AM’s Jonathan Stobart caught up with Ben Steele – AccountancyManager user and owner of Bristol-based firm, Steele Financial. On top of his accounting and people skills, Ben is quite the technical guru. In fact, he’s been offering so much free advice to clients around the best technology to use, he’s started to commercialise it.

Steele Financial Accountants

Steele Financial – accountants and certified app advisors

Ben Steele founded his firm in 2017, after years spent growing other people’s practices. By his own admission, he started out with ‘no clients, no bank account and pretty much no clue’. Now, with a team of five (soon to be seven) and a clientbase of 350, it’s clear – that wasn’t the case. 

“I was managing small practices for other people and then it hit me one day. I seem to be doing quite well, so why don’t I create my own?”

Ben has clients all over the UK, from local plumbers to a global space agency and everything in between. Recently, Steele Financial has seen an influx of hospitality clients too, as word has spread amongst Bristol’s tight-knit foodie scene.

Going global – thanks to Xero expertise

In the last year, Steele Financial has gained clients from around the world. “It started off with a UK company. We did such a good job for them, they financed us to help look after their global branches. Then, because we know Xero so well, they asked us to look after Xero and related queries from the different countries too.” 

Turning tech knowledge into a new income stream

Ever since he started, Ben has been advising all kinds of businesses on their app stacks. “So we recently did an advisory course and certification so we can create an official service.”

“The word advisory winds me up, but the concept of adding more value to your client is now much more of a thing.” 

“I’d say the last three years have been the quickest, fastest paced time in the industry. When I started, using Xero made me different, so I’ve had to completely change tactics. Basic bookkeeping used to be enough, suddenly it’s apps, efficiencies, advisory and adding value.”

Building a digital firm in the cloud

The success of Steele Financial is largely down to Ben’s vision of the practice he wanted to create. “I’d never found a firm that quite fitted what I thought a practice should be in this day and age. I thought, ‘I can build a fully digital cloud-based practice here’ and used that as my goal.”

“I think what makes a digital firm is using [software] correctly, in a way that creates efficiencies for your clients.”

“So all client bookkeeping, VAT, etc. had to be on Xero and there was no exception to that. We do turn people away. Every piece of work we do is on cloud-based software, but I don’t think it’s good enough to just say that you use cloud software. I think what makes a digital firm is using it correctly, in a way that creates efficiencies for your clients.”

Coming to AccountancyManager (via Senta)

Like most, Ben started off with spreadsheets. “…then I quickly realised, before growth kicks in, I need to have a cloud-based practice management software. I came across Senta first because they’re just down the road. But very quickly realised it wasn’t naturally fitting with the way I work, so I had a look at AccountancyManager.”

Task lists: From nerve-wracking to finely tuned

For the first year, Ben and his team only used AccountancyManager to hold client data and to send, receive and store client documents. It was the automatically created task lists that started the ball rolling into using more features. 

“Because we’d put all this data into AM, we had these task lists creating themselves. It was nerve-wracking, but we started to think ‘actually, could we be using that?’. Then, at the start of this year, with the team and workload growing, we knew we needed a task management system. A way to comfortably sit back and know that tasks weren’t being missed.” 

“We just had to ask: Is this possible? How can we do this? And 99% of the time, AM has come back and said it is possible.”

“We spoke to AM’s support and straightaway they helped us clear the backlog and reduce the number of automatically created tasks. For example, the year end accounts task created three or four individual tasks, we wanted one line to say that this accounts set needs to be done. So they did it. That was great.”

Automated client reminders: As much control as you like

After seeing how the task list could be customised, Ben immediately started exploring automated reminders. “Now we have automatic emails set up for bookkeeping record requests, year end accounts, even VAT returns. It’s just made life a lot quicker and easier.”

“Boom, boom, boom, before you know it every client’s had a tailored email asking for what we need.”

“We’ve also solved Ben’s concern about not wanting to totally relinquish control. “It might be the control freak in me, but we’ve set the emails to pause. So the emails will create automatically every month or period end. Everybody is assigned their own clients and they check the emails.” 

Creating a routine between you and your clients

It turns out, clients get so used to these emails, they miss them when they don’t arrive. “We had one client recently, say ‘I haven’t had that monthly email from you guys’. Now, there was a reason for that, but it shows that clients get used to these reminders.”

“Sometimes it even makes clients do it before the email’s got to them.”

“It creates this routine between you and the client and it also means that we don’t miss stuff – we don’t forget to ask clients for information, we don’t forget to chase them.”

Self Assessment: ‘I don’t think we’d do it in time without AM’

This year, Ben planned to have the majority of their SA tax returns done by Christmas. “Then COVID hit and that completely wiped that off the table! We’re doing well. We still have a lot to do, but without AM… I don’t think we’d be able to do it in time.”

“To send a tax return and five minutes later, you’ve got an email saying they’ve signed it, is a dream.”

“It’s the simplicity and the efficiency of the clients sending you information securely, they just upload the documents you need. You do the tax return, drag and drop it onto AM and it goes off to the client. Then they press a button and it comes back signed. It makes it a hell of a lot quicker to get through tax season.”  

Notifications: Making sure nothing gets missed

Ben and his team use AM’s notifications to streamline their internal review process. “So when one of the team does a bit of bookkeeping they’ll click ‘complete and notify’. That  pops up as a notification to the client manager and at the click of a button, it’s added to your list as a task. It creates this really good flow that makes sure – at any stage – somebody is responsible.”

Client timeline: An audit trail and a Godsend

The client timeline in AM captures every communication you’ve had with clients. “We’ve had to rely on it a few times and in those moments it’s a Godsend,” says Ben. 

“When you need to backtrack and check something, it’s extremely useful.” 

“As an example, to see if a client had signed something – when did they sign? If a piece of client information has been updated or it’s incorrect, you can go back and check who put that data in there and when. It’s basically like an audit trail of exactly what’s happened by who and when.”

Onboarding: Delegate your data entry – to your clients

Steele Financial uses GoProposal, so Ben’s pleased to hear that an integration between AM and GoProposal is on the way. “We use GoProposal to create a proposal, then step one of our onboarding is the invite for the client to register for AM.”

“It’s as easy as putting in their name and address, sending the invite – and the client puts in all their information for us. It makes life a lot easier.”

“The moment they login they’re presented with a screen to put all of their information in for us. So everything past creating that proposal and quote, is done through AM.”

Life without AccountancyManager? A scary thought

“We’d struggle to operate without AM to be honest, not just because of the amount of data in there, more so now the workflow we’ve created. It gives us structure, so every team member knows their tasks and deadlines. And a manager can log on and know exactly where every team member is.”

“It has cut out a lot of that time-wasting communication of ‘What job are you on?’ ‘What have you done?” 

“That’s even more important now, with half our team working from home. Rather than constantly interrupting them with phone calls, you log onto AM. That’s a scary thought actually, I don’t know what we’d do if AM suddenly shut down.” (So much for those ‘nerve-wracking’ task lists!)

Some final words of wisdom

“It all comes down to realising you’re not going to be able to do it all overnight. Do it in small chunks and in six to 12 months, it’ll revolutionise the way your practice works. You’ll have a well-oiled machine, which is doing a lot of your admin for you. 

“Spend a little bit of time to make it work because the rewards will be so beneficial. It’s easier to do that when you’re smaller as opposed to when you’ve grown 10 times the size.”

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