Alistair has always been progressive in his thinking, whether it’s adopting technology early, promoting flexible working or training the next generation of accountants. Alistair spoke to AM’s Jonathan about how AM supports his approach and the daily operation of his 3-office firm.

We love our interviews with AM users, they’re a unique window into how today’s SME practice owners think and how they run their businesses. Alistair Hayward-Wright, owner of Hayward Wright Accountancy Group in the Midlands is the latest to grace our hotseat – and he didn’t disappoint. In fact, Alistair shared so many fantastic insights on the future of accountancy, we’ve had to create a ‘part 2’. 

In today’s article, Alistair describes life with AccountancyManager. Look out for part 2, where Alistair deep dives into the evolution of tech, how to upsell and package advisory, the importance of soft skills and mentoring… and the problem with today’s accountancy qualifications. 

Accountant by name, tech-focussed by nature (even in the 90s)

Alistair trained with a small firm in 1998 and launched his own practice a few years later.  “I always had the intention of owning my own business, just not necessarily in accountancy!” Alistair almost quit his accountancy qualifications halfway through and bought an IT company, but decided to stick it out. This interest in technology still runs deep today and forms a crucial part of the culture at Hayward-Wright.

“In around 1998, there were 15 people in the office and two computers.” 

“My father was an IT director for a national electrical wholesalers, so I grew up in and around tech. It was always the way for me, it was always going to be the future. Hence why I got a bit disillusioned with accountancy a little bit through the exams and considered buying an IT company. In hindsight, I did exactly the right thing, but I was very, very close because that was where my heart was.”

“At the firm that I trained with, in around 1998, there were 15 people in the office and two computers. Everything was still manual, it was horrendous. It gave me the drive to go actually, ‘no, my business is going to be very tech-focussed’.”

The power of networking – or simply having a chin-wag with the right people 

After he qualified and was still working at his old firm, Alistair was doing a bit of work on the side – as a Sage reseller. “I was doing some Sage software training for a local business and got chatting to a guy there. He said ‘there’s someone in my village with an accountancy practice and she wants to retire, would you be interested?’ So I bought that and grew it from there.” As part of the deal, Alistair got a part-time employee who’s still with the firm today.

“It was a great springboard because it was mainly bookkeeping and payroll so a lot of clients  were going off and getting accountancy services elsewhere. It gave me a foot in the door to say, ‘well, you don’t need to do that anymore because we can do a full service offering’. We upsold to an awful lot of those clients and then it was just a lot of networking, a lot of marketing. I made a lot of professional contacts – meeting solicitors, banks, insolvency guys… and generated a lot of clients off the back of their referrals into us.”

Twenty years and a few acquisitions later, Hayward-Wright is a team of 33 across three offices in Redditch, Worcester and Solihull. The firm is made up of admin staff, trainees, junior accountants, senior accountants and client managers.

Alistair’s 6 favourite things about AccountancyManager

The ever-growing team at Hayward-Wright previously used IRIS practice management software. “It was alright,” remembers Alistair, “it did everything we needed to do, but it was just too clunky for me. We’ve been partners with Xero for 11 years and the whole cloud-based ethos is – in my eyes – the only way to go. So I played with various systems and got involved with you guys a good number of years ago. I really liked the software from day one.”

1. Automated record requests and reminders (or ‘chasers’)

When you add a client to AccountancyManager, you select the services you’ll provide that client. Then, AM pulls your client’s accounting dates through from Companies House (maintaining a constant sync, so any changes will show up in AM). Using these dates, AM sends requests for information to the right clients at the right time – and subsequently chases them at a frequency you decide. These dates also control the automatically generating task list and workflow for each member of the team.

“The automated chasing of records just means that it’s happening at the right time consistently.”

“The automation and the automated chasers are working really well.” Reports Alistair. “Clients do like those reminders. I’ll get an email back from them saying ‘Oh yes, I forgot about that, I’ll get it to you now’. So it works really well. I think most clients probably do know they’re automated emails but I think they generally accept that. It’s not unusual these days because you get it with all kinds of things.”

Add consistency in your nagging…

“The automation side of it has saved my client managers time and improved service as well. The automated chasing of records just means that it’s happening at the right time consistently. That was one of the things we lacked previously. There might be certain clients that were nagged for records and others would just slip through the net and then come up at the last minute. Then you’re rushing to get everything done and everything becomes a firefight. So it’s taken a lot of that headache away, which has been really good.”

Automation – simply a backup for that personal touch

“They [automated emails and texts] are almost there as a backup, if you see what I mean? The way we work with clients, we tend to be in quite regular contact anyway, through email, through telephone calls, through meetings, etc. So I think most clients are actually seeing it as an addition, not trying to take away any of that personal touch.

2. Onboarding and the Client Portal (even Bob likes it)

Onboarding was the first process Alistair moved onto AM. “We moved our onboarding onto AccountancyManager straight away and it helped the process hugely. Just getting hold of missing information and just being a lot tighter on making sure that we’ve got all the right reference numbers.”

“The use of the portal really helped because it stops you constantly having to nag the client ‘where’s your UTR number?’ The number of times we’d get to a deadline and didn’t have a UTR number, it used to drive us up the wall! You still get the odd one here and there, but you can cope with the odd one. When it’s 50-70% time… well you just can’t run a business like that.” 

“There’s clients where I thought ‘Oh, Bob’s not going to like this at all!’, then he’d really embrace it.”

On the whole, Alistair’s clients have taken to using the Client Portal well, using it to receive, share and sign documents. “We have got some older clients who might be a little bit more… technology challenged. They don’t like change and that’s fine, we can work with that. I’m surprised actually, there’s clients where I thought ‘Oh, Bob’s not going to like this at all!’, then he’d really embrace it.”

3. The Task List and Target Dates 

Alistair describes his pre-AccountancyManager workflow as ‘lumpy to say the least.’ “When you’re a really small team and you’re all sat in the office, you can kind of get by with that: ‘oh, bloody hell, I don’t know where we are with Fred’s accounts, let me ring such and such and find out.’ But at the speed we were growing, that just wasn’t feasible going forward. 

“I was always very passionate about flexible working, work/life balance – really looking after our staff and AccountancyManager has helped us to do that.”

Giving Kieren time for a lie-in

Alistair has always wanted to give his staff the freedom to work where and when they like. AccountancyManager allows Alistair to check on the progress of jobs without having to ask. “Going back probably two or three years ago, pre-pandemic, I was always very passionate about flexible working, work/life balance – really looking after our staff and AccountancyManager has helped us to do that. It doesn’t matter if I can’t get hold of Kieren and find out where he is with the job, because I can see it on AccountancyManager. So if he doesn’t stroll in until ten o’clock in the morning and I want to know where we are at 8am, it’s fine, because we’ve got that flow of information to really help.”

Target dates: Driving KPIs and staff productivity

“Target dates are brilliant. We actually drive a set of KPIs that we use with the client managers. Basically, they’re allowed a certain leeway on jobs that might be beyond a target date. But they’re quite tightly monitored on that. So they have to keep the vast majority of those jobs within target date ranges. That works really, really well.

4. Risk Assessments and AML 

On AccountancyManager, there’s a risk assessment checklist that’s been designed with the help of two former HMRC tax inspectors. We recently refreshed our risk management section, adding more detail, sections and the ability to assign risk ratings to clients.

Before moving to AM, Hayward-Wright used risk assessment checklists from Mercia, which are, by Alistair’s admission ‘very, very detailed, very time consuming’. That said, Alistair missed how comprehensive they are. Finding a happy medium, Alistair uses our checklists, but with strict guidelines on what to cover in each section. 

“The risk assessment is a little bit lighter on AccountancyManager, which is fine, but internally… you’re not getting off the hook! You still need to consider this, this and this and make comments on the risk assessment, so it does work well for us.” You can store guidelines like these in the Resources section on AccountancyManager and, likewise, support for clients. You can easily add items from Resources to individual or bulk client emails – or add them to clients’ portals.

The Client Portal makes the AML process completely paperless 

“So the portal came into its own during the pandemic, because we were still signing up clients left, right and centre, but in that first lockdown, we did all work from home. With me being the anti money laundering officer, it used to be a paper-based process. Client managers would get IDs off of the client and I’d have to sign off those IDs etc. which become incredibly difficult in lockdown. But having AccountancyManager allowed us to literally do it all electronically. We’re using the AML checks within AccountancyManager as well, which is fantastic.”

5. The integration between AccountancyManager and Xero

We released our Xero integration last year to the delight of many users, including Alistair. “One of the things that we’ve found really useful is getting consistent data between AccountancyManager and Xero – to make sure that the company names are the same. We used to extract data from IRIS and Xero and manipulate it within spreadsheets. But of course, if you get a slight mismatch in the name and then filter on Excel, you miss it. So, of course, having the integration has forced us to have consistent data between the two, so that’s been really, really useful.”

6. Time tracking & profitability 

Many AM users report not using the time tracking in AM because they don’t bill hourly. But as Alistair explains, it all comes back to tracking profitability. “Timesheets are one of those things we’ve gone back and forth on. We were recording time, then we weren’t, then we were… When we put AccountancyManager in fully, we put timesheets back in place.”

“Feedback from the guys is that they really like the live time recording.”

“It’s not there particularly to bill clients – the vast majority of our clients are fixed monthly recurring fees. What it does allow us to do is monitor that time against that client to understand the clients that are… somewhat more needy than we’d expect them to be. Now, that might just be the nature of the client or it might be a knowledge gap. If a client is always asking us for support on this, can we put something in place to solve their problem? Is there a piece of software out there that’ll crack that? Feedback from the guys is that they really like the live time recording.” (They probably like it even more now that you can pause and restart time logs as you work.)

‘The time we’re saving is huge. Absolutely huge.’

We asked Alistair where across his business he sees the most time saved. “It’s probably not a huge amount for me if I’m honest, but that’s because my role over the last five or six years has been quite strategic. My senior team, who produce documentation and set KPIs – it saves them huge amounts of time.”

Freeing up time so juniors and trainees can step up

“Now, the admin staff, it definitely saves them time as well, which has allowed us to reallocate resources. So we’ve actually pushed down stuff that our trainees or junior staff were doing into admin. This has freed up time with those guys to push the boundaries a little bit more and look at different things that we do.”

“For example, we’re partners with Xero, we do a lot with Dext now and we’re doing a lot more analytical stuff, so we’re working with Futrli and Xavier. Futrli still tends to sit with the client managers, but at least we’ve freed up some time with the more junior staff for them to be able to dabble in it and get a feel for it. We’re just trying to weed out the staff that have got that more advisory type of ability that we can develop and give them more career progression quicker.”

Look out for Alistair’s follow-up article where he shares his experience and advice on upselling, developing that ‘advisory’ ability in staff and packaging up advisory services.