While technology has transformed many areas of the accountancy industry, the essence of a truly successful practice still resides in its people.
Since every firm has access to similar digital tools, standing out means embracing technology while prioritising personal connection and a client-centric approach.
At Accountex London 2023, creating a human firm was a hot topic.
In this article, we share actionable tips to help you create a human accountancy firm, drawing inspiration from invaluable insights and expert perspectives gathered at the recent event.
Here’s what we cover:
- How the accountancy industry has evolved and why it matters
- What is a human firm?
- How to build a human firm
- 4 tips on building a supportive and collaborative culture
- How to merge technology with the human touch
- Final thoughts on the human firm
The Human Firm
In this best-selling book, discover how you can revolutionise the way your practice operates and build deeper client relationships.
How the accountancy industry has evolved and why it matters
Will Farnell is the founder of accountancy firm Farnell Clarke. He’s also the author of The Digital Firm and The Human Firm.
The latter sheds light on going beyond digital technology and creating a scalable client-centric accountancy practice.
In his Accountex talk, Will discussed the accountancy industry’s evolution and technology’s impact on client relationships.
He argued that the relationship between accountants and clients used to be deeper and more personal, but compliance regulations shifted the focus towards meeting deadlines and avoiding penalties.
Will said: “25 years ago, we accountants had great relationships with our clients—we got invites to the birthdays, weddings and funerals.
“There was a depth in the relationship we had with the client.
“But compliance got in the way. Our focus shifted from building great relationships to how do we keep our clients out of jail?”
However, with the emergence of online accounting and digital tools, accountants can now rebuild and strengthen their relationships with clients.
A human firm effectively uses technology and staff to provide efficient, high-quality service.
Will says: “Online accounting allows us to get closer to our clients again. We’re getting the time back to rebuild those relationships through cloud accounting and digital tools.
“But the best thing now is that we accountants can have better quality relationships.
“With a human touch, we have the insight, knowledge and data to understand where our clients are, where they’re going, and the opportunities.
“So, we’ve gone full circle. But we’ve ended up in a better place than 25 years ago.”
What is a human firm?
A human-centric approach recognises that accounting is more than just about numbers. It’s about putting people at the centre of everything you do, emphasising personal connections, empathy and client satisfaction.
It’s about building relationships, understanding each client’s unique needs, and providing personalised solutions beyond compliance and the balance sheet.
And that’s what a human firm is.
At the same time, technology has an important role to play.
Digital tools can help streamline processes, improve accuracy, and provide valuable insights. But it’s important to remember that technology should enhance, not replace, the human element.
James Ashford, Vice President of GoProposal, has a unique blend of business acumen and a deep understanding of the accountancy industry.
James told a standing-room-only audience at Accountex: “With all the AI and technology constantly improving, there’s a fear that robots may replace us. Well, the answer is yes if we act like robots.
“However, if we can become more human and develop deeper, meaningful relationships with one another, then we can have a healthy future.”
Will emphasised the importance of having technology and people on board. Using technology is not enough if you don’t train your staff properly or they’re unwilling to use it.
Efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved by automating processes, allowing for a better overall client experience.
Will said: “The interesting thing here is, client experience is at the digital firm’s heart. So, all this technology stuff is irrelevant if it doesn’t enhance the client experience.
“Why bother with technology? Why bother with new processes if it doesn’t fundamentally impact the lives of your clients?
“So, directly or indirectly, how does anything you do improve your relationship with your client? If it doesn’t, then don’t do it. Simple as that.”
When combining a human-focused approach with the power of technology, you can do the following:
- Drive decision-making by using data to make informed choices.
- Increase customer satisfaction by using technology to understand better and address customer needs.
- Provide proactive customer support by gathering and analysing customer data.
- Enhance communication and collaboration through messaging platforms, project management software and video conferencing.
- Enhance client retention as clients feel valued and understood.
- Improve efficiency and productivity by streamlining processes and automating repetitive tasks.
- Boost team morale which will help your people to build relationships.
- Foster innovation and adaptation to stay ahead of the curve and adapt to evolving market demands.
Ultimately, a human-focused approach helps to promotes sustainable growth, as satisfied clients are more likely to refer new businesses and become long-term partners.
How to build a human firm
One key aspect of building a human firm is to develop a deep understanding of your client’s business.
Take the time to learn about their goals, challenges and unique needs.
Here are a few more to consider:
Make the most of your touchpoints
Touchpoints are crucial in building a positive client experience, referring to every interaction you have with a client from first to last contact.
Increasing the number of relevant touchpoints can benefit you, but don’t create them for the sake of it. Even with your usual daily bookkeeping, you can create regular touchpoints with clients to build closer relationships with them.
Mapping touchpoints could be useful to understand how your clients feel, quantify effectiveness, or understand whether you have too many or too few.
James Ashford suggests that a useful task you can do is map out your client’s touchpoints and plot their feelings on a chart.
Plotting interactions against this could lead to some interesting and useful results.
Add value to clients rather than piling on services
With the normal bookkeeping work you do as an accountant, you have data to help you understand what your clients are trying to achieve.
Focus on adding value to your clients rather than simply selling more services. Understanding your clients’ priorities and goals is essential to providing effective support.
Building understanding into your processes through data can help.
Will says: “If we understand what our clients are striving to achieve and get good quality, current data through daily bookkeeping, we can help them deliver on their goals.
“Our focus should be on adding value to their lives. Doing so increases our revenue and creates a positive client experience.
“It’s about improving their lives, helping them understand what they want to achieve, whether spending more time with family or growing their business for a big exit.”
You can build a strong reputation for excellence and gain a competitive edge by providing personalised services tailored to each client.
Another important aspect of building a client-centric human firm is strengthening relationships. You can achieve this through improved communication, proactive advice, and genuine care for your clients’ success.
By listening to your clients, offering valuable insights and demonstrating a commitment to their success, you can build trust and loyalty for years.
Make more time for your clients
You might be thinking, offering specialised services sounds great but where do I get the time?
It often feels as if you never have enough time.
You fill your days with tasks, obligations, and distractions that can quickly consume your hours.
Will Farnell believes the key to overcoming this challenge lies in prioritising and focusing your efforts on what truly matters.
Dedicating the necessary time includes allocating the budget and resources that such transformations often demand.
If you treat change as a deliberate, well-planned project, you can carve out specific periods within your schedule and put in appropriate financial and human resources.
Prioritising this way ensures you get the client time you need and helps you manage your time more effectively.
Work out how delegation, planning and automation could help you maximise your limited time. Here’s what to consider:
- Step back and evaluate your work. Recognise the tasks you love and hate, and delegate where necessary.
- Plan your time accordingly. Technology can streamline processes and make them more efficient with tools such as AutoEntry and debt automation.
- Technology alone is not enough without a solid process in place. Every job must go through the same system to ensure consistency and efficiency.
- Identify priorities, automate processes and systemise practices. Remove those blockers and make the most of your time.
At Accountex, Chris Downing, Director of Product Marketing at Sage, said: “Time is a finite resource, and as accountants, we often struggle to balance our workload.
“We love doing our jobs, but sometimes tasks can become so involved that we forget to step back and ask why we’re doing them.
“Delegation is the quickest way to free up time and remove the burden, but it’s also important to recognise what tasks we love and hate and plan our time accordingly.”
Automate routine tasks
You can already use technology to automate routine tasks and free up time for more personalised client interactions.
Using cloud accounting software and other automation tools, you can streamline processes, reduce administrative overhead, and eliminate time-consuming manual tasks.
You’ll free up time for team members to focus on building relationships and delivering tailored solutions.
Prioritise client needs and proactively manage their expectations.
By setting clear expectations upfront and communicating regularly with clients, you can reduce the time spent on rework and revisions and ensure clients are satisfied with the outcomes.
Build trust and loyalty with clients, which can lead to repeat business and referrals.
4 tips on building a supportive and collaborative culture
When it comes to creating a human firm, building a culture of support and collaboration is an important step. This could inspire your people to build stronger relationships with your clients.
Here are four ways to do it:
1. Have a clear vision and purpose
Have a clear purpose and vision to guide all your decision making. True purpose must be people-driven, authentic and vibrant.
Engage your people in meaningful conversations and understand what resonates with them more deeply. Ask questions, invite input and foster open discussions.
Empower your people to express their ideas, hopes and aspirations, so you can find the collective purpose that truly motivates your team—a purpose larger than any individual or specific task.
Your client and employee value proposition must communicate what your business does and how it operates, which helps ensure everyone is aligned and working towards the same goals.
2. Care about your team’s wellbeing
In any accountancy practice, the wellbeing of your team is essential to delivering high-quality work and exceptional client service.
Creating a positive work environment and implementing team empowerment strategies ensures your team is engaged, motivated, and ready to deliver their best work.
By fostering open communication and promoting a culture of mutual respect, you can create an environment where team members feel heard, valued and supported.
When team members feel supported and valued, they are more likely to be productive, creative and collaborative. They’ll provide better client service and higher levels of client satisfaction.
3. Think about career development
Develop career opportunities for your employees, especially the younger generation, who strongly emphasise values and career progression.
By investing in your team’s professional development, you can help them build the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
Will shared a story where in 2015, his firm Farnell Clarke lost six team members in eight weeks, 20% of the firm’s people.
In exit interviews, he found out that his former employees saw a lack of career progression—despite the firm growing at 40% and bringing in loads of new clients.
You must ensure all of your team knows where they’re going and sees a clearly defined path regarding promotion and career development opportunities.
4. Balance your team’s workloads
Another important factor in your team’s wellbeing is balancing the workload.
Using technology to automate routine tasks, you can free up your team’s time for high-value, client-focused, potentially more enjoyable work. You’ll not only improve productivity but also reduce stress and burnout.
Think seriously about workplace flexibility. Farnell Clarke, for example, has already moved from a nine-to-five mentality to a ‘do the job you want as long as it gets done properly’ approach.
As well as keeping people happy, it’ll give you an advantage in recruitment, as most accountancy firms are still office-based, which may not even be by choice.
How to merge technology with the human touch
Choosing the right tools and technology to free up time allows you to deliver exceptional results for your clients while maintaining the human connection that sets great accountancy practices apart.
Here’s how you can do that:
Identify the right tools
The first step in merging technology with the human touch is identifying the right tools. Choose solutions that enhance client relationships and team efficiency.
From cloud accounting software to client portals and communication tools, the right technology can help your team work more efficiently and deliver a better client experience.
Strike the right balance
While technology can save time and streamline processes, the human connection truly sets great accountancy practices apart.
You need the right people and processes to use technology effectively and create capacity for new services or growth.
Technology can free up time for more personalised client interactions. By automating routine tasks, your team can focus on building relationships and delivering tailored solutions.
Get good-quality data
Access to data is crucial if you want to build stronger client relationships and make informed decisions.
Insight can help you move from monthly or quarterly bookkeeping to more active financial data management. Ultimately, unlocking the power of this data could be key to properly understanding your clients.
In The Human Firm, Will Farnell says you need current, good-quality data, which you can source by getting your clients to use bank feeds and apps using accounting software.
He says: “As accountants, we must educate our clients to ensure they photograph their receipts regularly.
“There’s no point in daily bookkeeping if your clients only send you their paperwork at the end of the month.”
If you’re struggling to get your clients onboard, Will presents a list of reasons (and benefits) why your clients should give you good-quality, timely data through cloud apps:
- Real-time data and data transparency
- Faster processing
- Better cash flow management
- Better security
- Better customer service
- Automatic categorisation
- Work anytime, anywhere, all at once
- Reduce paperwork
- Reduced errors
- Easier compliance.
Use digital empathy
Let’s go deeper into the technical points of digital empathy—harnessing data insight to understand client needs and deliver tailored solutions.
Technology can help you gain valuable insights into your clients’ businesses and identify growth opportunities, from data analytics to predictive modelling.
Hannah Dawson, CEO and founder of Futrli, outlined at Accountex the importance of data-driven decision-making.
She suggested that accountancy practices should monitor and analyse metrics such as average revenue per client, and use key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive behaviour across the team.
By monitoring and setting revenue-generating targets, you can empower your staff to have conversations that add more value to your clients, while moving away from solely compliance-focused meetings.
You could move towards value-based pricing by differentiating charge-out rates for compliance versus advisory hours. It’s a mindset shift, focusing on revenue-generating opportunities and providing more business value.
Hannah said: “Implementing KPIs within your firm can drive team behaviour and create healthy competition.
“By monitoring metrics such as average revenue per client and empowering staff to have conversations that add more value to clients, you can move away from compliance-focused meetings and seize every opportunity for additional revenue.”
“With proper training and target setting, this can be a simple and effective way to bring about a positive behavioural change within your firm.”
Final thoughts on the human firm
In an industry heavily influenced by technology, having a genuinely human accountancy practice and all it involves, can be your unique selling point.
By placing people—both clients and your team—at the heart of your operations, you can build a practice that is not only successful but also resilient and sustainable.
Remember, technology is a tool. It should augment, not replace, the fundamental human element of accounting.
And that’s the big takeaway from Accountex 2023.
Recommended Next Read
How your accountancy practice can become a Human Firm now
The Human Firm
Discover how you can turn your accountancy practice into a Human Firm by downloading our essential guide and checklist.
Subscribe to the Sage Advice newsletter
Join more than 500,000 UK readers and get the best business admin strategies and tactics, as well as actionable advice to help your company thrive, in your inbox every month.