Chris James’s ascent to head of accounting operations at JSA Services doesn’t have an air of destiny around it. “At university I ended up with a psychology degree,” he said. “But I always loved numbers and it wasn’t a surprise when I found myself working at the accountants down the road, even though it felt like a bit of an accident at first.”
But within a year of joining JSA, James secured himself Practice Excellence 2015’s technology champion of the year award. “If you consider that we had to ‘book time’ on the computer when I started in practice 16 years ago, it’s clear things have changed rapidly,” he said.
As a “technology champion”, you might expect James to be an evangelist, but he ducks that label by tempering his enthusiasm. “Good accountants aren’t necessarily good at technology,” he said. “Good accountants are good communicators, and as a result often don’t see the urgency in adopting new technology or methods of working.”
Nevertheless, James is keenly aware of the transformative effect technology has had on JSA. “I think as a profession we need to remove some of the inverted snobbery that is attached to the use of phones and other devices in the accounting process.
“Not every development needs taking up immediately, but here’s the big secret – lots of clients love it!” he told AccountingWEB. “My role is to drive customer satisfaction up while maintaining our standards. Technology, when used well, makes that much easier.”
The big challenge for JSA now is to bring more of a personal touch to a firm that has adopted new technology on a grand scale, with more than 2,000 of its contractor clients migrating to its FreeAgent-based accounting platform.
For James, not sacrificing personal service in the blind pursuit of technology is a cardinal rule. “I don’t see why a contractor accountant shouldn’t give its clients the same bespoke service that a boutique firm would,” he said. “We’ve made sure clients can easily get in direct contact with the person who looks after them, and are trying to increase the amount of tailored and industry specific information we supply.”
This slots into James’s idea of integration. “Integration for me is only useful if it happens in a way that saves money or time, or improves a client experience. So integration in technology should include a measure of automation, in order to be useful for a business.”
This philosophy means sometimes creating trouble. Through a strong predilection for ‘best in class’ software applications, JSA often has to fiddle with software items that “don’t talk to each other very well”. “But”, James continued, “Our procedures may be integrated so that the overall process, or the client experience is still improved.”
“Many businesses buy a whole suite of software from one supplier because it seems easier, or one assumes that the different parts will work well together. It’s easy to forget that some parts of that suite might not be your best option. So don’t just accept that something ‘integrated’ is best. Ask ‘how does it work?’”
And despite all of this innovation, JSA has not left old faithful behind: Excel still plays an integral role. “We still use it a lot, especially for bespoke illustrations and draft calculations,” said James. It does come with a caveat, however: “Its flexibility makes it risky – people can be dangerously creative with Excel! From my time as an auditor I remember how calamitous simple excel Errors can be.
“But like a new analysis pad, I still see Excel as an old friend, and I don’t imagine I’ll stop using it, or versions of it, for a long time.”
The risks of simple Excel errors speak to the risks of technology in general. But James feels that often technology plays a fundamental role in minimising, rather than increasing, risk. “Risk comes in many forms, but in terms of accountancy advice the sad truth is that it often stems from human beings acting like human beings and having a bad day, or being lazy,” said James.
“Just like Father Christmas, people should be checking things twice. Using technology to double-check, exception report, and control processes makes it easier for even people who are occasionally lazy to do their job competently.”
JSA knows better than most about how tech helped them to navigate risk. A disastrous flood pushed JSA’s business continuity plan to the brink – but it managed to survive the incident without too much damage. “The main impact was that we had the best possible test of our business continuity plan,” said James. “As we’re truly cloud-based, we were up and running very quickly. The lasting impact was that people do always have a BCP information card with them, because they know that ‘it’ll never happen’ is not a realistic point of view.”
Calamities aside, James works by one principle: “Whenever we change anything, or produce a new communication, or start a new service, before anything happens, we ask ourselves ‘what will the client reaction be?’ However wonderful the demonstration of the software is, whatever new features you’ll get compared to what you’ve got – will the clients like it?
“If not, or you’re not sure – find out. Trial it. Don’t assume that because you like something, your clients will. It’s the same reason you write a good letter, design a nice logo, have suitably expert staff – to keep clients happy.
“Technology is no different.”