Chris Downing is the Director of Product Management at Sage, and Enterprise Times caught up with him during the recent Sage virtual Summit. COVID-19 is increasing pressure on businesses, especially SMEs as they struggle with lockdown and decreasing revenues. There has never been a time where so many have needed advice, to survive, let alone thrive.
Sage has advocated for some time that accountants need to become business and financial advisors rather than just bookkeepers. Enterprise Times asked Downing what services should accountants offer to their customers to help them through the current crisis? And should they charge for these new services?
Downing answered: “Accountants are business owners themselves and like every business, they have been severely affected or disrupted by the pandemic. When it comes down to accountants making those strategic business decisions, in terms of which clients they should help and which ones they shouldn’t, it is very difficult. It’s more than just a financial decision. It’s a case of what they feel is the right thing to do.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple of months is accountants have been an additional emergency service to small businesses.”
Downing believes that the variety of new legislation and funding vehicles is both an opportunity and a risk. Applications are a time-consuming process and accountants need to consider their advice carefully.
An example of how accountants have helped
Downing used the furlough scheme as an example. He noted that while small businesses could upload data to the HMRC portal, accountants understood the process better. Some accountants provide that for free or include it as part of their service charge. Others, because it was additional work and delivered value to their customers, charged for the service. That value was in the benefit of unlocking cash and the time taken to complete the work.
Downing added: “Business owners are now seeking and requiring more support from their accountant, not just in terms of the pandemic, but in terms of general matters.”
Downing believes that over the next few years business will need further support from accountants beyond what they have historically delivered. This additional work is partly due to changes in legislation such as VAT legislation, Brexit, CIS reverse tax next year and Making Tax Digital over the next couple of years. Accountants can become experts on these financial changes.
Downing continued: “This is a good thing because the accountant is able to support their clients. It also identifies that to support a client in a timely and affordable manner, they need to have better quality financial information. This is a lovely Kickstarter for the accountant to have those conversations with the business owner in terms of what type of accounting product they are using. Where does it sit? Is it on the cloud? Does it use automated bank feeds? Suddenly you get a disengaged business owner, becoming an engaged one. The value is then deemed in terms of the additional services the accountant can deliver to the client.”
Accountants are businesses too
As Downing noted, accountants are in business too. How can accountants improve their organisations?
“One is to look at their businesses as if they’re advising their clients. Look at the processes. Look at operations. Look at the people they employ.”
Downing expanded on this saying that accountancy firms need to employ people with new skill sets. Those skills should include customer relationship, communications and technology usage. Employees need to think in an agile way and understand automation. Downing added: “It’s not just scanning a piece of paper, and getting it into an accounts system. It’s looking at automation in terms of everything from onboarding clients, workflow and data awareness.”
In 2019, Sage acquired Cake HR to extend its HR solutions into the SME market. It acquired Fairsail in 2018, renaming it to Sage People for larger organisations. The CakeHR acquisition is looking an even better deal now, almost prescient. The importance of HR increasing post-pandemic. How can Cake HR help small businesses?
Downing said: “Looking after your people has never been so important for businesses.” Employees will need the ability to work from any location. They will need access to operational processes such as timesheets, expenses and even performance management from a single location.”
It is not just about the in-life of an employee as Downing adds: “HR starts before the employee even starts work with the business. Therefore, giving them the best experience during that recruiting process is incredibly important. We feel that the people employment experience is certainly going to be on the top of the agenda for most businesses over the next six months and many years to come.”
How will Sage look to integrate Cake HR into Sage Business Cloud?
“We are working really hard, working really quickly. There will be some announcements later on the year in terms of the next phases of that Sage Business Cloud, Cake HR and payroll. You’ll have a clear integration with payroll to service payslips within one application. It would be part and parcel of the Sage Business Cloud. The whole point is business owners, as well as accountants, just want an easy, accessible platform which feels familiar. To feel that you can get access to data wherever you are.”
Downing also noted that data security is paramount. Sage already has elements of this such as self-service payslips but Downing inferred there is more to come saying: “What we’re doing with Cake HR, is taking that to a completely different level, a level which isn’t seen in the industry yet.”
What is the Sage approach to collaboration? Downing answered: ”Sage’s approach is collaborative and agnostic.” Downing then cited two examples; the first was AutoEntry, an automation solution that Sage acquired in 2019 and the recently launched VAT centre.
“AutoEntry is a tool to grab data and bring it into the accounting solution. We could quite easily just make it Sage, but we recognised accountants needed a tool which works across their practices and works across every bookkeeping system.
“This was also our approach with VAT centre. So VAT centre is currently up for an innovation award with accounting excellence. We’re the only providers to deliver a cloud-based tool which enabled the accountant to see the VAT records of all their clients no matter what bookkeeping solution they’re using.”
Sage has adopted an API first approach for these solutions as well as accounting, payroll and HR. Downing concluded: “Data can be securely shared with other applications as and when the business owner chooses to do so. So the collaboration theme, the agnostic theme is a top priority of Sage, especially in its services and also what we’ve already built to date.”
On Work Management
Another area of interest for businesses is work management solutions, including task management, project management and PSA applications. Sage Intacct integrates to companies like Kimble Applications, KeyedIn and others. What is the Sage approach to work management is?
“With Sage Business Cloud and Sage Intacct, which are our cloud-first applications, the developer ecosystem is really rich. We have an awful lot of apps connecting into accounting. Which basically means that where we have workflow solutions within our current services today, they can be extended to third-party ones as well. Its quite an exciting period in terms of businesses, being able to extend out of the Sage ecosystem.”
On the economy
The government has spent vast sums on furlough schemes and grants to support businesses during the crisis. Does Sage have a stance on how the government should recoup the money?
Downing answered: “Without furlough, many businesses would have just crashed out, they wouldn’t exist. Furlough was a much-needed lifeline to the majority of businesses in the UK. It was an important element of the economic recovery going forward. The Treasury has a plan, and as you can see, they are revising that plan quite regularly. Furlough was phase one; now, we have Flexi-furlough. We also have different measures to try to get people back into work. It is inevitable the Treasury is looking at different ways to balance the books in some shape or form in the future.”
Sage’s official view came from Sabby Gill, EVP/MD UKI who commented: “The measures announced by the Chancellor are encouraging but we need to go further. Sage, on behalf of the country’s SMEs, is calling on the government to act now and take a three-pronged approach to aid digital adoption, help to boost exports and provide tailored support that encourages entrepreneurialism by equipping the unemployed with essential business skills.”
Enterprise Times: What does this mean
Sage has a quiet but confident approach. It is the market leader in the UK and seems intent on keeping that lead. When its businesses leaders speak, the government tends to listen, as it represents a large number of SMEs in the country. Its strategy of building out HR, Payroll and Accounting solutions for small to medium size businesses appears timely. Certainly, the acquisition of CakeHR came at the right time for both companies. While its expansion of Sage Intacct to international markets such as the UK, Australia and the latest, South Africa was overdue; it now needs to consider further language support to roll out to an even wider audience.
When Sage Business Cloud Accounting can offer a tighter integration to both HR and Payroll shortly as Downing infers, it will become a better solution for small businesses. The question is, how will its rivals, Xero and QuickBooks, respond? What it should mean is that it will convince many of its existing customers to migrate to a cloud-based solution, moving from legacy Sage solutions to cloud-based ones.