Rachel Dale, Tax Director at ChadSan, formerly Chaddesley Sanford, spoke to AM’s Jonathan Stobart about putting their motto into action: Technology driven. People focused.

Rachel Dale starts our interview with a caveat. As AM is used in a multitude of ways in different teams across ChadSan, Rachel can only comment from a tax team perspective. Turns out, there was still plenty to cover, including: How automation doesn’t mean the end of personal relationships. Why everyone should use Custom Forms for Self Assessments. And how you can pick n’ mix the parts of AM that suit you.

Technology driven. People focused. Then, now and always.

ChadSan began life 10 years ago from the spare rooms of the founding managing directors, Matthew Gambold and Edward Sanford. Now, they have 45 employees and four offices in Guildford, London, Essex and Bristol.

Originally, the founders delivered accountancy services to small, entrepreneurial, fast-growing companies, so responsive technology, real-time data and personal service have always been important. Although ChadSan now offers a full suite of accountancy and tax services to clients of all sizes, these elements remain core to ChadSan’s brand and culture.

“People can’t stick their head in the sand for much longer and do it all on paper – it’s just not going to cut it.”

“We’re very technology focused and we are a Xero Partner practice – we pretty much only use Xero for our clients. With things like MTD, I think it’s becoming more and more important that you focus on the technology side. People can’t stick their head in the sand for much longer and do it all on paper – it’s just not going to cut it. So we look out for clients that really want to improve their business by using these tools.”

“As a firm, our strap line is ‘technology driven, people focused’, so we’re very much about how we communicate with clients rather than just the work we do. It’s not ‘we’ll only talk to you at the end of the year’, we like to have ongoing communication with our clients and all of our staff are client facing, with their own clients and communication responsibilities.”

Automation and a personal service are not mutually exclusive

When looking for a practice management system, ChadSan had a number of requirements, one of the most essential was that it not detract from their focus on people. 

“We wanted it to help us rather than to replace us, because we’re all about the people and the relationships. And it’s worked out very well!”

“We had a wish list of all of the things that we wanted a piece of software to do and AM was the solution that offered everything on that list. Things like task tracking, the ability to use it as a CRM system so that you’ve got your prospects on there and send out marketing emails, the integration with Xero, of course…” 

“But we didn’t want it to become this automated process where the clients don’t really have to talk to us very much. We wanted it to help us rather than to replace us, because we’re all about the people and the communication and the relationship. And it’s worked out very well.”

Make automated emails sound like it’s you (if you want to)

Andy Sullivan at Complete HQ actually puts: [This is an automated email] in automated emails to clients. The rest of the email sounds like it’s just Andy chatting to you. This works for his clients, they understand that automated doesn’t mean ‘you can ignore’ and you get the personality of Andy coming through.

Rachel has gone a step further, making automated emails appear as if they’re manual. “We want to keep that personal touch so that our clients know that it’s myself or somebody in my team asking questions or chasing for information. We use the templates in AM and the automation functionality, but we try to make them sound as personal as possible and we’ll use the ‘pause emails’ function to check there’s nothing that we want to tweak.”

Professionalism 101: Not asking for things you should already have or know

In AM, all communication with your clients is in one place – as are all your clients’ documents and details. “So we’re not chasing somebody that doesn’t need to be chased, because they’ve called us to say they’re going to reply tomorrow. Or they think ‘Oh, well, I know that hasn’t come from Rachel because she already knows X, Y, Z.’ So it’s really helped on the external side to look like it’s coming from us and let us keep having really efficient, personal communication with our clients.”

Automate your ‘routine bits’ to spend more time on adding value 

So how do Rachel and her team spend their saved hours? “Specifically from the tax side of things, the fact that we spend a huge amount less time on the ‘doing’ bits of the process, sending out information requests and chasing people, doing the admin side of things, the more time we’ve got to spend talking to potential new clients and making sure that the ones we’ve got are even happier.”

“And it means that we’ve got more time if they’ve got questions or they want to talk to us, we’re there and we’re available to help them when we’re not spending all of that time sending out routine emails, so it’s got benefits for everybody.” 

Self Assessment with 3 remote staff, 100s of clients across 4 offices and 1 maternity leave…

The tax team at ChadSan consists of three members of staff. While they each have their own clients, having a central hub of information and communication – that’s also connected with the wider ChadSan team – makes life a lot easier. 

“It’s been so much better having everything saved in AM. All the client documents go into the Client Portals – which we all access – and we know when the automated emails have gone out. You can select the client manager as well, so when you send out emails they go from that person, which is really helpful. We don’t have to trawl through people’s outlook emails if they’re out of the office.”

“We do tax returns for clients from all of the offices, so having AM helps in that respect too. I’m in Guildford, so when new clients are taken on, say, in Essex, they’re put into AM and it’s obvious that they might need a tax return. Whereas before we would rely on somebody calling us up or emailing us. Having all of that data in AM makes it a lot easier to make sure that we’re picking up on new people from wherever they might be.”

The evolution of SA checklists – from questions in an email to Custom Forms

We do love it when people use the Custom Forms in AM, it’s like having a whole separate piece of software within AM. Basically, it’s a fully online form, created by you, with the answer types (tick boxes, dropdowns etc.) you want to use.

Custom Forms are especially useful for Self Assessment and you can make different forms with questions relevant to client types. Click a button to add the form to all the relevant Client Portals and AM will automatically send out an email, and/or text, requesting your clients to complete them – which they can, on a computer or phone.

Rachel takes us on a whistle-stop tour of SA checklists, over the last 5 years. “When I first started, we’d send a list of questions in an email to every client. I was sending hundreds of emails that almost looked the same, but had little tweaks. After that we were using a standard checklist in our tax software but it didn’t have dropdowns or tick boxes, it was a Word doc type thing, and we’d get everybody to send the information over by email.” 

“Now, we use the Custom Forms in AM for that information request. So when we turn it on, it will just go out to everybody with a nice email saying, ‘Please can you go and fill it in?’ It saves a lot of effort in emailing each of those clients individually.”

Busy season during lockdown – a true test for AccountancyManager

We’ve heard many AM users report that they don’t experience the nightmare of January anymore, largely due to the automated emails, chasing clients in plenty of time for their information. 

“The ‘chasers’ have been great. Historically in January, we’d spend a huge amount of time emailing our clients saying ‘we still haven’t heard from you, there’s going to be penalties if we don’t meet the deadline.’ All of that can now be done with the click of a button, which is just revolutionary. This January, we got to the point where we had chased everybody we could and didn’t have anything to do because we were waiting for people to get back to us. That’s not been the case in the past – and we didn’t need to take advantage of the extended deadline. So that was a bonus.”

“We’d spend a huge amount of time emailing our clients… all of that can now be done with the click of a button, which is just revolutionary.”

“While we generally have our own clients in the personal tax team, when it gets to January, it’s a little bit ‘all hands on deck’ and so we all chip in. If you could see that a client had completed their Custom Form and the person who’s supposed to be doing that tax return is busy, then it’s easy for you just to pick it up and start working on it. Being able to share the workload was so much easier with AM flagging when it was ready to be started. 

“It makes it a huge amount less stressful and much easier to service your clients when you know exactly what’s happening, regardless of who the client manager is. Currently, one of my team is on maternity leave, she left midway through the 2019/2020 process and it was so seamless, we had everything that she’d already done, sitting in AM, ready to go.”

Pick n’ mix the parts of AM that suit your team

Finally, Rachel leaves us with a quick rundown of the other features and benefits making an impact across the firm.

Following up with prospects: “We’re starting to use AM to remind us to follow up on speaking to prospects that perhaps we’ve sent an email or quote to. Ordinarily we’d flag that in Outlook or write it on a piece of paper! Whereas AM will send you that reminder that you’ve got prospects that you might want to speak to. So that’s been pretty good across the firm.

Professional Clearance: “I do use it for sending professional clearance requests to previous accountants because I find that incredibly easy. It used to be a massive thing that I would spend ages drafting a letter and attaching it to an email and it was a massive waste of time to be honest when you can do it through AM, with a nice automated email.” 

Task List: “Across the firm we all use the Task List, so that’s checking the status of accounts and VAT returns and Corporation Tax returns and all of those sorts of things. Within our firm, we have various teams which are managed by team leaders. So the team leaders use that information to keep an eye on how the teams are progressing, as well as the individual team members using it to check their workload as well. 

Working remotely: It makes it even easier to manage people remotely because we can all see the same information. If somebody updates the status of a task, then everybody else can see that it has changed. Everyone’s been so busy during the pandemic with extra responsibilities, furlough claims and things like that, we’re making sure that everyone’s keeping on top of everything and the clients are still receiving the service we want to give them. So it’s been great from that perspective.

E-signing in the Client Portal: We upload the final tax return to the portal and use the e-sign email to send a template email that explains what they’re doing, when they’re reviewing and what their tax payments are on each of the dates and how to pay and then ask the client to go into that portal and sign the document that way. So that is a new process now as opposed to previously, we would PDF it from the software, attach it to an email, ask them to read it, sign, send it back, save it down – it was really admin heavy. And as we get more and more clients, being able to do it this way, it’s so much easier.