What keeps you awake at night?
It all started with this simple question. Little did Phil know, this would be the start of a quest to overhaul his accountancy business to be the modern data-driven, high-performing organisation it is today!
“Lack of visibility, no way of telling of where jobs were in the organisation, no way of telling quickly about workloads and bottlenecks, about capacity issues or anything like that.”
Phil used this fear as the driving force for change in the firm, and it’s safe to say these days he is sleeping soundly, “So first thing that we did was set about building a management system that allowed us to have complete visibility from the cradle to the grave. Those were the sorts of things that really held us back, that lack of visibility and subsequently, the lack of accountability within the team as it was easy just to say we are busy and very easy to hide potential icebergs.”
Accountancy firms are known for being traditional and not forthcoming when embracing modern-day technology solutions despite what they could do for the practice. Mail Manager recently spoke to Phil Ellerby, founder and CEO of 24-person firm Northern Accountants to learn how he is taking a different approach to traditional accountants and how that fresh thinking and embracing digital transformation has catapulted his firm to be on track for a seven-figure GRR this year.
Here we look at Phil’s top ten tips for firms who are wishing to follow in Northern Accountants' footsteps:
1. Master your systems
Phil attributes his success to embracing digital tools to help him understand his business and use insights to make better decisions and improve client relationships.
“Introducing a CRM has improved our performance as a business. If we went back 4 or 5 years ago, we didn’t deliver the way that we should have done. We delivered what we needed to do and did everything that needed to be done but we didn’t do everything that we felt the clients deserved, so having the software in place to understand the issues that we were going to face, improved our deliverability which subsequently improved our already strong client relationships which have led to huge referrals, massive google reviews, our web and social media presence purely because we are now able to shout about the things we do with confidence, not smoke and mirrors.”
The software has been fundamental to the firm's success, and Phil’s advice to anyone wishing to follow suit is; “Commit to it, deliver on it and move it forward. Plan it, don’t go off half-cocked. Plan and map your systems and build the processes around them.”
2. Accept that it is an ongoing process
Getting the right tools in place is not an overnight quick fix, and the firm has spent many years going through many iterations before they found a system that truly works for them. “Be prepared for it to be the hardest project you embark on and be open to change. Invest in it and commit to it. If you are going to go down this route, it is going to take hours and years of your life. My job is the constant modification and being prepared to rip things apart and rebuild them. What version 1 might have been good for 6 months ago, it might not be good now, so you need versions 2, 3, 4, 5. Do not be precious about the system!"
3. Be a business person first and an accountant second
When speaking with Phil, his passion for the business shines through. He is very much a man looking to the future and making the necessary changes today to steer the firm in the right direction to successfully achieve his vision.
He advises on how easy it is to get focused on just the technical side of the job but that seeing the bigger picture is what will ultimately drive business growth. “Where we plan to go is quite different to the stereotypical accountant. We are not there yet, still on our journey but doing some great things and getting some huge recognition locally and nationally, and both inside and outside the industry.”
4. Focus on the customer experience
Accountancy is typically a compliance-based business, but Phil focused on turning his business into a customer service-based business. He has focused on continually improving that customer experience by using data-driven insights from his implemented systems.
“Every firm usually has a highly committed team that have a desire to do the best job they possibly can technically. No one sets out to give bad service, but because they are so immersed in the technical side of things, the responsiveness is a little slow and that I found was the biggest frustration with clients”
5. Complete visibility and accountability are fundamental to success
Phil says the number one problem with firms is almost always communication. Clients complain about long response times or things not happening when promised. To overcome this challenge Phil went about improving visibility and accountability, which have been fundamental to his business success.
He put a process in place that gave complete transparency over staff inboxes so that they could be sure that no customer communications were missed and response times were low. “We will soon be 24 staff, and the average number of unread emails is 10, which means we are responding to client queries and emails. We have two call-back periods so everyone is guaranteed a response by the end of the day and that is what clients want!”
6. Invest in automation
Phil is all about improving efficiency and effectiveness throughout staff processes, and one of the ways he does this is by using tools to automate processes where he can so that he can remove productivity drains and the team can focus on the tasks that provide value for the business.
7. Digital integration is crucial
It may sound easy just to pick a range of digital software solutions, but Phil warns that having many different tools can often create more work. When choosing a tech stack, it is critical to ensure that your systems integrate well with each other to have smooth, streamlined processes.
“We had many stages and variations and multiple pieces of software until we ended up where we are today. Nothing did everything, so we started with multiple tools at version one. We realised we were spending so much time populating the data & reconciling the data to one another that it was massively inefficient.”
8. Look after and invest in your people
Phil is very passionate about his people and their development and keeps everyone involved in his vision for the business.
“The key to success in 2022 is down to the team. The team has to be fully behind the vision of the business, they’ve got to be immersed in the culture. The non-negotiables we look for in our team members are commitment, ability and attitude. There is no point in having the best accountant in the world with the worst attitude or the nicest person in the world who can’t out one foot in front of the other. They are mutually exclusive and they have to come together.
"We have to make sure that part of our training and development that everyone has the skill-set that they need in order to do the technical aspects. It is not just the technical aspects that we focus on either. We have a personal development coach that comes in and helps people address the softer skills that they need to enhance and development, whether that is time management, pressure dealing with deadlines, giving and receiving feedback – all the things that they need to progress, because you can’t just be a brilliant technical accountant and expect to run a successful and rewarding portfolio as there are so many other skills that are required.”
9. Create a high-performance culture
When asked how he has managed to maintain such high-performing members of staff, Phil answers; “Build a culture that a team can thrive in, where they don’t want to leave – that’s what we have worked on over the last five years, and it’s taken a lot longer than anticipated that it would, but we now have a platform where absolutely everyone knows where they stand within the organisation and has a clear career pathway.”
He says, “Everyone has bought into where we are taking the organisation and our vision of the accountancy industry going forward and what it should be, and that’s now part of the culture. Our core values are: Commit, Support, challenge, Enjoy and Inspire and people work in line with those values, and that helps deliver the culture. Being part of something that can make a difference in the long term is something that everyone has bought into which ultimately keeps the motivation high.”
10. Always look for ways to improve further
Despite the firm's success, Phil is not resting on his laurels. He sees his quest for improvement as an ongoing process; where something is good, he’s always looking for how it can improve. This attitude ensures that he keeps the business one step ahead. “It’s costly in terms of time, but it pays for itself a million times over. It’s an ever-evolving process as the tools change daily and are a constant evolution.”
You can hear more from Phil and how he has used digital transformation to revolutionise his business on an upcoming podcast episode launching soon!