This week, we take the virtual train up from Warwick to Eccles to meet Carolyn Cullen from Monton Green Accountancy Ltd. Currently under local lockdown, Carolyn spoke to us from the home office she’s sharing with her husband. Due to a case of coronavirus in one of her daughter’s year groups, Carolyn is also still having to home school. Though this time round, with daily deadlines for homework, she’s finding it a bit easier.

“I class my two, at school, as fairly diligent and reasonably intelligent. At home, with home-schooling, there were no signs of either of those characteristics!”

“Home-schooling was the least favourite part of lockdown, I have to say. It was hard work. And they don’t believe that I could possibly know how to do fractions! Apparently I can’t and I don’t teach it right… That was a struggle, but I know I’m not alone in that.”

Carolyn’s journey from KPMG to practice owner

Carolyn has spent many years both in practice and in industry, before striking out on her own three years ago. “I’ve been a chartered accountant for a long time. That makes me feel old. Twenty years? I qualified with KPMG in Manchester and worked there for eight years in audit. Then I went into industry at Swinton Insurance, in the finance team. I did 10 years with them before I decided, ‘no, I’m going to set up on my own’ and never looked back.”

“I work from home which was a deliberate choice, it’s part of the flexibility…. So I can carry on working if the kids are watching TV after school.”

When she had her children, Carolyn realised she wasn’t living the lifestyle she wanted. “I wanted to take the kids to school and spend more time with them. So that’s why I decided to set up my own practice.” Three years on and Monton Green Accountancy is going from strength to strength. “I started with no clients at all. I thought it would take me quite a long time to build it up… but three and a half years later, I’m bursting at the seams! But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I absolutely love it.” 

Goodbye, Excel. Hello, AccountancyManager. 

Excel hit the headlines recently and not in a good way. Everyone loves Excel (not least, accountants) – until the data outgrows it. Carolyn reached that point just over a year ago. “I used spreadsheets before to manage my deadlines and a whiteboard on the wall in front of my desk, which was fine, but as my client grew my spreadsheet was getting longer and longer and I was getting more panicky.” Carolyn discovered AccountancyManager through a friend’s recommendation. Then she made a beeline for our stand at Accountex North in 2019. 

“…without AccountancyManager I’d be sobbing gently in the corner! I would’ve had to have stopped taking on clients much further back.”

 “I thought I’d give it a go for three or four months and see how it is. And… loved it! Really, really like it. Now, without AccountancyManager, I’d be sobbing gently in the corner! I would’ve had to have stopped taking on clients much further back.”

“The automation is just saving so much time… hours and hours a week.”

While organising time was Carolyn’s top priority when she came to AM, the time she’s saving has made the biggest impact. “I’ve got 220 clients now and they’re all small, but the admin for all of those people and chasing them… it just really adds up to hours and hours – and it’s not productive time for me either because you don’t get paid for that! The automation is just saving so much time, just chasing the clients up for information and providing it… and all the tax reminders. It saves us hours and hours a week.” 

Automated client requests and reminders: A leap of faith worth taking

We get it, handing over part of your working day to a robot is a bit nerve-wracking. Carolyn experienced the same thing, putting it off for a few months into using AccountancyManager. “At first I was a bit nervous about switching on some of the reminders. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to automate certain things, what if it doesn’t work?”

“Clients respond so much quicker, I get information out a lot quicker. It works really, really, really well… I should’ve switched that on from day one.”

“It took me quite a few months to switch it on. But now that I’ve got it, it’s brilliant. Clients respond so much quicker, I get information out a lot quicker. It works really, really, really well. I had thought ‘I’m just going to use it for my work scheduling’ and not use the automation side, but I should’ve switched that on from day one.” 

“I find it brilliant, from the time saved not chasing clients to getting the information earlier.”

So what would Carolyn’s advice be for those worried about automating emails? “Just give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen? I mean, everything goes into the queue, every 24 hours. So every morning, when there’s something in the queue, I look to see what’s going on. I find it brilliant, from the time saved not chasing clients to getting the information earlier. Yeah, definitely, definitely switch on the automation. It’s brilliant.”

Automated tax reminders: Much appreciated by clients

Carolyn was on a bit of a roll at this point, so we let her keep going. “The other automation, which is great, is the tax reminders. I’ve had a couple of clients feedback to me that they’ve really appreciated those. Their previous accountants before didn’t remind them of tax and they’d miss tax payments. The accountant would do the corporation tax calculations and say ‘all right, there you go. Your taxes are due in seven months.’ And they’d forget about it, but who’s going to remember that? So those are really good, clients really like those.”

Automated onboarding workflow: A small, but powerful feature

This year, we’ve released a number of new features. One in particular has caught Carolyn’s eye. It’s a button that automatically creates a task with all the required steps for onboarding a new client. 

“A feature that I’ve liked recently is the new client onboarding workflow. I mean, I know it’s really simple, it’s just a task isn’t it? So I could’ve done it myself but I hadn’t thought of it. Now it’s there, it’s brilliant. And you can customise it, so I’ve added a few extra things into the template, different steps that I want.”

Risk assessments: Carolyn’s idea – coming soon

On AccountancyManager, you can complete anti money-laundering ID checks, credit screens and capture information in relation to risk. We’re currently working on a big refresh of our risk assessment section with help from an ex senior tax investigator for HMRC. So when Carolyn suggested a new feature, it was great to say: ‘it’s already been built!’. 

“As soon as I finish a risk assessment, I then set myself a task for 12 months from that day to review it. And so it would be nice if there was some way that it could automate. So, as soon as you click ‘Risk Assessment – Complete’ it sets a task for 12 months later.”

“Oh, it’s coming?! Yay! That’ll be brilliant!”

Screenshot from AM staging site

(Photo from AM’s staging site courtesy of Josh, our Head of Development, though he’s not aware we’re making it public, so shh.)

Pandemic: The effect on clients and Carolyn’s response 

Around 85% of Carolyn’s clients live within a two mile radius of her house. Like all the accountants we’ve interviewed over the last few months, she has seen many different effects of COVID on small businesses. “I’ve obviously had some clients that have been very badly affected, but virtually none of them have not made it through to the other side so far. Obviously, there’s been a lot of hard conversations with some of the people who’ve fallen through the cracks – mainly the newly self-employed.”

Chancellor announcements, summarised and sent to all

Echoing the results of our survey in April, Carolyn is finding bulk emails the most useful feature in keeping her clients updated. “In AccountancyManager, you know you can email all your clients? I use that feature so much. When the chancellor does a speech, I’ll do a little summary and then use that email-all feature to email out. So that’s been great and clients have said that they really appreciated that.”

Free claims and reduced fees

At the beginning of lockdown, accountants had a decision to make – to charge for Coronavirus-scheme claims or not. Carolyn explained her thought process. “I ummed and ahhed and there was a lot of debate on accountancy forums. It seemed to be a 50/50 split. I felt I didn’t want to charge because I was in the fortunate position that my income wasn’t really affected, nor my husband’s. So it just didn’t feel right for me to be charging the client when they were having a hard time.”

“Bizarrely, I had more new clients than ever over lockdown. We’d get about ten new enquiries a week. It’s just bonkers.”

“I had a couple of clients who were very badly affected. One was in the catering industry, they supply crockery and whatnot to the restaurant industry. So I did fee reductions. One company wanted to delay, so we added four months onto the payment terms of her monthly invoices. Another one, I said, ‘Right, you’ve got very little turnover, so I’m going to drop by 75% until you’re back up and running again.’ It was either that or risk losing them and them going under.”

Client creativity in the face of adversity 

It wasn’t all bad news and awkward conversations though. “I had one client who diversified into selling home bars. So, bars for people’s gardens. He spotted a gap in the market so he’s diversified into that and he’s got really busy. I think that’s a great idea, it’s nothing at all like what he was doing before.”

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Whether you’re looking to organise your time better, automate your admin or give clients more support, give AM a try and like Carolyn, you won’t look back.

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