Before launching Sterling Finance 20 years ago, Kamlesh Rajput was the CFO of a multinational – a role that frequently took him around the world. Noticing the stark difference in customer service and satisfaction between the UK, US, Europe & Middle East – and the unfair advantage of large corporations – led Kamlesh to help turn the tide for SMEs once and for all.

Sterling Finance just goes to show that ‘older’ practices aren’t all stuck in their ways or reticent change. As part of his commitment to delivering an excellent client experience, Kamlesh has embraced cloud technology to find new ways to help and support his clients. In 2019 Sterling Finance won the prestigious National Award, the British Accountancy Award and in 2020, Sterling Finance was a finalist in another National Award, the Accounting Excellence Awards. Kamlesh spoke to AM’s Jonathan Stobart about life with AccountancyManager and bridging the gap between the UK and emerging economies.

A realisation leads to a new career 

“When I went abroad as a CFO, I used to travel quite a lot to various countries and in particular the US. I saw the quality of the customer service and the commitment to customer satisfaction. When I came back to the UK, I realised that large businesses receive so much support from their accountants (usually the top five, 10 or 20 accountants in the country)…” 

“That’s when I decided that I want to be that practitioner who provides customer satisfaction as the key point in delivering services.”

“They receive early warnings; they know their options for various ups and downs and they are more ready to meet challenges. Small businesses also deserve a good accounting service. That’s when I decided that I want to be that practitioner who provides customer satisfaction as the key point in delivering services.”

A culture of family values 

Sterling Finance has a strong, demonstrable culture that extends far beyond the office. “We have a culture called family values. That’s what we believe in. To me, family values are caring and taking one step further than anybody else would take. So I make sure that I care for my employees and their families, our clients and suppliers and every stakeholder we have in our business, even freelancers who come and do our marketing work, we treat all of them as a family.”

“For example, we make sure our clients know how much tax they need to pay, remind them to pay, how to pay… but we dig deeper into that. Whilst preparing the accounts quarter by quarter, we try to understand the various trends in a client’s business. We don’t wait for clients to tell us they’re in difficulties. We reach out and give the right advice. So family values is wanting to do more for our client and not purely saying, ‘bring us the records and we’ll do the accounts’.”

“‘Family values’ means we make sure that we care – not just because it’s our profession and we are paid to provide certain services.”

“Internally, we have a personal development plan for each employee, supporting professional qualifications and training. We also give each and every staff member access to a personal coach outside the business – and we subscribe to various portals where they can talk to someone for mental health support.”

“Once a month we have lunch together with the clients. We are closed for 10 days during Christmas and we have a family meal at Christmas with all of our staff and their partners. I’m Hindu, so we celebrate Diwali as well and decorate the place. So to deliver customer satisfaction, our main strategy is promoting our family values culture, that’s what we’re practising.”

AM: Accurate info + Lightning speed = Client satisfaction 

Four years ago, Kamlesh decided to move the entire practice to the cloud. Previously, all software, including practice management, was a server-based or desktop based. Recognising that onboarding is the crucial first step in customer service and satisfaction, Kamlesh was keen to make the very best first impression to his new clients.

“Client satisfaction… comes from two things: providing accurate information and providing it with lightning speed. And that’s why we found AccountancyManager useful.”

“AccountancyManager allowed us to solve one of the biggest obstacles in delivering excellent service – the onboarding process. If the onboarding process is done correctly, all the details are in one place and it helps us to deliver the services at speed. Client satisfaction, in our line of business, comes from two things: providing accurate information and providing it with lightning speed. That’s why we found AccountancyManager so useful.”

“Excellence can only be delivered if we understand the customer. So this is how we use AccountancyManager.”

“It’s OK to have an attractive template and speed, but if you miss one digit or if you keep sending a reminder for something which client hasn’t subscribed to or keep reminding them to pay something they’ve already paid, it affects the client experience. Excellence can only be delivered if we understand the customer. So this is how we use AccountancyManager.”

Leaving the comfort zone behind

Although Kamlesh moved his practice into the cloud relatively early, he confesses that the transition scared him somewhat. That is, until he met James (Byrne, AM CEO) at Accountex four years ago. 

“I don’t want to pretend that I’m different from my fraternity – accountants are scared of adopting technology because they are experts in finance, tax and compliance, not in technology. We couldn’t find someone who could really explain in terms of an accountant. I was scared of moving to cloud technology and losing control of data and certain actions – that’s why I spent about an hour talking to James when I first met him!”

“This is proof that when an accountant designs a process it’s more likely to be suited for the accounting practice.”

AccountancyManager was actually the third practice management software that Kamlesh has used. “Our previous experiences weren’t great, because [the software] wasn’t designed by the accountant for the accountant, it was designed by the software developer for the accountant, pretending to know the requirement of the accountant. So this is proof that when an accountant designs a process it’s more likely to be suited for the accounting practice. So our staff very much like it.”

24/7 client access to documents, deadlines and tax liabilities

Following onboarding, Kamlesh’s second favourite feature is the Client Portal. “One of the biggest credits I would like to give to AccountancyManager is the access to up to date information for our client 24/7. Once a client signs up, they can see their private details, their UTR, their VAT deadline, all of their documents, accounts, their P60s, whatever they have shared with us and we have uploaded, it’s always available 24/7 to the client.”

“As an accountant, we should be ready to provide our client information we hold, but now we are one step ahead. A client knows that their P60s are there, if they want to apply for any tax credit, the latest accounts are there. If they are getting a mortgage, their tax overview is there So I think this is one of the most basic, but to me most valuable services to our client.”

Jonathan reminded Kamlesh of a new feature in the portal – we recently added the tax liability, so clients can log on and see what their tax liability is. “Yes!” Says Kamlesh, “As soon as we type in the amount, it gives us options – do you want to send email? This is one of the very, very good features.”

The evolution of AccountancyManager – as witnessed by Kamlesh

Kamlesh has seen AM grow over the years and reminisced about the best developments in regard to serving his clients better. “The first stage of rollout was just client data, the second phase was using it in order to capture the day to day conversation or correspondence of staff and communicating with the client. Now AccountancyManager has added the AML procedure, you can send the tax reminders as well. The link to submit 64-8, the link with Companies House… These are fundamental features that they are very, very good and they help us to serve our client better.”

Bringing China and India to the UK, via Manchester

Talk about having an interesting niche, Kamlesh and his team invested two years in understanding the emerging global economies. “We found China and India as emerging economies and realised, those economies would want to invest and expand abroad. This market is captured and crowded by the top 10 UK accountancy firms. However, they cannot service the medium or the small businesses who have this massive ambition to grow and expand internationally. So we’ve positioned ourselves as the accountant who understands.

“I want to help Britain grow internationally and be the best place for international investment. It’s a small drop in the ocean, but I’m doing my bit and I am very proud of that.”

Kamlesh was born and brought up in India, so understands the culture, mindset and requirements. He’s also now lived in the UK for 36 years so understands how to bridge the gap – and is equally committed to supporting homegrown businesses. 

The Head Office for Sterling Finance is in Manchester, with satellite offices in London and New Dehli – where the marketing and PR departments reside. “In fact, I was supposed to go and officially open the [New Dehli] branch last year, but due to lockdown it was not possible. Maybe this year I will be able to do that honourable task!” 

Commitment to education

Kamlesh has always been committed to sharing his knowledge – both with upcoming  generations of accountants and business owners and his peers. “I was invited as a guest by Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, I was examiner for eight years at Salford University and the University of Wales in Cardiff and at the moment I’m a governor at one of the local colleges. 

“If I want the change to happen, then I need to play my part.”

“It is important that we give something back to society and that’s why I have always kept a close relationship with education. I was also teaching at Oldham College, Oldham Business College, the CIMA and AAT courses as well. I also introduced ACCA courses to Oldham colleges as well. For four and a half years, I was the president of the ACCA Members Network in Manchester.”

Suggestions for AccountancyManager

Usually our interviewees give us ideas for new features for AccountancyManager. Kamlesh, on the other hand, sees big potential in our community. We already have a private User Group on Facebook, regular feature request webinars for AM users and weekly articles on how our members run their practices and use AM. But Kamlesh thinks we could go further… “There needs to be a kind of a forum of AccountancyManager. A community of AM users – perhaps they can help each other, but also share their experience.”

Practitioners need more support

Just as Kamlesh identified the split between customer service in the US and UK, and between large business and their accountants versus SMEs and their accountants – a new imbalance is now bothering him. “Various organisations claim to represent the industry voice, so at the moment there is AccountingWEB, but I think there’s no practitioners’ portal – there is a vacuum. As a practitioner, with multiple clients from different backgrounds, our needs are different. Nobody has a deep understanding of the pain and pleasure of a practitioner’s market. And you could become a very powerful voice within the industry yourself as an AccountancyManager. 

Hot topics we’ll be exploring soon…

Kamlesh also has some article requests for us. “One of the biggest things is the mental health of the practitioner itself. I get involved in advising clients so many things. So maybe an article on mental health and wellbeing, which I can share with my staff or anybody. Also, the soft relationship with the user – so we should not be only exchanging information based on technical stuff and the user interface. We like to have a relationship where we are able to exchange views and information which we think is relevant to each other regardless of the nature of the business we are in.”

We’ve just started writing joint content with various accountancy-specific software providers, such as ACCA  and Sage, that could help our users provide new services and support to their clients. This is another area where Kamlesh appreciates our views. “We want to improve and increase our experience in delivering excellent services. We don’t want to rely on other people, but we want to rely on the trusted partner like AccountancyManager to guide us, inform us and support us in making the right choices.”

Kamlesh is currently writing a book on Exceptional Business Growth, so keep an eye out for its publication.