In June 2015, BDO launched its cloud-based BDO InTouch service. Aimed at mid-market companies and fast-growing smaller businesses – BDO’s traditional sweet spot – the service is designed to allow clients to monitor real-time business performance rather than rely on retrospective information. BDO InTouch’s technology, which is now being used across the globe, also offers standardised tax compliance and other automated services. However, BDO believes the most groundbreaking benefit BDO InTouch brings isn’t the technology itself, but rather what it allows its people to do.
“The technology frees up our accountants to become genuine business advisors,” says Mark Sykes, head of business services and accounting at BDO, and one of the driving forces behind BDO InTouch. “The technology enables us to deliver compliance services much more cost effectively, thereby unshackling us to deliver high quality advice, which is the very reason clients came to us in the first place.”
Sykes continues: “Actions which accountants traditionally spend time doing – ticking boxes, matching and typing in – is automated by BDO InTouch. The technology also allows us to offer completely up-to-date information. If accountancy is just about providing a set of accounts nine months after year-end, is that really going to drive our businesses forward? We’ve got hugely talented people here and it doesn’t make sense for them to produce historic, standard-format reports. BDO InTouch fixes that.”
BDO InTouch puts BDO’s accountants into a “really exciting space” says Sykes, whose CV includes partner roles at PKF and CLB Coopers, as well as a three-year spell as divisional finance director at EDS. He explains: “This fundamentally changes the way we support businesses by allowing us to effectively step forward in time. When you have data about how a business is performing right now, the conversation with the client changes.
Certain competitors are sending confusing messages to the market about who they’re focused on… because it doesn’t fit with their wider organisation
It allows you to say: ‘That was a tough month – do you realise your spend is getting out of control and your margins are down?’ Or: ‘You’ve just had a record month – but certain service lines are underperforming?’ And even more excitingly, we can work with clients to build multiple future scenarios allowing clients to understand external events might affect their potential.”
BDO InTouch will also introduce benchmarking, allowing BDO’s clients to see exactly how they are performing against competitors. “This is where we’ve got to go,” says Sykes. “BDO InTouch takes information around a business and uses it to drive a business.”
When discussing cloud-based products launched by rival accountancy firms, Sykes is keen to emphasise that BDO is sticking to its core mid-market. He says: “Certain competitors are sending confusing messages to the market about who they’re focused on and what they’re looking for. And you have to ask: how will they service their clients because it doesn’t fit with their wider organisation? At BDO we’ve always been clear about our focus and we’re still concentrating on that area.”
So via BDO InTouch, BDO wants to turn its accountants into true business advisors, effectively becoming a company’s outsourced financial department. Because of that, BDO’s accountants are now acting as business experts who can answer clients’ day-to-day questions about real-time performance and advise on future decision-making. That’s a big shift, but Sykes is clear that the challenge is being met head on.
What I considered the biggest challenge – asking accountants to start working in parallel with clients – has turned out to be far simpler than expected
“We’ve got fantastic buy-in from the team. The people I have asked to change the way they deliver their services – and let’s be honest, there’s always an initial fear of change – are so motivated that it’s often hard to get them off the system. With any technology people only use a fraction of the functionality, but the teams are keen to see what else it can do.
“We started to follow this vision two years ago, when we not only began looking at the technology but also at the entire way we deliver our services.
So we’ve had time to bed it in and introduce appropriate training structures for our people. What I considered the biggest challenge – asking accountants to start working in parallel with clients – has turned out to be far simpler than expected. The technology supports the change of role and the team are loving it.”
Sykes says another benefit of BDO InTouch is that it is causing his team to break out of their traditional silos – audit, tax, advisory, etc – and turning them into “connectors” who ensure the right advice is coming from the right person.
Businesses are demanding far more than historic compliance services. If that’s all you are doing, everyone can now access cheaper ways of doing that
So where does all this leave traditional, smaller accountancy firms who are still doing things the old way? Will they survive the changes that digital technology is sweeping through the industry?
“Not if they don’t change,” says Sykes. “The technology is available and those smaller businesses have a clear place in the market, but they have to change if they want to keep up. It’s absolutely clear that businesses are demanding far more than historic compliance services. If that’s all you are doing, everyone can now access cheaper ways of doing that.”
Time will tell if the technology that BDO has introduced – and systems like it – will cause as seismic a shift to accountancy as Mark Sykes believes. One thing’s for sure though: the industry is evolving faster than ever before and accountants must be prepared to embrace change.