PracticeConsultingYour Practice: No business like e-business

Your Practice: No business like e-business

If the arrival of the e-commerce bill (the majority of which was introduced last month), is anything to go by, accountants should embrace e-commerce with a passion. Because if they don't - they will miss potentially the biggest business revolution in their lifetime.

This belief has the whole-hearted support of the government, backed by e-envoy, Alex Allan, which believes companies will either go online in the future or go out of business.

Many accountancy software providers would like the government to introduce a central secure system for the storage of digital signatures that works in a similar way that secure online credit card authorisation does. This point alone, experts believe, will increase e-commerce take-up dramatically – once digital signatures are legal. The government is making concerted efforts to push this aspect through because of its desire to introduce the electronic submission of personal tax returns.

Government needs to establish a legal framework to guarantee Britain will be the best place in the world to trade electronically. They need to then back that up with lots of good publicity about how much they trust trading on the web.

Accountants in turn are only likely to respond through education. E-commerce software provider Access Accounting managing director Alastair O’Reilly says: ‘We have recently put 120 of our dealer staff on e-commerce training and their understanding leapt forward. We all presume that everyone is web-savvy, but they are not.

‘It’s our responsibility to teach our dealers to understand the technology and its benefits and we then expect them to teach end users,’ he adds.

‘Consumer resistance is being overcome every day. In fact every day you meet one more person who has purchased a product online. ‘We provide education for accountants in practice and run seminars that teach how to set up a web shop, and how secure transactions are handled.’

Before deciding how e-commerce can affect accountants, it is important to note it can be measured using any number of definitions. It can range from simply installing an e-mail facility or a full offering of professional services over the internet, paid for by the client.

One attraction for e-accounting is the possibility of deriving an additional revenue stream from training customers in e-commerce. There are also many aspects of e-commerce that could be of great benefit to accountants in their own businesses ? remote entry of time sheets, for instance.

Others could be: billing by e-mail; potential new income streams in advising clients; implementing e-commerce solutions for clients; using e-commerce themselves with intranets and marketing web sites. The aim ? whether or not it works ? is also to allow the administrative side of the business to be done more efficiently, allowing the accountant more time to develop relationships with clients.

Everyone has to trust computer output if they use a desktop system. The web is no different. A good web shop will keep an audit trail just the same to satisfy the VAT man as well as the auditor. This is the benefit of e-commerce developed by a branded accounting software provider ? it is fully integrated.

Some 90% of businesses have their computer records accepted at face value and the other 10% have the pleasure of showing the VAT inspector through hard copy records of prime documents.

Accountants can work with software houses to run online servers with the software accountants wish to offer SMEs.

A major benefit of the web is that small companies can offer a big company service.

It is debatable whether there is any point in running small applications over the net ? the benefits are certainly far greater with large database applications or applications that need expert support like accounting systems.

But Maurice Fitzpatrick, Chantrey Vellacott partner, is in no doubt. He says: ‘Any accountants who do not see e-commerce as an opportunity will surely see it as a threat. Clients expect it.’

If a business or accountancy practice is the same today as it was last year ? it then it is true to say that it has probably plateaued and may even be on the way down. It is the small companies which need the most help and which can gain the most tangible benefit from e-commerce. Everyone can look big on the web and trade more effectively. This can be said of a firm and its clients.

A number of software providers can help small accountants’ practices through membership of their own clubs. They are designed to provide low cost software and training to keep them up to date with what is going on in the IT accounting related industry.

Graeme Bruce & Partners, a firm of chartered accountants in London, has just created its first website. Senior partner, Graeme Davis believes that his clients will be looking for a wider range of services in the not too distant future.

He said: ‘Many of my clients have their own websites and they automatically expect us to have one. For me the website going live is the first stage of our e-commerce plan. The follow-on effect will include offering clients a range of e-business services over the internet.’

These services seem set to include filing self-assessment tax returns on behalf of their clients to the Inland Revenue. Despite a raft of hiccups with the Revenue’s online site including crashes, closures and delays, it is expected accountants will be able to file self-assessment to the Revenue by the end of the year.

BASDA spokeswoman Wendy Haylock, says her group is due to begin work on allowing accountants to send accounts using its web language e-biz in an effort to make this process smoother.

However, she warns: ‘Accountants tend to be a bit slow in taking up the IT on offer. I remember not so long ago, many accountants had taken to using Windows when the rest of the world, it seemed, had embraced the product.

‘Business-to-business software is the biggest growing market and accountants need to be making sense of this. At the moment, some are and some are certainly not.’

Increasingly, firms are under intense pressure to lower fees. Crucially, in the next five years, it is anticipated that many firms will be competing with new rivals offering goods and services at a reduced price and customer relationships will be the only differentiator.

Before the mid-eighties, the single predominant channel for the delivery of customer service was face to face interaction. Then over a short period of time, new channels sprung up. Face to face meetings will always have their place, but firms of are increasingly finding that customers want to contact them via e-mail and the web and it is important to recognise that e-mail can be considerably cheaper than direct postal mail or fax.

John Court, manager of the IT Faculty at the English ICA, says: ‘E-commerce is capable of bringing accountants closer to their clients in the sense they are able to offer more frequent updates to their clients.

‘It makes a good deal of sense to fill their websites with information such as tax updates and to communicate one-to-one with them effectively without the need for playing telephone tag. The benefits are enormous but will not completely replace the traditional values of personal knowledge including customers’business aims.’

Court adds: ‘The secret to efficiency is effective e-commerce. If it is wrong it will merely be an added cost.’

Today’s competitive business environment ensures the survival of the fittest practices. With clients increasingly wanting to interact with companies that customise products and services to fit their needs, new e-business applications will help to create a level playing field so that any size of practice will be able to deliver high quality sophisticated customer service at a reduced cost.As Bill Gates said, ‘if you?re not embracing e-commerce by 2002 you could be out of business’.

Accountants should take note.


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