Key takeaways from the ICAS digital practice conference
The ICAS digital practice conference in Glasgow showcased the opportunities for CA practices that embrace technology, while underlining the critical need for the human touch, reports Fraser Allen
Will Farnell, Chairman of Norfolk-based Farnell Clarke, is a chartered accountant who delights in confounding the profession’s cliches. As well as creating the UK’s first 100% cloud accounting firm, he has built a pub, the Tax and Pounds, within the practice’s Norwich headquarters. His adventures in tech have also led him to write two books: The Digital Firm and The Human Firm. And speaking at the digital practice event, held by ICAS in Glasgow on 31 May, Will echoed the latter’s message that technology should enhance human interaction rather than replace it.
“Tech is simply an enabler to get closer to our clients and help them,” he said. “It’s the digital element which creates the capacity to do everything else that enables you to be a human firm. Compliance will be commoditised but human empathy is the thing that can never be replaced. If you act like robots, you’ll be replaced by them.”
Key to this is knowing your client. Will urges CAs to ask clients big questions about their ambitions for their careers, their families, their retirement, and so on. “If you don’t know someone, you can’t help them,” he said. “And we need to focus on this now more than ever because so much of what we do will be automated.”
Will also encourages CAs always to seek better ways of getting things done. “Be bold enough to challenge everything,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything just because it’s always been done that way.” And he believes many CAs may be surprised by what their clients might agree to. “Don’t prejudice what your client will or won’t do,” he urged. “Have a conversation with them.”
It’s a mindset that can open up fresh opportunities for growth. “Book-keeping is now an opportunity to provide a really profitable service that didn’t exist before,” he said. “We now provide it to 60% of our clients. With the bank data coming in on a daily basis, it takes an average of just four minutes for each client each day.”
Reflecting the theme of the day, Will stressed that Making Tax Digital (MTD) is an opportunity, rather than a threat. “People say they don’t have enough time – but there’s never enough time,” he said. “It’s about priorities. And if you’re afraid of change, think about what might happen if you don’t.”
Allan Davidson from Xero reiterated that message, and urged practices not to drag their feet, despite the MTD schedule being pushed back two years. “Understanding your currency is the single biggest opportunity you have,” he said. “Once we know who we are, we can move on to what we want to be.”
Next up was James Ashford from GoProposal, who showcased his onboarding software and how it can link into other tools, such as the Loom video proposals which can be sent to clients shortly after meeting them. However, he also explored the psychology of winning the trust of your potential clients and ensuring regular touchpoints throughout the process.
The conference was chaired by David Menzies CA, Director of Practice at ICAS, who pointed out that simply by attending, many of the delegates were giving themselves a competitive advantage over their peers.
Meanwhile, Suzy Kerton CA of Zyla Accountants demonstrated how embracing technology has enabled her to build a dual practice in London and Dubai. West Highlands-based Karen Kennedy CA acknowledged the danger of “shiny software syndrome” and being dazzled by every new tech toy available. The apps and software super-charging her business have been selected to complement each other, but she too stressed that technology is nothing without people. “You’ve got to get your whole team on board,” she said. “Everyone’s got to go for it – that’s what implements change.”
The event’s keynote speaker was Carl Reader of Swindon-based D&T, which has built its considerable success on specialising in the franchising market. A former hairdresser from Southend, the charismatic Reader is another pioneer of digital accountancy, and his talk underpinned the views of many other speakers.
“There’s a lot of talk about tech, as if it’s the magic pill,” he said. “But to have an extraordinary business, you need extraordinary processes and extraordinary people. Your clients want someone to have their back, and the only way you can do that is through great communication. Forget words like ‘perusal’, ‘hereby’ and ‘furthermore’ – our job is to be translators. That also means thinking about different communication styles and neurodivergence to provide the type of comms that each of our clients wants rather than just doing it the way that we want to.”
Read David Menzies CA’s observations from the conference