Firms in the spotlight
There are highs and lows in running any business and in each edition of the Digital Accountancy magazine we are going to deep dive into some of the tech-focused accountancy practices to learn a little more about the team and how they operate, the background on the business and their future goals and aspirations.
In this edition, we spoke to Smith & Williamson to learn some more about the firm and the services that they offer.
Smith & Williamson are a top 10 accountancy practice with eleven offices in total throughout the UK. They are part of the Tilney Smith & Williamson group and provide a wide range of services including accountancy, tax, business outsourcing, corporate finance and personal financial planning. We met up with Helen Bassett, Director of Business & Outsourcing Services, who is based in the Bristol office, to find out a little bit more about the firm and the services that they offer.
It would be great if we could start by finding out a little more about Smith & Williamson.
Yes, of course.
Tilney Smith & Williamson is the UK’s leading integrated wealth management and professional services group which was created by the merger of Tilney and Smith & Williamson(TSW) on 1 September 2020.
TSW’s personal wealth management services include financial planning, investment management and advice, online execution-only investing and personal tax advice. For businesses, its wide range of services includes assurance and accounting, business tax advice, employee benefits, forensic advice, fund administration, recovery and restructuring and transaction services.
So, as you can see, we do offer a very extensive range of services!
Yes, you certainly do! What are the core services?
The firm has two key parts - the traditional accountancy practice mixed with the wealth management side of the firm. This allows us to provide holistic business and personal support to individuals and their business interests.
We are known for our support to entrepreneurs – you only need to scan our entrepreneurs’ hall of fame to understand our breadth of experience. We work across many sectors and my personal sector specialism is tech and my clients cut across many verticals.
You are a Director in the Business & Outsourcing team in the Bristol office. Tell me a little about your role and the services your team provides.
I lead a team of 15 providing outsourced finance function support to high growth businesses. I am in the Bristol office and the Bristol outsourcing team is one of 8 equivalent teams across the wider group.
We offer a range of services and this includes -
- Software selection, implementation and migration
- Transaction entry and management accounting
- Annual statutory accounts and tax compliance
- Regular filings such as payroll, VAT, P11Ds
- Company secretarial
- Project advisory and secondment cover
Our focus is always on the use of the best accounting technology to ensure automation and efficiency and, as such, my team are experienced in the use of a broad range of accounting software platforms
You offer both cloud accounting and outsourcing services to your clients. Can you give me some of the examples of some of the cloud projects completed recently?
Yes, sure. We recently took on the role of ‘Virtual FC’ for a technology business. It’s quite common for businesses to consider this virtual offering in place of a full-time Financial Controller who may have peaks and troughs in workload during a month.
For this particular client, their FC was moving on and they wanted access to support across lots of technical specialisms of accountancy and tax. We have stepped in as Virtual FC and provide 6-7 days of support to their finance team each month using cloud technology.
The benefits to the client are:
- Comfort in the technical capabilities and that legislative changes will be brought to their attention
- We reviewed their accounting technology and put in place automation applications to assist the finance team with the basic data entry
- Review of historic filings – we highlighted some issues with VAT and P11Ds and assisted the company to correct these. They must have their filings in order if they are planning for a future exit as due diligence will look into these areas!
- Robust consolidated management information packs
- Access to the wider TS&W teams via their nominated virtual FC
- Someone to challenge the financials who has experience in working with 100s of high growth businesses
- No responsibility for an employee – in today’s world this attracts costs such as pension, benefits and sick pay
- Reconciled data which will ensure a smooth year-end process
How important do you think technology-based services are in your firm both now and in the future?
- We rely on accounting technology to provide all of our core outsourced solutions. Examples include:
- Cloud software to prepare and submit statutory accounts filings directly to Companies House – an important electronic service during a pandemic!
- Our online employee portal via our payroll bureau service
- Making Tax Digital for VAT advisory and VAT submissions
- Electronic statutory books
- Accounting platform and eco-system advisory
It’s our Managed RPA (Robotic Process Automation) Service that has come to the forefront in the last 18 months. I see the interest in this service growing rapidly.
It is really interesting to see that you have a team that provides Robotic Process Automation (RPA) services. This is a really exciting service that not many other firms offer at the moment. So what is RPA?
RPA is essentially software that can perform manual, time-consuming, rules-based tasks, more efficiently than humans. It mimics human interaction with other software and thus can replicate the keystrokes on your keyboard to the finger clicks on your mouse to conduct the same process you would do.
How big is the RPA team and what is the skill set of the team?
We’re at 9 at the moment and hiring more!
There is a mix of skills within the team as it sits within our tax technology offering, we have accountants FCCAs, FAATs, ACAs as well as certified Robotic developers, architects, and analysts. We also have data analytics experts to help on some of our more data-heavy projects which involve analytic process automation.
Very few first offer RPA as a service. How did you decide that this was something that you wanted to develop and offer to your clients?
We were starting to witness changes that will profoundly disrupt the finance and tax industry forever. Regulatory authorities are increasingly going digital and demanding more information so to help businesses keep abreast of these new changes, digital requirements and transparency laws we developed a technology team that focused on helping clients navigate their way in the use of technology and meeting the regulatory requirements.
This is exciting Helen! Can you give me some examples of RPA solutions you have implemented for your clients and the issues that these have resolved?
Yes, we have a few! I will break it down by sector. Catering
One of our large food distribution and catering clients had a 30 strong finance team, producing invoices, credit control and managing customer relations. Each member of the team would spend 15 days per month creating and sending invoices to their large list of clients. This highly repetitive task equated to a staggering total of 450 days a month of manual effort! Furthermore, the team raised concerns around errors in the invoices being created and control procedures not always being fulfilled correctly.
The benefits of utilising robotics reduced the total manual effort to just 1 day a month! There was also a huge working capital benefit of over £500k as invoices were going out to customers faster and being paid sooner unlocking better cash flow.
Furthermore, utilising the robotic solution significantly improves the accuracy of the invoices and reduces errors. By reducing staff involvement in the process, they can now focus their time on more value-added tasks such as relationship management or credit control.
The finance department of a listed property development company was spending countless hours on their bank reconciliation process where 600 bank accounts were being reconciled every month by 20 staff members.
The firm raised concerns around unknown transactions being overlooked in error during the reconciliation process which could have huge implications for the firm. Furthermore, the team took issue with the huge time spent on confirming transactions and completing reconciliations, believing there to be a more streamlined solution.
A robotic solution was established which significantly de-risked the process and reduced staff effort on the bank reconciliation process by 90%. This has allowed the team to include more bank accounts to be reconciled, thus increasing the amount of business the team can manage.
As well as offering this as a service to clients, you also use RPA within the outsourcing team to automate some processes. Can you give me some examples?
RPA is used widely across all of Tilney Smith & Williamson. We are trying to empower our internal teams to consider all and any processes in their day to day for automation. As a general rule of thumb, if it's high volume and rules-based repetitive processing then it should be automated!
Our RPA Center of Excellence (CoE) and tech team work directly with our staff to understand the process by conducting process reviews. From there, we evaluate the process to understand what can be automated and which parts should be left with humans and then come to the developers, testers, analysts and an RPA routine is built and the CoE manages and maintains the process.
Within outsourcing, as an example, we’ve automated various parts of our payroll offering meaning our clients can benefit from fast, error-free processing.
Do you think that other accountancy firms will start to recruit specialists in areas such as AI and software development in the future and do you think that you will start to train some of the accountants in the team to become RPA experts?
Yes, this has already happened and will gather more pace soon. Most accountants/tax advisors will need some form of tech training as it becomes more crucial to the service offerings.
How do you see the RPA service line developing in the future?
In the future, I believe every office employee will eventually have a robot helper. This would be in the form of attended automation – imagine having a super-fast and efficient digital assistant on a screen that you can keep passing the processing work to and it will do the work whilst you can continue with the value add or creative tasks!
It will boost productivity, output and job satisfaction.
In the near term, I think unattended automation (which is having the robots do the work in the backend) will continue to push forward and as organisations get more used to the idea of having super-efficient and fast robotic colleagues. Yes, robotic colleagues!
Eventually, it will lead to more human and robot collaboration paving the way for a robot for every employee.
What technology would you like to see develop over the next 5 years?
The more functionality the accounting platforms offer, the higher the expectation of the user. You only need to hop onto the user support groups for the most common accounting solutions to see thousands of improvement requests.
Those that are most common for the smaller end of the market are as follows and I’d like to see these areas developed as in-built functionality as will benefit all high growth businesses, irrelevant of the sector:
- Improved multi-currency consolidation
- Limitless transaction numbers
- Higher quality data scraping for transaction entry
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for accountancy firms over the next 5 years?
Definitely recruiting the right individuals with the correct skillset and retaining them. Even with the use of RPA, accountancy will continue to be a people-driven service offering with a focus on advisory. The mix of accounting understanding and technology skills is a unique blend!
Thank you Helen, that was fascinating! It was really interesting to learn more about your firm and the role that RPA has within your business. It will certainly be very exciting to see how this develops further in the future.