Technology: window dressing

Not all websites are created equal. Some firms keep their websites basic and
use them as online brochures, offering contact details and a brief list of
available services. Others use their websites more imaginatively, supplementing
these details with information, such as fact sheets and tax tables, along with
relevant business news. More ambitious firms also offer interactive options,
such as online accounting or secure online document exchange.

You can learn a lot about a firm of accountants by spending just a few
minutes online. ‘We see the website as an excellent way of introducing the firm,
its services, staff and location of offices,’ says Ralph Mitchison of Menzies
Chartered Accountants. But as well as giving visitors a feel for the firm, it
offers an invaluable way of building relationships with existing clients. ‘It’s
an important way of communicating with them and ensuring they are kept
up-to-date on day-to-day matters affecting their business,’ he says. The website
can provide so much information that clients can find answers to many of their
questions online, before they need to ask them in person.

But using the firm’s website in this way means never resting on your laurels.
‘We evaluate our site on a regular basis and are always looking for ways to make
it more accessible,’ says Mitchison. This is immediately obvious when you arrive
at the site. The home page is clear and uncluttered and uses drop-down menus to
make it easy to find what you are looking for and text is available in French,
German and Spanish to reflect the international nature of its business.

‘Having a good website is as important as having the right staff and skills
in place to do the job,’ says Mitchinson. ‘It is often how potential clients
gain their first impression of the firm and this can be critical in terms of
whether they use the firm or go elsewhere. A good website works on many levels,
but is primarily an ambassador for the firm.’

Damian Broughton, a partner with Danbro Accounting, agrees. ‘We want our site
to reflect the sort of firm we are,’ he says. The Blackpool-based firm has taken
every opportunity to use its website to strengthen links with clients, improve
communications and add value to the services it offers.

The firm began with a typical website format, a ‘virtual shop front’. But the
firm needed to update its site in 2002 in order to offer online accounting
facilities to clients using Iris iCash. Then, when it won a progressive
accountants award for its efforts in 2003, Broughton decided a complete redesign
was in order.

The firm went to JE Consulting, a marketing firm that also specialises in
bespoke web solutions for accountants, for specialist advice. ‘We’ve been
helping them to use their website as a marketing tool with clients. We work with
accountants to establish what sort of clients they have and what sort of clients
they want to attract, then we advise on how to achieve this,’ says managing
director Jo Edwards. The process ranges from complete redesign, through
refurbishment to simply adding regularly updated content to existing websites.

The Danbro site is now in its third incarnation and clients are encouraged to
use it to access to a range of online tools and services, ranging from business
news to tax calculators. ‘People often phone to ask about the implications of
changing their company car,’ says Broughton. ‘Now if they want to check out
their options they can do it very easily online.’

The website is also used to deliver information on new products or changes to
Danbro’s services and regularly delivers information to clients in a way that
pulls them into the website where they will see this information. ‘We email
monthly newswires that refer people to the site for more information. People
like to be kept informed and they appreciate the fact that we don’t just contact
them to ask for money.’

The same can be said of accountants and the specialists they rely on to
support their online marketing efforts – and those that help accountants to
develop and maintain their websites – are understandably keen to encourage
repeat business. ‘Your website can be incredibly powerful,’ says Peter Martin,
managing director with Legal & Financial, a specialist in interactive
websites for professionals including accountants, estate agents, financial
services advisers and solicitors. ‘But if you want to maximise its potential you
need to keep it up-to-date.’

So the issues of ongoing maintenance and future development are important
considerations when you are deciding which specialist organisation to use. ‘A
lot of the tailored solutions available to accountancy firms have hidden
charges,’ warns Edwards. ‘You need to be sure they’re of interest to your
clients, and the clients you want to attract.’

This is why Mitchells Accountants and Business Advisers has redesigned its
site three times. ‘The first time we upgraded the site because we wanted to
attract a specific type of client,’ explains Nick Mitchell, a partner with the
Cheltenham-based firm. ‘We were using the site to target IT contractors, but
when we decided to move away from that type of business, we needed to update the
website.’ Instead of focusing on issues such as IR35, the site now offers
services ranging from corporate finance to taxation to a range of small business
clients – which is immediately obvious when you visit the firm’s website.

More recently, Mitchells has also changed the way it uses its site, with the
help of a secure document exchange – an online facility that enables accountants
and their clients to upload files. These can include scanned paper documents
saved as pdfs, jpegs and so on, or existing computer files such as spreadsheets
and word files. ‘It links the clients to the practice and speeds up
communication because we can share information so easily. We use it for clients
to post items such as bank statements and file final accounts and VAT returns,’
says Mitchell. And because each client has a user name and password the online
document exchange is much more secure than email. It also has the advantage of
being instantaneous, making it infinitely preferable to email. ‘We all know how
easily things can get lost in the post,’ says Mitchell.

It’s the sort of facility that business clients are increasingly looking for,
although some of the firm’s older private clients still prefer hard copy, so the
firm is doing its best to educate them on how much they and the firm can gain
from exploiting such developments. ‘We’ve evolved,’ says Mitchell, ‘and so has
our website. It started out as a tool to get new business, now it is a tool to
keep in touch with clients and also generate new business.’


‘Web design is not a one-off exercise,’ says Peter Martin, managing director
with Legal & Financial, a specialist in interactive websites for
professionals. Jo Edwards managing director of JE Consulting, a marketing firm
that also specialises in bespoke web solutions for accountants agrees. ‘Website
design is not an event, it’s a process,’ she says. It is not enough to design a
site and then upload it onto the web – once there, it requires care and

‘If your website offers a news feed, it’s important to keep it up-to-date,’
says Edwards. You should refresh your home page as regularly as possible. ‘It’s
your first point of contact,’ she says, so it is critical to the impression you
make on visitors.

The way in which search engines prioritise sites has changed. ‘A year ago,
people were trying to get as much content as possible on their home page,
because search engines such as Google, MSN and Yahoo were looking for volume of
relevant content, but they’ve changed their algorithms for ranking websites,’
says Edwards. If your website doesn’t reflect this, it is less likely to pop up
in search results.

‘We use a web optimisation specialist to guarantee a good hit rate,’ says
Martin, because they understand about things like changing algorithms. ‘If you
are a specialist you can tweak metatags to make sure that the search engines
don’t miss your sites,’ he says.

‘If you want it to work as an effective communications and marketing tool for
the firm, you need to be proactive. We wouldn’t design a home page the same way
today as we would have done a year ago,’ says Edwards.

Lesley Meall is a freelance journalist

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