Special report: Carl Reader provides seven tips for tech adoption
Carl Reader is the school dropout turned chartered accountant who continues to view the profession through an outsider’s eyes. The entrepreneur, author and early adopter of cloud technology tells Fraser Allen why CAs should view new tech as an enabler
When YTS hairdresser Carl Reader first picked up his clippers in a Southend salon, it was a highly unlikely stepping stone towards his current status as a thought leader in the worlds of accounting, franchising and business in general. Yet Carl believes his modest Essex background made for an advantage when he swapped his scissors for a spreadsheet.
“Because I didn’t come from a family that was rooted in the professions, I entered accountancy as a bit of an outsider,” he says. “That helped me to see things objectively. I didn’t know that accountants were supposed to sit in a room and add up numbers. I wasn’t held back by stereotypes.”
Carl tried his hand at hairdressing after dropping out of school before his GCSEs. But when he became a father at an early age, he needed to earn more money. After scouring ads in the local newspaper, he secured two interviews with accountancy firms and one with the army. The army deemed him underweight, so he accepted an offer from one of the accountants. Fast forward 26 years – a period which includes his qualification as a chartered accountant – and Carl is the brains behind Swindon-based D&T, which specialises in accountancy and advisory services in the franchising market. He also has several ambassadorial and advisory roles, hosts the high-charting Boss It podcast and has written three books, including a print Boss It which scooped the Independent Press Award for best business book in 2021.
But while Carl’s sense of curiosity led him to become an early adopter of technology, much of his thinking about tech and the accountancy profession is focused on human relationships. “If you go to a doctor, you have to be open about your health and you generally feel you can trust the person you’re speaking to,” he says. “It struck me that accountants should have a similar degree of trust in the eyes of their clients because you know exactly what’s going on with them financially. But because of a lack of relationship building and, sometimes, empathy, there can be an adversarial relationship where the client believes the accountant is on the side of the tax man.
“There’s a tendency not to focus on the customer experience. My old man was a locksmith so I saw how he looked after his customers, and hairdressers are super at that kind of stuff too. These are vocations that professionals might look down on but, actually, there’s a lot that can be learned from the way they do things. I use tech to put humans first.”
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This was a message Carl reiterated when he spoke at the ICAS Digital Practice Conference, held in Glasgow in May. “To have an extraordinary business, you need extraordinary processes and extraordinary people,” he said that day. “Your clients want someone to have their back, and the only way you can do that is through great communication.” Carl believes that always comes down to KYC – do you Know Your Clients? Do you know where they are going on holiday or their kids’ names?
And while Carl has a reputation for innovation, he puts client service before technology trends. “We were very early adopters of cloud technology, but it wasn’t because we were buying into the marketing around interconnected data,” he says. “It was simply because we had clients all over the UK and we didn’t want floppy disks and CD-Roms to get broken in the post. So technology for us has always been about improving our services rather than an end in itself.”
Carl now prefers to be what you might call a second-stage adopter. “There’s no prize for being the first adopter of software – the only beneficiary is the vendor, who gets a free beta tester,” he says. “So now we actively sit back and let others take the leap on early-stage products so that they can make the mistakes rather than us. We don’t need to be at the cutting edge, we just need to be ahead of most of the rest.”
And so, with CAs gradually adapting to Making Tax Digital while dazzled by the apps, software and platforms on offer, what advice can Carl offer?
1. What do you actually need?
“Technology can drive huge efficiencies but it also comes with costs. As belts have tightened in the past couple of years, a lot of firms have realised they’re paying subscriptions for things they rarely use. As a result, they’re considering what they actually need, which is of course the question we should be asking at the start. So rather than buying something because it seems exciting, what is the true business value? We also have to be very clear about what helps our business and what helps our clients, because there’s often a conflation between the two.”
2. Good clubs don’t change a bad golfer
“A bad adviser with the very best tech is still a bad adviser. However, a great adviser without the very best tech is still a great adviser. That’s not to say that great software can’t help you become even better at what you do but it’s important to remember where your strengths are. Your client is ultimately paying for your expertise, your support and your empathy – and technology is simply there to help you with that.”
3. Don’t let the tech replace you
Similarly, when practices bring clients onto technology platforms, they need to consider what they are offering on top. If the tech is primarily seen as a way of getting things done quickly for clients with minimal interaction, Carl points out, many are going to wonder what they’re paying their accountant for, when they could subscribe to the software directly.
4. Great client communication is essential
“There is a danger of technology damaging client relationships that aren’t necessarily that strong in the first place. For instance, a lot of accountants now have video calls with clients rather than face-to-face conversations or phone calls. What used to be a five-minute ad hoc phone call is now a scheduled, structured one-hour Zoom meeting that feels very inauthentic.” That may suit the practice, but how does it feel for the client?
5. Be aware of changing client expectations
“Customer expectations are being shaped by wider technological innovations. You’ve probably seen the meme that says, ‘You can be good, you can be cheap or you can be fast, but you can’t be all three.’ Frankly, that’s rubbish. Google is good, cheap and fast. So is Amazon. To give you an example, one trap that accountants can fall into is believing that a 24 to 48-hour turnaround time on phone calls is still good customer service. If your customer has just been on Amazon, they’re not going to agree.”
6. Fears can be managed
“Humans have a natural fear of change and the hardest thing to do is to acknowledge that fear. However, once you’ve done that, there are practical tools you can use to support yourself.” In particular, Carl recommends “fearsetting”, a tool he discussed at the Digital Practice Conference, which involves listing every fear you might have relating to change, and then grading them from one to 10 in terms of the likelihood of something bad happening and the detrimental impact the change might have on you. The process helps you to rationalise your fears, focus on what matters and mitigate risk.
7. Speak to other CAs
“One of the best attributes of the profession now, certainly compared with 10-20 years ago, is the amount of collaboration between accountants. There are now many routes to peer-to-peer support, and discovering the pains that others have been through can help you take short cuts.”
With his prominent tattoos and casual clothing, the affable Carl is a world away from the outdated accountancy stereotypes from which his Southend upbringing shielded him. And his daily routine is very different from that of most accountants too. “I stepped away from the day-to-day business more than 10 years ago,” he says. “And I use the ‘visionary/integrator’ model which I took from two books called Traction and Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman. My role is to do the flag waving and come up with crazy ideas. Then it’s the responsibility of my team to filter through the hundred ideas, pull out the one golden nugget and then drive it forward. I probably appear to be a law unto myself, but that’s where the magic happens.”
For more resources, visit the ICAS technology hub