – the instant messaging app – to stay in touch. In fact, we like Slack so much that James has recently added a Slack integration through Zapier to AccountancyManager’s development roadmap. 

The changing behaviour of clients

No more reluctance for face-to-face meetings 

“The massive emergence of Zoom has changed the face of meetings” says Jeff, “If you’d have asked for a video call before, there was reluctance. Now people are much more open to it. It’s not just Zoom, we’re doing meetings on FaceTime and WhatsApp. WhatsApp is encrypted and GDPR compliant. Some of our younger clients are sending documents and bank details over WhatsApp.”

Text messaging wins over emails for compliance work

While Jeff still sends emails to clients, he prefers texts, as his clients tend to respond quicker. Matt agrees, he and his team keep their clients’ accounts on track by sending requests for information and reminders via text messages through AM. 

“One thing we’ve always had a problem with is getting clients to sign engagement letters sent over email, so we take the link to the portal and text it to clients so they have direct access from their phone”

– Matt McConnell

Helping your clients adopt new technology

Jeff has been making videos himself, to guide his clients through technology such as Zoom. “Our biggest struggle is with clients’ lack of IT skills. Some of our clients – mainly the older ones, but not exclusively – just don’t want to use IT. There’s a small number that don’t even have an email address. We’ve actually made videos to train our clients in IT.”

Jeff's YouTube video guide to Zoom calls on a tablet

Jeff’s YouTube guide to Zoom on a tablet 

2020: A year of new priorities?

For Matt, March is usually a quiet month and time to take a step back and improve processes. Instead, of course, the pandemic prompted an unprecedented shift onto proactively contacting clients and responding to their immediate business needs. Jeff and Matt – like many accountants we’ve spoken to, both chose to submit claims on their clients’ behalf for no charge.

“We made the decision to do all the furlough claims for our clients – about 640 claims. That’s on top of business as usual.”

– Matt McConnell

Matt continues, “as soon as it all hit, I made a register of all the grants and relief as it came out and lists of questions to check eligibility, then either contacted clients directly or they called in.” 

The end of traditional marketing?

Rob then challenged the panel with a question around marketing, thought leadership and generating new business during the pandemic. 

Matt’s response hints at a potentially huge shift in how we all engage with existing customers and prospects: “We haven’t been ‘in your face’ in terms of selling. We’ve been concentrating instead on getting the right information out there in layman’s terms. Putting our view along with it. This kind of communication from us has been invaluable, even refreshing, for our clients.”

“It’s refocused our approach to digital marketing towards genuinely useful content.” 

James and AccountancyManager’s marketing team have faced the same tricky balance between ‘selling’ and simply sharing our own experiences and those of our clients. He concludes, ”After all, we are all in this together and the content we’re putting out there is to say ‘we’re here and we want to support you’. Because we are, and we do.”

The move to a tech-based practice

Lastly, the panel mused about how we might’ve faced the current situation 10 years ago, without the likes of Zoom, Slack and AccountancyManager. The consensus was that these developments are changing the face of working and Covid has massively accelerated that. 

“COVID has accelerated the move to tech-based work system and the way we work by about 10 years.”

Thankfully we don’t have to step into the unknown alone. We have people like Jeff to learn from. He’s been trialling different software for the last 10 years. 

“At one point we even got a VA (virtual assistant) to handle everything. But trying to explain it to them was so complicated that we had to have a rethink!

Then AM came along and we’re able to get a lot of things under one roof. That simplified things.”

Forget 150 hours a month, Jeff may have just saved you a few years there.

Watch the full panel discussion on Vimeo