Date posted: 19/03/2021 5 min read

How to help SME clients with a digital reset

Accountants are well placed to help small businesses get up to speed with cloud-based accounting and other digital tools.

In Brief

  • One positive of COVID-19 is that it accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by SMEs.
  • Chartered accountants can play a pivotal role in helping business owners get familiar with digital tools.
  • A key point is showing business owners how accurate data can drive better decisions.

By Stuart Ridley

Connecting with clients in new ways

If there is anything positive to say about COVID-19, it’s this: lockdowns and working from home compelled people to connect with businesses and each other digitally more effectively.

“We definitely saw an acceleration of digital adoption by SMEs throughout COVID-19,” says Trent Innes, Xero managing director, Australia and Asia.

“The reality was, if you weren’t already digital in some way, it was very difficult when locked down to keep a business going.

“It affected everything from people’s ability to work at home and for businesses to connect with customers, to how most businesses started only accepting card and online payments.”

Jane Starkins, state general manager Vic/Tas at Scottish Pacific Business Finance (ScotPac), says that ScotPac built a cloud-based customer management portal several years ago to connect clients with advisers and give them secure access to legal documents, funding facilities and applications.

But the business also invested in tools to support human connections.

“People want choices for how they connect with a business digitally, which often depend on what they need help with. [But] the human connection is very important, and even in normal times we’d speak with our clients multiple times a week.

“So we’re using Microsoft Teams for meetings that need to be face-to-face via video, as well as regular phone calls, because personal service matters,” she says. “I think a lot of people are tired of scripted answers delivered by call centres or chatbots.”

When Salesforce surveyed consumers for its fourth State of the Connected Customer report, released in October 2020, it found 67% of respondents in Australia and New Zealand nominated email as a favoured way to interact with a business. They were also open to using the phone (50%), online chatbot (46%), in person (45%), mobile app (30%) or online portals (23%).

That then leads to the question of customer relationship management, which helps you work out exactly what a client wants and needs.

“Customers matter. But spreadsheets, emails and sticky notes are a hard way to manage them,” says Merlin Luck, Salesforce regional vice-president in Sydney.

“Customer relationship management centralises that data so small business owners can manage sales processes, help customers faster, and market smarter.”

Trent Innes, Xero managing director, Australia and AsiaPicture: Trent Innes, Xero managing director, Australia and Asia.

Helping digitise SME processes

Chartered accountants can play a pivotal role in helping business owners adopt new digital tools – often starting with cloud-based accounting – by showing them what accurate data means for their business.

“Chartered accountants can help business owners understand new technologies in a really inclusive and encouraging way by sharing the numbers that show the advantages of embracing the digital world,” says ScotPac’s Starkins.

“CAs are such real-time problem solvers and skilled at helping translate numbers and explaining the why.”

“CAs are such real-time problem solvers and skilled at helping translate numbers and explaining the why.”
Jane Starkins, Scottish Pacific Business Finance

Xero’s Innes suggests CAs offer to do the initial heavy lifting to help SMEs get their financial data into new digital systems, adding that during COVID-19 a lot of small businesses connected with their accountants more frequently.

“SMEs relied on their accountants to find the data proving eligibility for government support packages, and that opened up more conversations about the benefits of digitising their businesses,” he says.

“Because small businesses have better access to technology at lower price points now than big business does, a big role for accountants is helping SME owners understand data better.

“Accountants can build on their role as trusted adviser by explaining what the data shows about the financial health of the business. When you help business owners understand how data insights align to their goals, you help them make better plans for future success.”

Dale Dixon, MYOB’s head of product – SME, adds: “Accountants do more for a business when its accounting data is in the cloud and it’s connected to the bank, so all financial information is up to date and accurate.

“We’ve really seen a lot of small businesses leverage digital to help them understand their finances better during 2020, so imagine what they can do with all that data at their fingertips in the future.”

Connecting business systems for greater efficiency

A key to capturing reliable business data, explains MYOB’s Dixon, is connecting the accounting platform to the business’s bank and other financial systems. Having a data feed of transactions means the owner, bookkeeper and accountant can work with the same information.

“Linking banking and other finance systems directly into their accounting platform removes friction from each process,” says Dixon.

“It saves a lot of compliance-based work taking data from one source and formatting it into another for reporting and processing. Connecting data from other business apps helps automate more processes – and gives you more time back.”

Dixon suggests accountants can then improve owners’ visibility into their cash flow and also set up systems for better budgeting and planning.

Tools for loading bills into accounting systems are especially useful because without the bills in there, it’s difficult to see what the future holds.

“Having access to the latest records means accountants can respond to business owners’ needs faster and more effectively,” says Dixon.

“Accountants also need to set up rules so transactions are allocated correctly into the relevant accounts. The better information you get in the system, the better the forecasting and understanding of your cash flow.”

ScotPac uses secure links to its clients’ accounting systems to speed up approvals for funding designed to close cash-flow gaps, such as cash loans against outstanding invoices.

“Because our system can talk directly to our clients’ MYOB and Xero accounting platforms, it can confirm their cash-flow pipeline by checking the data,” says Starkins.

“That connection speeds up the process of accessing funds – from starting an application to receiving the money, to typically occur within about 48 hours. The facility is also structured so that as the business grows, the debt capacity also grows.”

2020 was the year many businesses were put on notice: if you don’t adopt digital technologies you risk being left behind. The good news is that in 2021, that technology has never been easier to access.

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