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ACCOUNTANTS HAVE BECOME CRITICAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF BUSINESSES AND THEIR REPUTATIONS DURING COVID-19

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Stuart Cobbe, Director of Growth, Europe, MindBridge

 

The opportunity for fraudulent activity to flourish as finance departments operate remotely with less oversight in these extraordinary Covid-19 times is inevitable. Government loans and financial support have been given out with little or no accountability to businesses that are struggling with the change in their trading environment and as a consequence businesses find themselves in financial need.

There is already evidence of corporations handing back furlough grants as HMRC offers a 90-day amnesty, but without rapid data-driven insight and risk stratification, businesses may not know the extent of their exposure. Indeed many businesses face the daunting prospect of repaying loans at the same time as paying deferred VAT early next year in a far from certain trading environment. Stuart Cobbe, Director of Growth, Europe, MindBridge explains that the role of the accountant has now become critical to businesses and their reputations.

 

Unlocking transparency

The Covid-19 landscape is fluid and ever-changing, and businesses require accurate visibility of all aspects of their business in order to plan effectively for the future and to understand their financial position. As the economy continues to recover to a new ‘normal’, companies need to focus on the next 6 months. How many ‘zombie’ businesses are only operating due to deferred VAT payments? How many companies will fail when they cannot repay loans? The role of the accountant is vital in unlocking this transparency to provide data-driven, actionable insights.

After all, there are many questions around how government financing has been used, from grants to loans, furlough payments to VAT deferments. As of the 20th September, the total cost of furlough claims has reached a staggering almost £40 billion, despite 30,000 applications being rejected, with many likely to have been attempts to defraud the taxpayer. Research by economists from Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich universities found that as many as two thirds of furloughed workers continued to work.

For businesses that do not understand the extent of their exposure, they risk facing a HMRC-imposed tax charge equivalent of up to 100% of the grant to which any recipient was not entitled and was not repaid. It is, therefore, interesting to see the number of large organisations now publicly revealing plans to repay all furlough payments. For many, this is an opportunity to boost corporate reputation and demonstrate a commitment to rediscovering business as usual. However, given the huge pressures businesses have been under in recent months, many CFOs and FDs may not have the full visibility they require to effectively manage this without the power of audit.

 

Financial Risks

This is about far more than reputational damage, the potential misuse of furlough is far from the only financial risk. The extraordinary shift in every business’ modus operandi over the past few months has opened the door for opportunistic fraud. New sources of income; staff working from home with limited oversight; the financial pressures – both business and personal – created by the recession. The misappropriation of assets should be a very real concern for businesses of every size.

For organisations that have relied upon grants and loans to survive, an employee exploiting the lack of oversight to syphon funds for personal use could tip the company into failure. Companies must determine how – or whether – deferred VAT payments and loan repayments can be made. Is the company truly solvent or no more than a ‘zombie’ business operating with a balance sheet propped up by short term government finance?

 

Actionable data

Business resilience and reputation is a priority in this era, and CFOs or FDs may be struggling to establish trust across businesses now operating under a whole new range of pressures, from slimmer margins to a disjointed, remote workforce. There is an obvious need for complete visualisation of financial risks, and accountants play a crucial role in unlocking this data.

The rapid identification of mistakes in government support applications, potential fraud and the analysis of which deferred payments and loan repayments can be made and when – whilst ensuring other risk factors do not jeopardise business stability – is essential to futureproof the business, and accountants can assess data to provide this information in a complete and actionable format to lead smarter company decisions. This is the data insight CFOs and FDs need today.

Traditional financial risk assessment models will not be adequate. At best, problems will be revealed months after the fact. Companies need rapid identification of areas of unexpected activity today. This is where accountants and finance departments using sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques can deliver real business value by rapidly assessing financial data and surfacing unexpected activity. Armed with this information, finance teams will know where to focus activities, the questions to ask and the remedial action to take. This information will drive departments and remedial action to ensure business success and growth as the nation gets back to its feet.

In short, accountants and finance professionals can provide the answers businesses need today, whilst helping managers to plan for the future effectively, despite the changes in policies and protocols as the pandemic continues to throw curveballs. An audit can quickly identify problems including but not limited to, cash flow, fraud, misuse of grants, loan repayment issues – all whilst offering the guidance and steps to safeguard the business to promote resilience and protect the solvency and reputation.

 

Business

TOP TIPS FOR BOOSTING YOUR CASH FLOW AND BUSINESS IN 2021

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Ian Gass, CEO at Agitate

 

Many small businesses are still dealing with the disruption caused by the pandemic. Improving financial performance is most likely to be at the top of agenda, and a good place to start is reviewing cash flow. No matter what the product or services a company provides or the size of the business, cash flow still remains king.

Research has shown that 38% of small business owners who have suffered cash flow problems have been left unable to pay debts. With 1 in 7 small business owners having been left unable to pay employees because of cash flow issues, this equates to a huge 2.2 million people in the UK not being paid on time.

 

The importance of positive cash flow

Profit has traditionally been seen as the most important measure of an organisation’s financial performance. However, the focus is increasingly shifting from the income statement to the balance of cash inflows and outflows. Prioritising profit levels reflect long term fiscal health, but it does not necessarily mean that a business can pay its bills on time and survive in the short term.

Ian Gass

Sudden drops in demand prove how keeping an efficient cash flow balance is essential, and can expose shortcomings of currently used solutions. When reviewing your cash flow, you need to look at ways to get more money coming in and better manage the money that is going out. Here are a few ways to improve cash flow management and see positive changes in a short period of time.

 

  1. Efficient forecast

It is important to be able to compare actual income and expenses with those that are in the pipeline, as it helps to determine which area of business is under performing or generating unnecessary costs. Start by looking at your projected income and expenses for the next three months, don’t wait until you receive a bill to realise there are not enough funds to cover it. An easy way to overcome this issue is a free cash flow template available online.

 

  1. Terms and Conditions review

Making sure that T&Cs are clear and comprehensive not only provides your business with a protective layer, but also makes customers understand when and how the payment is expected, and the process and penalties for late payments. That’s why regular checks and reviews of existing agreements prevents businesses from potential loses. It is also good to use reward tactics to encourage customers for prompt or early payment such as discounts or free shipping.

 

  1. Payment terms

Payment terms that are understandable and realistic is clear T&Cs in place. As it creates a contract with suppliers and obliges the organisation to pay on time, it is important to match these terms wider operation processes. For instance, if you have 14 days to pay your suppliers, but your customers get 30 days to pay you, a problem of late payments will be inevitable. To avoid damaging relationships with suppliers, you should consider an extension of the terms or reducing the credit period for your clients. It is worth taking deposits, asking for payment in advance or on receipt.

 

  1. Invoice management

Another method that can quicky improve cash flow is sending invoices promptly and ensuring they are accurate. Any mistakes will simply require queries to be resolved and it will take longer to receive payment. In addition, it is important to remain persistent at following up late payments and moving the money to the bank as soon as possible. Some clients will always need chasing and, without a follow up, they will hold on to the cash as long as possible.

 

  1. Payment options

Making it easy for clients to pay gives businesses the best chances of being paid quicker. While accepting card payments might be common place, there is a high risk of fraud. For example, in 2019 £620.6m was lost in card fraud in the UK. Also, it can be expensive to process and often leaves an organisation to wait days to receive the funds. Using a free bank-to-bank payment app means businesses can send payment requests from mobile phone straight to customers via email or messaging app (such as WhatsApp).

In that case, the consumer will receive a message with all the information they need to make the payment instantly. They click the secure ‘Paylink’, which directs them to their online banking app and all the relevant information is displayed such as your name, the amount to be paid and a reference. The transaction needs then authorising with their bank and the money moves instantly from their account to yours.

 

  1. Cost reduction

If there is too much money going out that a company can’t afford, business owners need to think of ways to reduce those expenses. There are a few questions to help understand where money can easily be dislocated:

Is there software or equipment that you are paying for that you don’t use? Can overhead costs such as utilities and administrative expenses be reduced? Are card transaction fees putting an unnecessary pressure on cash balance? If so, it can be eliminated with a bank-to-bank payment app.

Although profit might be seen as the ultimate goal for companies of all shapes and sizes, sustaining positive cash flow provides vital foundations on which a company can grow. By using the right tools, business owners can not only get paid faster and more securely, but also improve customer experience, reducing the transaction to a quick QR scan. Making a few smart changes to the existing balance sheet can have a big impact and future-proof an organisation in no time.

 

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Business

BRIDGING THE DIGITAL EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE GAP

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By

Matthew Sturman, senior technical consultant, AppLearn

 

While the financial sector was arguably some way along the digital transformation curve before the pandemic, embracing innovative solutions to enhance customer experience and security, the last 12 months have required a step change like no other for employees.

Overnight, teams were operating remotely, using an array of new business applications from communications tools to support systems. Business critical processes which may have been stagnant for some time due to a risk adverse culture, quickly evolved with a need for greater agility.

In a post-pandemic world, it’s crucial that financial leaders don’t become complacent about the employee experience; KMPG put employees at the top of their list for financial institutions six considerations in dealing with the impact of COVID-19. Organisations have rapidly undergone transformation to facilitate home working while maintaining operations, however the proliferation of technology has also highlighted a critical digital employee experience gap. Addressing this will be key to embedding digital strategies which enable and support employees in the long-term.

 

Matthew Sturman

The overwhelmed employee

Even before the pandemic, research from Okta detailed how the number of worker applications deployed by organisations had increased by 68% over the past four years.

You only need to look at how employees access IT support to realise just how complex this picture has got for employees. Every technology application – from risk and complicance to payroll software– has a different route to access support, with employees having to navigate chatbots, online knowledge bases, resource hubs or the helpdesk. The result? Context-switching. Time spent flitting between different applications or windows to complete tasks, taking employees out of the flow of work. Studies have shown that switching contexts has a dramatic impact on time lost mentally re-focussing between tasks, in addition to time wasted navigating to try and find support.

In fact, research from McKinsey has found that workers spend up to 20% of their working week searching for information or support on tasks. This issue has only been compounded further with employees working from home, and not knowing where to go for timely support.

 

Prioritising the user

Over time, these small interruptions can add up to a significant impact on an organisation’s performance – and lead to user frustration, as well as decreased motivation amongst employees.

Historically, financial services businesses have taken a customer-first approach to investing in user experience – prioritising external customer service and communication over the internal employee experience. However, most employees are also users of this technology, and expect the same smooth transitions and consumer grade experience when using their work devices or software. When their digital experience is seamless, employees can focus on their role without interruption.

In a recent report, KPMG said organisations should create an ecosystem of tools and technologies that work together to enable experiences that help people work better. Any shifts in technologies should consider the combined impact of features and integration. It’s this sentiment financial leaders must embrace to truly empower digital workers.

 

Bridging the employee experience gap

According to a recent report from analyst firm Constellation Research which looked at the impact on the pandemic on the digital workplace, organisations have a historic opportunity to transform the employee experience.

It encourages organisations to adopt an ‘employee experience platform’ (EXP) model that connects disparate digital tools into a more cohesive digital workplace. This model is made up of disruptive technologies that bring together siloed applications and software.

Technologies such as digital adoption platforms (DAPs), machine learning, ‘people analytics’ tools and on-demand talent sourcing have been highlighted by Constellation as key components to the EXP. DAPs, for example, help solve the issue of disparate IT estates by overlaying software applications and providing a consistent support experience across multiple applications. This can take the form of step-by-step guides to navigate the user through new digital tasks and workflows, through to ensuring knowledge articles and chatbots are seamlessly available when required and provided in context of the individual requiring it and the task they are performing. Crucially, this keeps employees in the flow of work and avoids wasted time switching between applications and searching for support.

 

Looking ahead

It’s been an immense year of change for financial leaders, organisations, and importantly employees. As we move out of the pandemic, getting this next phase right will be absolutely key. For many businesses, this will be about moving from survival to thriving in a digital world.

The steps are simple. Identify the experience gaps, explore disruptive tools and technologies that bridge them, but most importantly, create an employee experience that enables and empowers them to do their job better.

 

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