Time to think big

Innovation is not just for large firms with matching budgets. Even if you haven’t got Big Four resources, you can still move your practice forwards

Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

Farnell Clarke, an independent firm of accountants in Norwich, won the trophy for most innovative practice at the British Accountancy Awards last year. ‘Beating Deloitte in the country-wide category was fairly mind blowing,’ says the firm’s founder and director Will Farnell. ‘Innovation was a new theme for the awards in 2016, but for us it’s been business as usual since we started in 2007.’

For firms like Farnell Clarke, the use of cloud technology is now the norm, rather than innovation. True innovation goes beyond using the latest tools to streamline systems and processes. It is about keeping your use of technology fresh and taking a risk by investing in developing your own software.

Roll your own

Farnell Clarke could not find practice management software to do everything it needed, so it built its own, rolling it out in February. Farnell says: ‘It allows us to manage client jobs, as you would expect, but we are now also building in new functionality to enhance client experience. Some of this was to fix past issues, but we are now looking to see what extra we can do for our clients.’

Another firm looking to deliver more value to clients is Cwmbran-based Green & Co, which has spent over two years researching and developing its own software suite to help clients manage their tax and finances better. Green partner Barrie Kenyon says: ‘It is extremely important to invest in innovation. Without it, you stand still and risk not solving clients’ problems in the most efficient and cost-effective way.’

The Green software suite comprises an income tax forecaster, a financial performance review and a prosperity dashboard. Green’s clients can use the forecaster to see what their future liabilities will be for the next five years. The financial performance review allows them to easily understand how their business has been performing year on year. And the prosperity dashboard provides accurate up-to-date information and tracks the business’s progression towards set goals.

Kenyon sums up: ‘This software allows clients to make quicker and better informed decisions regarding the performance, direction and sustainability of their businesses.’
SRK Accounting has offices in London’s Soho and Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. SRK partner Yasser Khan admits that competition is intense and that the firm has to continually innovate.

‘We do things differently because it makes no sense to be the same as everyone else’

Khan says: ‘We’ve developed a helpdesk where clients can submit questions and get answers quickly. This year we have added a Core-4 service to our packages, which means clients can now collaborate and knowledge-share in a private Facebook group, sign up to best practice webinars, formulate a vision board, and have access to a business advisory panel. Soon we will also have an app allowing clients to get advice on the move, a feedback portal and boot camps for small businesses.’

Up-close and personnel

Technology can go a long way towards improving the client experience and adding value, but innovative firms do not stop there. Last November Farnell Clarke partnered with an HR specialist and started offering a range of personnel services to its SME clients. And when it comes to client onboarding, the firm strives to make those all-important first impressions really count. Farnell says: ‘Our welcome-on-board team works with every new client for three to six months to allow for a smooth and efficient introduction to the practice, providing regular, intense support before handing over to a dedicated account-handling team.’

The firm has also adopted an innovative approach to staff retention and recruitment. ‘As we are based in a small city and a rural county, one of our biggest challenges is recruiting and retaining talent, so we have to offer something special to millennials. We do things differently because it makes no sense to be the same as everyone else,’ Farnell explains.

The firm’s office, which is close to the airport, has themed meeting rooms including Beach Hut, Quayside and Library, as well as soundproofed booths and private work pods to encourage agile working and team collaboration. There is even an inhouse pub, the Tax & Pounds, which opens to staff at 4pm every Friday, which clients can also use.

Cultural alignment

Truly innovative firms typically foster a culture of innovation. At Farnell Clarke, for instance, ‘Because no team members have private offices, there is a great flow of ideas within the business, and no idea is viewed as a bad idea,’ says Farnell. ‘Staff are encouraged to suggest new ways of working, developing customer relationships and ideas for team-building, whether that’s a new process for client handling or a charity fundraiser.’

And at SRK Accounting there is a weekly staff workshop to discuss internal processes and ideas for adding value. ‘The staff are empowered to come up with their own ideas as well as tasked with implementing those of the partners so that they can see the value for themselves,’ says Khan.