‘Drop whingeing clients,’ practitioners told

‘Less is more’ could be the new motto for the English ICA’s General Practitioner Board.

Currently trying to rebrand themselves, delegates at last week’s annual GPB conference in Cambridge were told their future success could depend on them cherry-picking clients – keep the good ‘uns, drop the whingers was the message.

For a group of accountants that claims to be under enormous pressure, the 150 or so delegates who gathered in Cambridge seemed remarkably upbeat about their future.

Usual references were made to increasing competition, falling margins on once profitable work and the growing regulatory burden.

But rather than repeat these now familiar complaints, most of the sole practitioners and small firm partners who made up the delegate list seemed more interested in discussing ways of making more money.

The way to do this, according to a large number of speakers and delegates, is to enter the traditional territory of other professions, particularly financial advisers and, to a lesser extent, solicitors.

Many have already begun to embrace the investments and pensions sector, and a talk by Paul Clegg, a general practitioner and personal financial planning lecturer, on the practicalities and complexities of doing work in this area, met with particular interest.

But delegates also discussed other areas general practitioners could enter to reduce their reliance on bread-and-butter, but unprofitable, audit and tax compliance work.

Some said they were increasingly involved in probate work, while others moved into litigation support or expanded management accounting services.

But the most surprising suggestion, at a time of impending recession, was that accountants ditch some of their clients, particularly those that grumble about fees or are excessively demanding.

The work lost, according to speaker Paul Dunn, chairman of Results Accountants’ Systems, developer of the alarmingly named Accountants’ Boot Camp process, should be replaced by providing more services to good clients.

A number of delegates who had been through this process said it had been successful both in terms of making money and job satisfaction.

One said: ‘The audit and tax compliance work isn’t going away. The problem is making money out of it. The mistake many people make is just increasing the number of clients they have, but what they should be doing is increasing the amount of work they do for current clients.’

This view was shared by John Malthouse, a sole practitioner from Liverpool and chairman of the GPB.

He said: ‘I don’t buy the view we are heading for doom, but I agree that compliance services we have carried out in the past are, at best, staying level and, at worst, declining. But I think the decline in audit and P11D work has been overstated.’

Malthouse thinks general practitioners should work towards being the sole ‘cradle-to-grave’ business and personal finance advisers of their clients, looking after every aspect of their finances from business advice and accounting through to life insurance, pensions, mortgages and inheritance planning.

He said accountants had an edge over other professions in developing this relationship because of the annual audit process and the trust they inspired. ‘Independent financial advisers should be really worried,’ he added.

Malthouse also sought to persuade smaller firms and sole practitioners that the institute was working to improve its relationship with them.

He said the view that the institute was dominated by the Big Five firms was overstated, but agreed the voice of the smaller general practitioner firm needed to be louder.

An improvement in representation, he added, had to come hand in hand with better communication with general practitioner members, which would allow the GPB to shout louder on their behalf. ‘It is our job to get practitioners to join in by showing them the institute is on their side and can help them,’ he said.

Institute president Chris Swinson’s address to delegates also warmed, albeit marginally, some delegates’ jaded opinions of Moorgate Place.

Swinson referred early into his address to the shortcomings of the institute, but promised better days to come.

He said the institute should be an organisation people were proud to belong to, and one that related well to its members.

His job, he added, was to get it nearer to this ideal.

He also said communication with members should be improved, but added efforts were hampered by the poor level of information the institute had about its members – another area needing work.

Delegates seized the opportunity to fire a large number of questions at Swinson. Some were impressed while others grudgingly admitted he was an improvement on previous presidents, who had come over as remote and even condescending to the sole or small firm practitioner.

Both Swinson and Malthouse said improvements would follow task force reports due in November.

They also said the institute was looking at ways of marking out chartered general practitioners from those belonging to other institutes and non-qualified accountants.

Swinson said this could involve a new title for those general practitioners who met a set of minimum standards which would then be marketed by the institute.

Meanwhile, general practitioners are facing growing fears about recession.

Some said their manufacturing clients were already facing difficulties, and those with agricultural clients said rockbottom livestock and cereal prices had pushed many farmers to crisis point.

There were also fears that increasingly advanced software packages are encouraging clients to carry out their own accounting and tax work, taking bread-and-butter work out of the market altogether.

Others at the conference, however, countered that general practitioners should grasp technological advances and use them to provide better services to their clients.

Those general practitioners who attended the Cambridge conference represented a very small sample of the 15,000 sole practitioners and 3,000 firms with less than five partners that are members of the institute.

There is no doubt many of them are under such time and financial constraints that spending hundreds of pounds to attend a three-day conference is out of the question.

But those who did attend said it was good to take a breather from their busy day-to-day business to consider where they were going.

With boundaries blurring between traditionally demarcated financial and legal professions in the UK, and suggestions that financial service giants might start buying up small accountancy firms as in the US, it is not clear what the future holds for the general practitioner.

But it seems that whatever the case, interesting times lie ahead.

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