How To Maximise Productivity In Accounting Firms

Why too much “Noise” from staff is the sign of an unproductive firm 

by Jamie Beresford

You know the kind of interruptions guaranteed to annoy every partner. Those minor IT hassles that will either take two minutes or two hours to fix.  

“I can’t send email.” 

“The printer is not working.”  

“The internet is so slow I can’t open my folders.” 

The first question that runs through a partner’s mind is always, “For the love of God, can’t someone else fix this?”  

But the practice manager has already run through the triage process.  

  1. Is it worth calling IT support – and will they even be able to help?  
  1. Should I try to fix it myself?  
  1. Or should I bother a partner and ask them to take care of it? 

What makes these IT requests even more annoying is that they quickly stack up to cost firms serious money. As far as productivity goes, this office “noise” is death by a thousand cuts. Either the IT problem forces a staff member to sideline a job for another day or, at worst, they sit around on their hourly pay waiting for someone to get their system working again.  

And this is where firms struggle. Many of them have no adequate way to resolve these types of requests quickly, to get staff back on the tools.  

Yes, you can call IT support. But many IT services companies are just not set up to deal with the volume of these supposedly minor requests. Sure, they’ll rush to reset your server when that’s down, but they’re going to struggle to prioritise troubleshooting your scan to PC issue, there and then when you need to scan.

There are better models for solving these requests. Get the right support and your firm will rise to the top of the productivity leaderboard.  

First, let’s take a look at why these requests are costing so much money today. 

The Money Breakdown

We are past the days of server outages taking the whole firm offline. But every firm still encounters a host of lesser IT issues, and these take a hidden toll on firm performance. The problem is it’s difficult to measure the exact, cumulative cost of IT issues because they take so many forms, and they often appear individually as minor.  

One of the most common IT support requests is anything to do with email. Critical emails lost or in spam, problems sending or receiving emails,Outlook configuration and sharing issues, signature formatting – endlessly frustrating for users, and sometimes fiddly to diagnose and fix.

The simple process of successfully sending an email involves so many moving parts that it can take a very long time to diagnose, even when the culprit is just an overlooked setting.  

It’s a similar scenario for diagnosing login problems for servers, cloud applications or workstations. Double checking that your staff member has entered the password correctly, that the password hasn’t expired or been reset, or that the application has enough user licences. 

And the same story with slow or unavailable internet access.

These scenarios should sound very familiar. What is less understood is the cost of each interruption. Every time a staff member knocks on a partner’s door and pulls the partner off an important job, that login problem is costing hard dollars. 

If we price the cost in billable hours using averages for the profession, a partner solving tech problems will chew up their $327 per billable hour fee. That comes on top of the team member’s rate, which is likely to be at least $150 per billable hour. (Average prices from Good Bad Ugly Insight Poll 2021, Benchmarking Report and Insights for Australian Accounting Firms.)  

Think about how many times a month a minor IT request occurs, and cost that at $477 per hour or part thereof. Even a 15 minute interruption will cost at least $119, and a two-hour interruption is pushing $1,000.   

Firms try lots of different ways to solve this. Hiring a practice manager with a background in tech support (hard to find); creating an internal knowledgebase for solving common problems (never updated); or relying on a tech savvy partner to come to the rescue (more expensive than you realise).  

The most obvious solution is to call up IT support and ask them to fix it. This is in fact the logical approach, but often the experience is underwhelming. Either the IT support company thinks the problem is too small and therefore out of their responsibility, or they get back to you in a 24 hour window after they respond to everything else in their ticket queue.    

This gap in experience is because most traditional IT services companies just aren’t set up to give accounting firms what they desperately want – a very fast response and solution for any type of problem.   

How do you know if you need to change IT service providers?

Usually it’s pretty easy to know if you’re not getting quality service from a supplier. But it always pays to do the numbers. Here’s what you need to know. 
Ask your practice manager to collect the following data: 

1. Number of IT issues per month. This will tell you the number of interruptions to productivity for at least one or more employees. If you need to justify the ROI, ask the practice manager to measure the time it takes from reporting to resolving a fault. Then multiply that time by the affected staff member’s hourly billing rates. The monthly total will give you an idea of how much a poor IT setup or poor support is costing you.

2. Time to first response. Measure the time of the first email or call to IT support, and the first response of a qualified expert who is capable of solving the issue (i.e. not a receptionist). This will tell you the efficiency of your IT service provider at responding to calls.

3. Time to solve. Measure the time from the first response to the time by which the problem is solved. This is another indicator of efficiency for your service provider, and may also reveal your relative importance to your supplier. Long waits equal low priority.

The number of IT issues (and potential cost to the business) will indicate the level of urgency in finding a better supplier. High numbers here equal greater urgency; it’s time to start looking. 

The time to first response and time to solve will give you baselines that you can compare with the market. If you are talking to IT service companies and they are unwilling or unable to share those numbers, then you should expect that they will accordingly place a low value on those metrics. If those metrics are important to you (and they should be!), then look elsewhere. 

Why handing it off to IT doesn’t always work 

IT services companies are designed like any other in professional services. They have a small team of highly skilled technicians servicing a broad range of customers. The smallest outfits are one-man-bands dashing from one customer to the next, trying to fix problems and keep customers happy. 

Almost every IT services company in Australia practices a broad church philosophy – all industries are welcome. As a consequence, this means the complexity of IT systems also falls within a broad range.  

The accounting profession has benefitted from a boom in ideas and applications that have dramatically simplified the operation of a firm. Ten years ago, a firm’s server played a far more prominent role than today, when a lot of software is accessed through the browser. 

But this is not true for all other industries. Architects and engineers use very large files that make it worthwhile storing them on a local server.  

An IT services company servicing accountants, architects and engineers will inevitably spend more time resolving issues on the more complex IT setups. A server going down somewhere is still an urgent priority. If an accountant can’t send an email? Your IT service provider will get to it when they can. 

This model for IT services ends up creating a high amount of key person risk and limits the service provider’s ability to scale. Individual technicians have to form a detailed knowledge of a particular customer’s IT setup, and if “Rob the IT guy” is unavailable or leaves, that customer is in serious trouble.  

Investing in a One Track Mind 

The solution to both these issues (prioritising complexity and key person risk) is to choose a single-industry service provider. An industry specialist approach makes it much easier to solve difficult IT issues, where the source of the problem could lie in multiple areas.  

Rather than dealing with 100 customers and their 100 unique IT setups, an industry specialist can help accounting firms standardise on the most optimal IT setup, including hardware, software and networking.  

Whenever something does go wrong, the time to resolve a problem will be dramatically less. This is because the IT services company can have a consolidated knowledge base of fast fixes to common problems within the standardised IT setup.   

Take the three examples above – problems sending email, logging onto a server or application, and slow internet – each of these can be a tough problem to troubleshoot and resolve if you’re starting from scratch in a unique IT environment.  

It’s much faster to resolve all three if your firm has some level of standardisation in the way it is set up.  

Another benefit of standardisation is that an industry-specialist provider can solve problems that a generalist provider can’t. A common challenge for accountants is setting up Microsoft SharePoint Online. SharePoint is highly configurable, which usually means that very few companies actually work out how to get the most out of it.  

One firm had been asking its IT service provider to set up SharePoint for six years. The IT services provider hadn’t touched their SharePoint because they didn’t know how accountants could best use it. 

An industry-focused provider will also let you know if better solutions come on the market. Startups and existing software companies continue to release all sorts of applications for accountants. But very few partners have the time, skill or desire to evaluate them all and find the best one.  

That’s where an industry specialist service provider can provide deep advice on the best document management solution available, and how it will fit with the rest of your practice software

Is a standardised setup feasible for all companies within one industry? Every firm will always need some level of custom configuration to the way they operate. But there are plenty of decisions where the choice of technology makes little or no difference to the operation of the firm, but a big difference in providing faster support.  

Standardising hardware makes it much easier to solve backend issues that are unconnected to accountants’ daily tasks, such as network configurations. Router, antivirus, the location of devices on the network – these are essentially invisible decisions to users that save a lot of time when troubleshooting. 

Standardising on services such as internet and phone connections gives a modern IT support provider the ability to form strong relationships with those suppliers. This translates into advance notice of any changes or updates to the service and faster response times when problems do crop up. 

Standardising on software makes it easier for the IT support provider to develop deep knowledge of mission critical applications. Again, they can form strong relationships with the support teams within those companies. This is critical for solving problems about how to use a particular application, dealing with major software updates, and finding the right person in a large software company to troubleshoot more difficult issues. 

The Consumerisation of IT Support

Switching to an industry specialist will have a major impact on the speed at which you can expect to resolve IT issues, reduce the “noise” from staff and increase productivity. But there is another way to improve the quality of IT support. 

A major trend in the business world is the focus on quality customer experience. Think about one-touch shopping on Amazon, signing up to Spotify or buying an iPad from Apple online. Global companies are spending millions of dollars to make it as easy as possible to buy their products.  

Businesses of all sizes, from banks to coffee carts, are trying to mimic this low friction, highly efficient buying experience for SMEs.  

IT support is also going through a customer experience transformation. The three metrics for success here are the time to the first response, the time to resolve the issue, and customer satisfaction, usually measured with the Net Promoter Score (NPS).  

Most traditional IT services companies don’t score well on those two metrics because they are missing a critical component – a fast-response help desk. If your IT services provider is too small to run a help desk, then you’re relying on a small number of technicians to find time in their schedule to call you back. Once they respond, your request will be ranked and solved in terms of urgency, as described above.  

This old-school approach doesn’t lead to fast response times or fast resolution times. The traditional IT services provider employing only technicians is boxed into a corner with a model that doesn’t scale. The metrics in these companies tend to focus on the number of tickets open in the support ticketing system, and in particular the number of urgent tickets open.  

A modern IT services provider has a fast-response help desk, staffed with industry experts who understand how to use accounting software and can therefore solve questions much faster. These experts will aim to solve the easiest problems on the first call, and pass on the more complex issues to specialist engineers. 

The call centre model measures itself against those three all-important metrics – time to first response, time to resolve the ticket and NPS. A modern IT services provider should be able to tell you what those two numbers are. Then it becomes an easy, transparent decision to select the provider that can provide the fastest and most successful responses.   

In short, you’re looking for an IT services provider who openly values the customer experience and has proof of fast response times (hint: check testimonials and references). 

High Productivity Equals Happy Partners 

Intangibles are always harder to measure, and time and productivity are the leading examples. We tend to record only the valuable activities on timesheets and not the issues that reduce the time available.  

In small firms where the owner or a tech-savvy partner is the default IT support, the cost is usually explained away as an unavoidable overhead in running a business. If those same firms measured the opportunity cost to the business they would quickly look for a better solution.  

One unexpected benefit of using a modern IT services provider is more mental space and energy for partners. “As a practice owner, it’s been really wonderful for my staff to have someone to go to quickly, without asking me how to fix things. I can trust that it’s being managed without me having to decide on how something should be fixed,” says Electra Frost of Frost Advisory.  

If you are interested in running a firm at peak productivity, and getting the most out of your staff, then it’s worth checking whether IT gremlins are undermining your efforts. The answer to higher productivity and improved revenue could be as simple as switching IT providers. 

If you want to learn how Freshmethod can help you reduce your IT costs and optimise your technology, click here to book a call with one of our consultants