Net gains

27 Mar 08

As CA Magazine makes its internet debut, Guy Clapperton offers some pointers to how accountancy firms considering the same strategy can make the most of the technology

by Guy Clapperton

This being the issue in which we mark a major foray into the Internet by CA Magazine it seems fitting to include an article on what an accountancy practice can achieve with a website. We do this in the full knowledge that most firms will have had a site for some time and will know its strengths and weaknesses all too well, but hopefully you will find something new.

The web has its downsides too, and we hope to show some of the things that can go wrong. And yes, we will be talking about Facebook.

First, though, the positives. A website opens up the possibility of electronic commerce, so that you and your colleagues can communicate with clients in real time or indeed out of office hours, they can have their questions answered on your website when you are closed or to save picking up the phone and taking a staff member’s time. The key is to have a good website that anticipates the most likely questions – people often look for a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page and then need go no further.

David Blair is a CA and CEO of the DBA Group, and believes a website is important to a company’s identity. “I consider it a key part of due diligence. When potential clients look at our website, it gives them a very clear view of what the organisation is like,” he says. In practice this means making sure everything is not only “on message”, to use the appropriate cliché, but in the right font, the right colours and with all the right logos in place. Some smaller businesses still believe they can get away with a website done in a standard web authoring system which puts out identikit sites; the customers can spot these a mile away.

“It’s important for accountants to be clear about what they do and what differentiates them,” says Blair. “DBA Group combines accountancy with business consultancy services, and it’s essential that this is communicated clearly on our website. We have to make sure we aren’t perceived simply as offering the same generic services as a standard accountancy firm.

“I think accountants are wont to go into too much detail on their websites. We’ve tried to focus on what’s important and what people need to know. If you want to be taken seriously in business, a good website is critical.”

It sounds obvious but it is incredible how often people get it wrong. As part of the research for this article your correspondent looked at a few small businesses’ websites: one, for a ceiling installer who had been running for 10 years, explained at great length that he had been a sole trader for three years and then incorporated as a limited company – he forgot, however, to tell the customer what geographical area he served.

Even once a site has the right sort of content on it, it needs to be optimised to bring business in. Russell Black, marketing partner at Glazers Chartered Accountants who are members of UK200 Group, comments: “We use the WebWatch solution from JE Consulting because of their site search engine optimisation process. Optimisation or page ranking is one aspect of web marketing that many firms overlook yet it is an essential tool when it comes to drawing visitors to our site.”

Essentially, this means tweaking a website so that its picked up by Google. “The WebWatch team constantly monitors this and will automatically amend and refresh the site to ensure that we appear on the first page of Google for our chosen keywords.”

So if you were an accountant in Edinburgh specialising in independent retail business clients, you would want your organisation to come up first if someone went to Google and entered “Edinburgh accountant retail sector”.

Black says: “In the last 12 months, web enquiries have accounted for 8 per cent of our client gains and 12 per cent of our increase in fees, which is without question down to the professionalism with which our website is presented, managed and optimised.”

The importance of this cannot be overstated; independent research has demonstrated that if a business does not get into the top three listings from a Google search, customers will not look at it. Common sense says much the same.

Common sense also dictates that the website must be subservient to your business plan. The history of the Internet is littered with companies with apparently good websites that simply did not work alongside the business.

Black is delighted with his site because it brings new business in but he must have wanted new business in the first place. Had the ceiling manufacturer mentioned earlier, who is based in England, started getting inquiries from Wisconsin, he might have baulked.

People have been caught out by web orders for goods that lacked the delivery mechanism – a clue for your clients thinking of going on to the web is that if they do not handle mail order, they are probably not ready for Internet order processing. E-business needs to be part of a strategy and it needs to be underwritten by the resources to service it – small traders on eBay are caught out sometimes by a lack of time to get to the post office.

It is a good idea not to start a website until you are certain there is a reason for it. “For many years, accountants found themselves being bombarded by web designers who insisted that a company website was the be-all-and-end-all for attracting new business,” says Roy Ashton, director at accountancy firm Titcheners. “I was unconvinced.

“For this reason we only officially launched our website a little over a year ago. Realising that a website has to be more than just an online advertisement, we are developing an interactive forum for current clients. In this way, extra value will be added to the service that we already offer. “You can add all sorts of bells and whistles to a website once it is established – bookshop via Amazon; a blog (never underestimate the time these can take, and consider that the readers will notice if it has not been added to for weeks – also ask yourself whether you will have something to say several times a week).

The web internally is an incredible boost to many businesses. Not enough time to go to the stationer’s? will take your order online. You want your clients to submit online to save time? As long as you’re using the same software as they are there should be no problem. They can email their file to you, or with some systems (MYOB is one) you can go into their file through a connection to their computer.

However, the net can also be a major distraction. Bloxx is a web filtering organisation. “Non-work-related surfing, including visits to social networking sites such as Facebook, can have a significant financial and legal impact on businesses, regardless of size,” says MD Eamonn Doyle. “Companies need a comprehensive acceptable use policy for web access. An idea is to restrict employees' access to these types of sites to lunch hours. It’s then a case of having the systems to ensure the policy is enforced."

This does not mean a blanket “thou shalt not” policy for websites that are not strictly work-related. Famously, solicitor Allen & Overy put in an outright ban and had to reinstate staff rights to the net very quickly last year. The TUC made the point that people should be allowed to go on to Facebook, Friends Reunited or whichever the flavour of the month happens to be as long as they perform their core tasks efficiently.

“The reality is that forms of social networking are going to be part of our lives and we might as well get used to it,” says David Hobson, managing director of security company Global Secure Systems. “Probably the concept of the telephone was pretty frightening. Even the PC was frightening, and until recently lots of companies would use email, but not web browsing. So these things do work their way into our psyche and environment.”

Hobson points out, though, that social networking hits business productivity and bandwidth use. “We did an internal bandwidth assessment and found that 25 per cent of it was being taken by Facebook users,” he says.

This means a business is subsidising its employees’ social lives, and it may object. There are powerful counter-arguments, though. Should someone, for example, have to use their mobile phone to check in at home if their child is ill, say, or to buy theatre tickets? People are realising that there is no need to be more draconian with the Internet than with the phone.

This gets back to Bloxx’s idea of an acceptable use policy. Ideally this will cover more than the obvious (“obvious” here meaning porn or Nazi sympathy sites) but also the more subtle abuses. David Lavenda, vice-president of marketing and product strategy at the consultancy Worklight, offers the usual advice on making sure people do not enter bank details after clicking on a link from an email, but also has less self-evident ideas: “Set limits about what you are willing to expose about yourself,” he says. “Embarrassing or inappropriate information about yourself may appear in contexts that you did not expect. It is very difficult to clean up your profile later on.“Remember also that whatever carries your company’s email address will be the responsibility of your company as well as the individual involved, and that the laws of libel apply in cyberspace. “Do not badmouth your company’s customers in an open discussion group,” he adds. “It is bound to bounce back and one day you may find a cardboard box with your name on it waiting on your desk.”

Social sites can build business when used judiciously, though whether you wish to go on YouTube with a video about your accounting service could be a moot point – at least for this generation.

Overall, the Internet is a massively powerful marketing and business tool – though like all assets in your business, it needs management.

GUY CLAPPERTON is a freelance journalist specialising in information technology.

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