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Opinion > Countingup

The opportunity for accountants to help businesses

Erika Lukoseviciute, head of support and operations at Countingup | 08:59 Wednesday 19th June 2019

In light of bank and building society branch closures, a new report published by Oxford Economics in partnership with Funding Circle has revealed that in the UK — despite the vast economic output generated by SMEs — small business lending accounts for only 2% of banks’ balance sheets.

Given the lack of access most SMEs have to banking support today and the lack of informed advice when they do manage to access the bank, we see a clear opportunity for accountants to step into the breach and offer their expert advice to SMEs so that they are able to navigate not only their banking, but also their financial choices more generally and make informed decisions.

SME owners are typically laser-focused on the concerns of their core business and ensuring that the organisation not only survives its often difficult early years, but goes on to grow dynamically and achieve success in the future. They generally have little time to devote to finance and yet they do need informed and expert assistance. And so, in the absence of tailored and focused help from their local high street banks, they are increasingly turning to their accountant to fill the void and deliver it for them.

In our experience, there are certain things that clients increasingly want from their accountant. They want the sign-up process to be as fast and painless as possible. They want advice and recommendations about issues such as business structure, software (not just accounting-related) and banking and financing options. 

Accountancy practices are ideally placed to deliver this. They have an existing relationship with the client, they understand their business well and they typically have all-round expertise across financial services.

Despite all this, however, it still takes imagination and flexibility for an accountancy practice to move beyond its core management accounting and auditing role and offer informed and expert advice.

Accountants have to be open to the change of course because they have been subject to a lot of it in recent years. There is new technology to deal with, new legislation to understand and advise on and, increasingly, demand from clients for different services, advice and methods of communication. That positions them well to take on a wider role with their clients. 

Giving clients what they want

This advisory work needs to go beyond just offering suitable technology to use. Compliance and tax, for example, is not so straightforward that every small business owner will be able to cope with it by using good software. Making Tax Digital (MTD) is going to mean that a lot of small businesses are going to need to radically change their record keeping.

These businesses will look to their accountant to guide them through this transition. Not only in terms of recommending software, but also providing ongoing support and training. Business insurance is another key area of concern for SMEs that accountants could potentially help with, advising their clients on approaches they could take to protect certain invoices from the risk that they may be paid late or not at all. 

Technology does have an increasingly key role to play in the financial services arena and accountants can also advise here. The focus should be on introducing tools that deliver real practical benefits in terms of driving operational efficiencies and making the business owner’s job easier. 

They may want to propose new card payments technology, for example. It speeds up the payments process, makes record keeping easier and gives end customers more options, helping drive engagement and loyalty. It is also so much more efficient and time saving than instead being wedded to traditional approaches, such as bank transfers or cheques.

They are also the ideal option for sole traders or small businesses operating on the move or out in the field as they can be easily connected to mobile devices. Moreover, they might want to recommend new apps that automate accounting and banking processes all in one place, making the whole process quicker and easier for SMEs.

Accountancy firms may even want to take their role as trusted advisers of their SME customers a step further by making recommendations of other professionals to use, such as web designers, IT consultants, digital marketing specialists, HR advisers and lawyers, for example. Many accountancy firms now offer those services in-house. Moving forward, those that don’t are increasingly going to need to ensure that they’ve got a network of advisers to draw on.

It is yet another sign of the changing role of the accountant in the business and financial services landscape and the growing opportunity they have to meet the needs of clients more closely and build stronger and closer links with them.

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