How to Automate a Small Firmby
All too often with automation, product comes before you build a process. Small firms especially need to figure out why they are automating before buying anything.
We are very honored to have Paul Meissner, Director at 5ways Group Chartered Accountants and all around accounting profession thought leader, contribute to our site. In his article below, Paul focuses on an issue many small firms continue to struggle with: automation.
It's not so much with the acceptance that software is beneficial to their practice and work with clients, but the fact that there is so much in the market. That, coupled with the growing needs of clients and endless product hype, it's increasingly challenging to make the right decsions when it comes to products. Below Paul draws on personal experience as an accounting profesisonal to offer some practical tips to making better automation choices.
For the last 10 years I have run a 100 percent cloud-based accounting firm, safe to say technology has helped define the success of my practice. Software has helped me have deeper connections with my clients globally, liberated me from a fixed office server and has contributed to amazing efficiency and profitability.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. I’ve been sold software that didn’t work or I didn’t need, bought great software I didn’t commit to and a lot in between. Upon doing so though, I have learned a lot.
My greatest realization is that automation starts with the process not the product. Processes are many and varied and often conform to the existing systems and staff of the firm. I strongly believe that the small firm of the future will have the best processes rather than just use the best or most software.
Software for small firms is a different game today than it was not long ago. I’ve seen an explosion in the number and variety of software companies that are here to “revolutionize the way firms run.” As such, it can be very hard to cut through the marketing ‘noise’ and work out what can actually help your firm.
5-Steps to Automation
Here I’ve compiled a 5-step automation process for small firms that has served me well and I am confident it will for you as well:
1. Map Your Processes
You can’t automate what you don’t really understand. Process mapping might sound like a dark art, but it’s actually quite simple. Start with one (simple) process and list every step, every touch point, every click that you need to do to complete a process in your firm.
Don’t get bogged down in the details or variables of each step. This isn’t an operations manual to follow, it's a map of the process flow.
Examples of small processes to start with are things like:
- calendar bookings
- task management
- client work delivery
From there you can progress to larger processes. Process mapping is a team sport, those that run the process should be the loudest voice and not just the boss dictating things.
Team consultation can make staff feel valued and engaged. More importantly for firm owners, you may discover just how inefficient or nonexistent the processes in your practice are.
2. Outcome Focus
Understand the outcomes that are important to the process rather than the steps required. I try to put the greatest focus on the outcome and achieving it in the most efficient way. For me, there are absolute values (client experience, quality, etc.) but apart from that we just look at doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
3. Improve the Process
Now that you can see each step in the process, you should see some glaring inefficiencies (print and sign, binding and mailing, etc.). Removing steps in the process is something that has created more efficiency for me than buying new software.
A step should be essential to the outcome or values to stay. Be brave in removing steps. The most inefficient practice I still see is the physical paper binding, delivery and signing of financials and tax returns.
For me, the timeliness and efficiency of electronic delivery and signing coupled with the personal touch of a phone call, online client meeting delivers far more client value and internal efficiency.
4. Maximize Current Systems
Chances are you have software in your firm that you aren’t using to the full potential. Whether it’s new features you’ve missed or a better way to use the current features, making your current systems work better for your streamlined processes is real bang for buck. If required, get training.
5. Test the Software
Trial any prospective software head to head against your current process to prove any efficiency gain. From experience, what the system actually does and what the software’s marketing people tell you it does can vastly differ.
One of the greatest challenges I have faced with new software is that the efficiency promised takes so much background set up, manipulation or customization that it negates the efficiency. Then, factor in to the cost/benefit analysis the software cost, implementation cost and training.
At the end of the day the software needs to suit your firm, your process and the needs of your clients. Small firms especially need to filter out the growing marketing noise and focus on your firm’s needs first and foremost.
I am a huge fan of software and applications, but it must be the ones for your firm.
Paul is an Australia-based practitioner, podcaster and pragmatist. Director - 5ways Group Chartered Accountants, Founder - Freedom Accounting System, Presenter - From the Trenches Podcast. To learn more about the practical ways Paul, through his Freedom Mentoring, assists accounting firms navigate technology, feel free to...