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Comment

Economic forecasting can be a difficult business, especially when you consider the ‘unknown uncertainties’ the world is currently facing, writes Annette Hughes.  Businesses do not like uncertainty but, at present, that is the prevailing economic theme. An uncertain political situation, ongoing Brexit negotiations and the recent coronavirus outbreak remind us how vulnerable the economy can be to external shocks. Those in the business of economic forecasting understand this vulnerability very well. The purpose of an economic forecast is to measure the impact of ‘known uncertainties’ on future economic performance, but the future is unpredictable and this is further complicated by the ‘unknown uncertainties’ we now face.  Economists, in making their projections for economic growth in 2020, would not have been aware of the coronavirus outbreak until the first reports of a cluster of cases were identified on 31 December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The rapid and continuing escalation of COVID-19 has led economists to revise their economic forecasts downwards, as the initial output contractions in China begin to be felt around the world. It remains unclear what the full effects will be on the movement of people and goods, and economic activity, while the response of policymakers is evolving on a daily basis. Global economy In early March, the OECD reported on the considerable human suffering and major economic disruption that had resulted from COVID-19. OECD global growth in 2020 was revised downwards, by around 0.5 percentage points to 2.4%, from an already weak forecast of 2.9%. The adverse impacts on confidence, financial markets, the travel sector and disruptions to supply chains were all factors contributing to the downward revision. However, without knowledge of the full impact of the virus, the OECD acknowledged that, should the outbreak be more intense and last longer than predicted, global growth could drop to 1.5%. Economists at Oxford Economics believe that the virus will result in Q1 2020 being the first global contraction since Q1 2009, with overall growth of 2% for the year, the slowest pace in the last decade. Irish economy The OECD forecast for economic growth in the euro area was revised downwards by 0.3 percentage points to 0.8% in 2020, although, given that the spread to Europe did not materialise until February, this forecast is likely to be subject to further downside risks.  Ireland has an open economy reliant on international trade and global markets to support economic growth. Ireland and its economy accounts for just 0.4% of global GDP and 0.06% of the world’s population. However, it still remains vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 virus.  Economic growth in Ireland will definitely be weaker than projected should the virus spread for an extended period. The main impacts are likely to be felt through supply chain disruptions, travel and tourism restrictions, and reduced mobility (affecting consumer spending and workers staying at home). There have already been reports of delays in the delivery of imported products in the construction sector, according to the Ulster Bank Construction Confidence Index. It has been acknowledged that Ireland will likely follow a pattern seen in other European countries and the Taoiseach’s measures to minimise the spread of COVID-19 could be significant, but much less than the economic and social consequences of acting too late. The flexibility that Irish businesses have demonstrated in dealing with evolving economic, political and social trends are acknowledged in EY’s February 2020 Economic Eye. EY Chief Economist, Neil Gibson, correctly pointed to the coronavirus outbreak as likely to damage global growth in 2020, but as a rapidly evolving situation, it is difficult to predict the full economic impact on the island of Ireland. The closure of many public institutions and private businesses in the Republic of Ireland will no doubt further slow growth across the island, but the sectoral and regional impact will vary greatly. It important to remember, however, that this is first and foremost a human crisis, and we must think about people first. Moving away from GDP numbers, we must look at what business, governments and individuals can do together to help get us get through this incredibly difficult period.  Clearly, these are unprecedented times and taking such developments into account makes economic forecasting a difficult business.   Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.

Apr 01, 2020
Comment

With advice comes responsibility as almost all advice has consequences, writes Des Peelo. As a Chartered Accountant, whether in professional or commercial life, our qualification is relied on by others for knowledge and experience when we provide advice. Advice brings responsibility, as almost all advice has consequences. A course of action undertaken, an investment made, a decision taken, a matter rectified, a risk addressed, and so on. The accountant can sometimes be unaware that somebody has interpreted a comment or course of action as advice. Even responding to a casual enquiry can be an everyday hazard in a complicated and regulatory world. Letter of engagement I, in common with other professional advisers, have experienced clients or circumstances where it is later claimed that advice was wrong or inadequate. Thankfully, none developed into legal claims – though I have acted as an expert witness in many such cases. Common factors in these claims included allegations that the client subsequently raised an issue that was not within the original remit, or did not take the advice, or varied its implementation to suit a different purpose. It may not always be possible in everyday commercial situations, but it is invariably wise to have a clear letter of engagement (LOE) signed as accepted by the client in advance of undertaking the work. The real relevance is that the LOE can avoid any later claim of misunderstanding or ambiguity. The LOE can also state in advance what is to be excluded in the advice, as explained below. Create clarity In my experience, it is increasingly necessary to ensure that the recipient understands what the advice is not, as well as what it is. For example, that it is not legal advice, that it is not tax advice as may arise, or that the advice cannot be taken as reassurance to a third party (such as a bank or fellow investors) as to the standing or validity of the circumstances relating to the advice. The advice is for the recipient alone, and there is no responsibility to third parties. The subsequent written advice to the client may then state: “This advice is provided in accordance with the signed letter of engagement (LOE), dated 1 April 2020. For good order, a copy of the LOE is attached to this letter”. Chinese walls Experience suggests that most professional indemnity claims for negligence arise through allegations of omission. In other words, some aspect was overlooked or understated by the adviser and should have been appropriately addressed. This, of course, enters into the grey area of opinion of which there is little legal definition beyond a simplistic analysis as to what your peer group would have done in the circumstances. In the ordinary course of events, a Chartered Accountant is unlikely to face a conflict of interest in giving advice – although a wary eye is necessary for Ireland’s relatively small business network. Others may, however, experience conflicts of interest in a different way, as explained by a straight-faced story from the rarefied world of high art dealings. In a frank memoir, a retired director of a major auction house in London explained  ‘Chinese walls’ as follows: on one side of the auction house, the potential seller of a painting is reassured as to this being the best time to sell a painting. On the other side, in the same auction house, the potential purchaser is reassured as to the wisdom of investing to future advantage in the same painting. Be brave Good advice is always worth it, but the advice might be unexpected. A senior politician, for example, battered by the vagaries of the world, remarked to me that if you are ‘being an eejit’, the best advice sometimes comes when the adviser tells you so in plain terms. And how much should one charge for all this great advice? A wise PR lady, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, once told me that advice should always be reassuringly expensive. Des Peelo FCA is the author of The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.

Apr 01, 2020
Feature Interview

Joan Curry, who recently joined the first female majority board of IFAC, discusses her varied career in the public sector. Joan Curry is Head of Finance at the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport; ex-chair of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Public Sector Interest Group; member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland; and a board member of the International Federation of Accountants. Add to that six children and a keen golfing interest, and one could reasonably say that Joan leads a hectic life. In terms of her professional career, Joan had an interest in figures and accountancy from an early age. “I was the eldest of five children, and my mother and father both worked outside the home,” she recalled. “We swam and my father was treasurer of the swimming club. I helped him with the money, so it was a subliminal introduction really.” At school, Joan and three friends were the first pupils of Mercy College in Coolock to do higher-level maths. “It didn’t occur to us that we were trailblazers or anything like that,” she said. We just did what we did. I got an honour in maths in the Leaving Cert, so I suppose I always had a head for figures.” No college fun Joan planned to do a commerce degree in university when fate took a hand. “My brother’s football coach was an accountant and he called to the house one evening and convinced me to become a Chartered Accountant by working for an accountancy firm,” Joan said. “I took that advice and qualified with Smith Lawlor & Co., now JPA Brenson Lawlor in 1988.” Joan completed her training contract and qualified in 1988 when she moved into industry with Nokia with a desire to gain commercial experience. Nokia was a tissue paper manufacturer, and Kittensoft was its major brand. The company was a big player in the Irish retail FMCG scene at that time. As a financial accountant, Joan was responsible for budget and financial management including the preparation of accounts for consolidation into the European group headquarters and, subsequently, for the United States when it became part of the James River and Georgia Pacific corporations. Looking back, Joan reflected: “In practice, you are engaging with clients annually. There is more continuity in industry; you are part of decisions and can see their cause and effect and results.” It wasn’t all work in Nokia, however. Joan made up for the lack of fun at college as she met her husband in Nokia. “I married the site engineer after he left the company,” she said. A wide and varied career Joan has spent the past 18 years in the civil service in several roles that have broadened her capacities. She gained extensive experience in multi-disciplinary environments and brings all of that to bear in her current financial role with the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport. Joan’s career in the public sector began with a contract role as a project accountant for the Department of Finance, as it implemented the JD Edwards financial management system. This was later extended into a contract of indefinite duration. In 2011, Joan moved to the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform on its formation to work in the Government Accounting unit, the standard-setter for government accounts in Ireland. There, she built relationships with colleagues in both finance and internal audit in each government department. Joan also spent three years as Head of Corporate Services for the National Shared Services Office. A role that Joan particularly enjoyed while working in the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform was a secondment as Secretary to the Public Service Pay Commission. This was a non-financial role, utterly different to anything she had done before, and involved supporting the Commission in its examination of recruitment and retention matters in specific areas of the public service. Joan managed the research, contribution and report-writing phases of the Commission’s work and engaged with the public sector employer, union and other stakeholders in the process. Current role Joan joined the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as Head of Finance in August 2019 and her role covers “vote and expenditure management, financial management, risk management, and responsibility for the procurement framework”. The use of the term “vote” serves to highlight the differences between the public sector and private sector accounting practices. This refers to the financial allocation made to a department or public body by the government, which is approved by a vote of the Oireachtas. The differences run deeper than mere terminology, however. The State doesn’t utilise private sector financial reporting standards, nor does it prepare its accounts on an accrual basis. Joan is a firm believer that the State’s move to re-examine this area and consider the use of accrual accounting is the right one. A change in policy here would be consistent with OECD guidance on the matter Joan stressed. Joan reflects that, in contrast to government accounting, local authorities have been engaged in an advanced form of accrual accounting since 2002. They prepare their accounts in accordance with an accounting code of practice, which complies with FRS102 where applicable. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has an oversight role in various bodies under its aegis and at times, Joan’s expertise is called on by departmental colleagues directly involved in the oversight function. “It extends into the transport sector – public transport, roads, local authorities, and then we have the tourism industry and Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland and the breadth of activity they are involved in to attract tourists. It goes right down to sport and grants to local clubs. I didn’t realise the breadth of services involved until I started working in the department.” And unsurprisingly, there is no such thing as a typical workday for Joan. “There is a huge variety on any given day,” she said. “I try to look at it in its different compartments – vote management, financial management, risk management, and procurement. Those are the four key areas I try to interface with every day.” At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking up much of Joan’s time. “We have been engaged in emergency planning and contingency planning and arranging for staff to work remotely and so on. The staff here have been really fantastic,” Joan said.  Joan is also working daily with critical stakeholders on liquidity funding strategies to keep key transport systems and supply chains going – getting people and goods to where they are needed in light of COVID-19. Volunteer work Joan is a Fellow of the Institute and a Member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland. She is also a member and former Chair of the Public Sector Interest Group and recently became a member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). Joan describes her initial introduction to the Institute’s Council as the result of ‘a tap on the shoulder’. “I was approached to run for Council and I agreed. It all goes back to networks. I play in the Chartered Accountants Golf Society and have made some great contacts there. Within an hour of seeking nominations, I had ten nominations and I only needed seven.” Joan’s next step came when she was asked to go forward for the IFAC board. “I was nominated by Chartered Accountants Ireland and was short-listed. I went for the interview and was fortunate enough to be invited to join the board. Being there for Ireland is an immense honour, and being able to contribute that public service perspective is also very important to me.” The 23-member board includes 12 males and 13 females. “It’s gender-balanced, and the overall diversity is great,” she said. “I have four girls and two boys, and I have always stressed to them the importance of equality.” Life outside the office In Joan’s view, one of the best things about working in the public service is the scope offered to do other things. “The support I have received over the years has been invaluable,” she said. “I got better at managing my time and learned that I don’t need to be involved in everything that’s going on. I have improved at delegating and saying no. I have also learned that the time you spend on yourself is good for you and your employer. If you’re not feeling good, you won’t perform at your best.” When her children – Aisling, Ciara, Dearbhla, Shane, Sonia and Karl – are not keeping Joan busy with various college, school and extracurricular activities, she can be found on the golf course. “It’s the perfect place for headspace for me,” she concludes. “And a little competition as well!”

Apr 01, 2020
Financial Reporting

Eimear McGrath explores some of the key impacts of the European Union (Qualifying Partnerships: Accounting and Auditing) Regulations 2019 and asks to what extent they will widen the financial reporting and filing obligations for partnerships. Signed into law at the end of November 2019, the European Union (Qualifying Partnerships: Accounting and Auditing) Regulations 2019 (S.I. No. 597/2019) (the 2019 Regulations) came into operation on 1 January 2020. The effect of these Regulations is to bring the statutory financial reporting and filing obligations of certain “qualifying partnerships” more in line with those of companies formed and registered under the Companies Act 2014 (the 2014 Act), the main aspect being the requirement for qualifying partnerships to file and make public their financial statements. This article explores some of the key impacts of these Regulations on such qualifying partnerships in respect of their financial reporting and filing obligations. It may be of particular interest to professionals that organise their business as a partnership. What were the financial reporting and filing obligations of partnerships until now (under the 1993 Regulations)? Prior to the commencement of the 2019 Regulations, the European Communities (Accounts) Regulations 1993 (as amended) (the 1993 Regulations) set out the scope of partnerships that were subject to requirements for the preparation, audit and filing of financial statements that were generally equivalent to those applying to companies under the 2014 Act. In summary, the requirements of the 1993 Regulations applied to any partnership (both general partnerships established under the Partnership Act 1890 and limited partnerships established under the Limited Partnerships Act 1907), all of whose partners – and, in the case of a limited partnership, all of whose general partners – were limited corporate bodies or other entities whose liability was limited. It also required that such partners or general partners that were limited corporate bodies, or other entities whose liability was limited, were registered in an EU member state. Therefore, for example, such partnerships using limited companies registered in the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands did not have to file their financial statements. These 1993 Regulations are revoked by the 2019 Regulations, except to the extent that they relate to the financial years of a “qualifying partnership” commencing before 1 January 2020. What is a qualifying partnership under the 2019 Regulations? The 2019 Regulations introduce a new definition for a “qualifying partnership”, which is set out in Regulation 5. The definition does not ultimately change the previous requirement in the 1993 Regulations of bringing certain partnerships whose members enjoy the protection of limited liability into scope for the preparation, audit and filing of financial statements. However, it does extend the definition in the 1993 Regulations and has been reworded to address the other entity types as defined in the 2014 Act. It incorporates partnerships (both general, established under the Partnership Act 1890 and limited, established under the Limited Partnerships Act 1907), all of whose partners and, in the case of a limited partnership, all of whose general partners, are: limited companies; designated unlimited companies (designated ULCs); partnerships other than limited partnerships, all of the members of which are limited companies or designated ULCs; limited partnerships, all of the general partners of which are limited companies or designated ULCs; or partnerships including limited partnerships, the direct or indirect members of which include any combination of undertakings referred to above, such that the ultimate beneficial owners of the partnership enjoy the protection of limited liability. Regulation 5(2) also further extends the above list to include any Irish or foreign undertaking that is comparable to such a limited company, designated ULC, partnership or limited partnership. However, the reference to such foreign undertakings having to be registered in an EU member state has been removed. It is worth explaining some of this in further detail. A limited company is any company or body corporate whose members’ liability is limited. Designated ULCs are defined in Section 1274 of the 2014 Act and include, amongst other entity types, unlimited companies that have a limited liability parent. Such designated ULCs are not exempt from the requirement to file financial statements with their annual return. In considering whether an undertaking is “comparable”, Regulation 5(3) sets out certain guiding principles that would suggest comparability while Regulation 5(6) states that in making the assessment, regard should be had to whether the liability of persons holding shares in the undertaking is limited. The reference to shares is cross-referenced to Section 275(3) of the 2014 Act, which sets out the interpretation of the meaning of “shares” and mentions that, in the case of an entity without share capital, the reference to shares is to be interpreted as a reference to a right to share in the profits of the entity. Regulation 5(5) defines “ultimate beneficial owner” as meaning “the natural person or persons who ultimately own or control, directly or indirectly, the partnership or undertaking”. The concept of “ultimate beneficial owner” is also referred to in Section 1274 of the 2014 Act, which provides that certain designated ULCs must prepare and file statutory financial statements with their annual return. The types of entities that fall under the definition of a designated ULC in Section 1274 are clearly set out and the definition specifically includes a guiding principle whereby if the ULC’s ultimate beneficial owners enjoy the protection of limited liability, they will fall under the definition of a designated ULC. There is, however, no definition of “ultimate beneficial owner” provided for in the 2014 Act. It has generally been interpreted to incorporate not only natural persons, but also orphan entities that directly or indirectly enjoy the benefits of ownership. It is clear from the definition in the 2019 Regulations that the “ultimate beneficial owner” must be a natural person. Whether the definition of “ultimate beneficial owner” in the 2019 Regulations carries through to the interpretation of “ultimate beneficial owner” in Section 1274 of the 2014 Act in the context of ULCs will need to be further considered. What are the consequences of being a qualifying partnership in respect of financial reporting and annual return filing obligations? Qualifying partnerships will apply Part 6 of the 2014 Act, which addresses the accompanying documentation, including financial statements, required to be annexed to the annual return. Existing partnerships that fall within the scope of the 1993 Regulations have generally been required to meet such obligations. However, the extension of the definition of qualifying partnerships means that many more partnerships (such as those using limited companies registered in a non-EEA member state, for example) will now be required to file financial statements and make them publicly available. The application of Part 6 of the 2014 Act to qualifying partnerships is addressed in Part 4 of the 2019 Regulations. The general principle of the 2019 Regulations, as stated in Regulation 7, is to apply Part 6 of the 2014 Act to a qualifying partnership as if they were a company formed and registered under that Act, subject of course to any modifications necessary to take account of the fact that the qualifying partnership is unincorporated. Part 4 further goes on to modify or dis-apply certain provisions of Part 6 of the 2014 Act for qualifying partnerships. Some notable modifications and dis-applications are discussed below. Interpretation of terms Regulation 8 outlines certain terms in Part 6 of the 2014 Act pertaining to “companies” that should be construed differently for the purposes of qualifying partnerships. Where Part 6 of the 2014 Act refers to the directors, secretary or officers of a company, it should be construed as a reference to members of a qualifying partnership (i.e. in the case of a partnership, its partners and in the case of a limited partnership, its general partners). Any duties, obligations or discretion imposed on, or granted to, such directors or the secretary of a company should be construed as being imposed on, or granted to, members of the qualifying partnership. Where such duties, obligations etc. are imposed on, or granted to, such directors and the secretary jointly, they shall be deemed to be imposed on, or granted to (i) two members of the qualifying partnership, where it is not a limited partnership; and (ii) in the case of limited partnerships, if there is only one general partner, that partner; or if there is more than one general partner, two such partners. References to the “directors’ report” of a company should be construed as references to the “partners’ report” of a qualifying partnership, unless otherwise provided. The date of a company’s incorporation will be construed as the date on which the qualifying partnership was formed. Any action that is to be, or may be, carried out at a general meeting of the company will be deemed to be any action that is to be, or may be, carried out at a meeting of the partners, or otherwise as determined in accordance with the partnership agreement. Dis-application of certain provisions in Part 6 of the 2014 Act in respect of financial statements The 2019 Regulations dis-apply certain provisions that are contained in Part 6 of the 2014 Act to the financial statements of qualifying partnerships. Amongst these are: the general obligation to maintain and keep adequate accounting records and the statement in the directors’ report pertaining thereto; and the requirement for Companies Act financial statements to comply with applicable accounting standards, to provide a statement of such compliance, and to disclose information in relation to departures from such standards. In reality, these dis-applications arise as a result of a legal technical issue. Regulations brought into law by virtue of a Statutory Instrument are often used to implement EU Directives. Such Statutory Instruments may not include provisions that do not form part of the underlying EU Directive. The purpose of the 2019 Regulations is to give further effect to Directive 2013/34/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 on the annual financial statements, consolidated financial statements and related reports of certain types of undertakings (the 2013 EU Accounting Directive). The general obligation to maintain and keep adequate accounting records and the requirement for Companies Act financial statements to comply with applicable accounting standards did not derive directly from that 2013 EU Accounting Directive. However, since qualifying partnerships are required to prepare statutory financial statements that give a true and fair view, it stands to reason that they will need to maintain adequate accounting records to support the preparation of such financial statements, and will also need to comply with applicable accounting standards in order for the statutory financial statements to give a true and fair view. There are additional dis-applications arising from the fact that certain provisions will not apply in the case of a qualifying partnership, such as the requirement to provide details of authorised share capital, allotted share capital and movements therein, the requirement to disclose information on financial assistance for purchase of own shares, and the requirements in the directors’ report to disclose directors’ interests in shares and interim/final dividends, among other items. The relevant dis-applications and modifications are set out in detail in Part 4 of the 2019 Regulations. Application of other company law to qualifying partnerships Part 7 of the 2019 Regulations provides for the application of the European Union (Disclosure of Non-financial and Diversity Information by certain large undertakings and groups) Regulations 2017 [as amended by the European Union (Disclosure of Non-Financial and Diversity Information by certain large undertakings and groups) (Amendment) Regulations 2018] to qualifying partnerships as if they were companies formed and registered under the 2014 Act. Part 6 of the 2019 Regulations also imposes the requirements of Part 26 of the 2014 Act in respect of payments made to governments on certain qualifying partnerships.  These are subject to any modifications necessary to take account of the fact that the qualifying partnership is unincorporated. Annual return filing obligations The requirements in relation to the obligation to make an annual return are set out in Regulation 21 of the 2019 Regulations, which state that the annual return of a qualifying partnership is to be in the form prescribed by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Qualifying partnerships will be required to submit to the Companies Registration Office (the CRO) their annual return accompanied by financial statements, and by a partners’ report and auditor’s report, where relevant, for each financial year-end. The CRO notes that the relevant form for filing the annual return is Form P1, which requires details of the partnership name and its principal place of business. The annual return form required to be filed by companies is Form B1, which requires additional information such as authorised and issued share capital, members and their shareholdings, for example. Conclusion So, what actions should members of the Institute take?  Members should familiarise themselves with the requirements of the 2019 Regulations. While this article explores some of the financial reporting and filing provisions in the Regulations, it does not touch on other aspects such as those regarding the audit of financial statements and reporting by auditors. It is clear, for example, given the extension of the definition of qualifying partnerships by the 2019 Regulations, that Institute members should check whether partnerships they are involved with, either in an employment or in an advisory capacity, will now be required to file and make public their financial statements, with effect from financial years commencing on or after 1 January 2020. Failure to comply with this, and other specified provisions of the 2014 Act will result in an offence being committed and therefore, legal or professional advice should be sought where necessary. Eimear McGrath is Associate Director at the Department of Professional Practice  in KPMG.

Apr 01, 2020
Management

John Kennedy explains how to turn a casual chat into a steady flow of high-quality clients. A common problem that limits the success of many practices is also one of the most damaging, but happily, it is also one of the easiest to fix. In this article, I will show you how to turn an informal chat into a positive client relationship. When you master this structure, you will be able to manage any conversation so your potential clients will understand how they will benefit from working with you. The self-defeating spiral A typical self-defeating spiral causes significant damage, and it goes something like this: I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself. When I meet potential clients, I often don’t know what to say. I wish I had more clients and more high-quality clients with whom I like to work. I don’t feel successful, so I lack confidence when I talk to potential clients about my practice. For many years, I have focused on identifying what sets high achievers apart. There is overwhelming evidence that the ability to shape and structure a casual conversation is perhaps the single most crucial skill. This skill is not a result of natural talent, charisma or charm – it is a strength that is practised and learned. Successful client conversations It may seem obvious, but a fruitful conversation involves two people taking turns at listening and talking. Yet time and time again, when the pressure of wanting to make a good impression takes over, we make the same mistake. And, odds are, this has happened to you.  It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that your task is to list the many reasons why the other party should become your client. You say more and more about what you think you should tell them until you reach the point – and this can sometimes come frustratingly early – where you run out of things to say or, worse, you keep talking without feeling in control of the conversation as an unwelcome unease inside you begins to grow. Mastering this skill is easier than you think. A fruitful conversation is about listening and talking. You need to understand how to do both effectively and appreciate how each fits together. So, here is the structure of a successful client chat. 1. Prepare The first stage of the conversation takes place when you are on your own. There is no talking or listening, just thinking things through and creating an approach that works. To master the skill of turning casual chats into client contracts, you need to structure your thoughts. You need to understand how best to probe the value your potential client is seeking, the best way to present the value you can offer, and how to propose the next step in what will lead to a long-term, mutually rewarding relationship. 2. Probe The conversation begins here. This stage mostly involves listening and knowing how to guide the other party so that they talk about issues that move the discussion into ‘productive’ territory. Your main task is to keep the conversation casual, interesting to your client, and moving towards an understanding of the value they can achieve by working with you. You do this by asking high-quality questions. As you chat, gently guide the other party through a series of casual questions in a way that helps them clarify their thinking and reach a more valuable understanding of the outcome that is most important to them. The ability to do this effectively is a skill that takes time and practice. However, three fundamental questions form the bedrock of  every successful client conversation: What will success look like? How will you know if we have achieved the success you seek? What is most important to you about achieving that success? You probe your potential client’s thinking by asking these – and related – questions to help them think in a more structured way about their goals. Most clients are unclear as to what they want to achieve, so helping them identify their priorities will encourage them to talk with you more. You don’t do this by telling them how clever you are or by providing all the answers. The real skill and value lie in allowing potential clients to experience your proficiency by helping them structure and organise their thinking. When you master the skill of eliciting the most precise answers possible to these three fundamental questions, you will set yourself apart. By taking this approach, potential clients will experience the value of your expertise, and you will demonstrate that you are focused on helping them define, and then achieve, the success they seek.  These are the firmest possible foundations for a high-value client relationship. 3. Present Only now do you begin to talk more than you listen, and you keep asking questions to maintain focus on the critical issues. In this phase, your task is to help the client see how they will benefit from working with you. You may be inclined to talk about what you will do, but technical considerations are not very motivating for potential clients. Your critical task is to increase their motivation to the point where they decide to work with you. You do this by giving examples, by telling stories of how you helped others facing similar issues, and by focusing on how things will improve. This evidence is already captured in your value menu, where you prepared a store of material that will help your client feel they are in good hands. The stronger they feel about the specific value they will achieve by working with you, the more you will stand out as someone they can trust. 4. Propose In this step, you move the relationship from talk to action. By probing how the other person currently sees things, and how they would like things to be in the future, you are helping them untangle the issues and identify the outcomes about which they feel most strongly. These are the foundations of a strong, trusting relationship. At this point, you may suggest talking further – but before then, you will send a brief note indicating how you can help achieve the success they seek (this is very different to the standard ‘letter of engagement’). The purpose of the note is to confirm that you have fully understood the outcomes your client desires.  A succinct note about the value they will receive will move you from a casual, theoretical chat to a highly practical and highly focused discussion on the specific reasons you should both work together. Like a road journey at night This is likely to be very different to the path you have followed up to now. The traditional, and often ineffective, model tells you that you should outline your expertise at every opportunity; that you should see every conversation as a sales opportunity and sell from the outset. Sometimes this sales “advice” is even more aggressive with outdated jargon that speaks of “closing the deal” or trapping the potential client in the “killing zone”. This is hardly a basis on which to build a high-quality practice with the right clients and high-trust relationships. Instead, the Practice Builder approach outlines the specific steps you should take to help a potential client identify and access the value that is truly important to them. And through a well-structured conversation, you let them experience how you are an essential element in arriving at the outcome they want. It’s like taking a road journey at night. Through your questioning, you help your client identify the destination at which they wish to arrive. You then map out the route and together, you can set off on your conversational journey. You use your questions like headlights, to light up the landmarks and road signs for the next stage of the journey. The critical thing to remember is that you are in the driving seat, choosing the route, and setting the speed – but your client gets to adjust anything that makes the journey comfortable for them, such as opening the window or choosing the music. In this way, the conversation remains a comfortable and stress-free casual chat, but with a clear set of directions, milestones and a destination that you both reach by working together. This approach is fundamentally about helping your client arrive at the success they most value. When you stand out as a master at this, your client will want you on every journey. And they will want to tell all of their friends about you. This is a firm foundation on which to build a successful practice.   John Kennedy is an experienced strategic advisor who has worked with senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.

Apr 01, 2020
Innovation

Richard Day and Alannah Comerford explain how Chartered Accountants can enhance their organisations’ data transformation capabilities using Alteryx. With the recent changes to the FAE syllabus, which now includes Tableau, Alteryx and UIPath, the new crop of qualified Chartered Accountants will bring these skills into the workplace. In this article, we will discuss the advantages of using a data processing tool such as Alteryx. The Institute has recognised the value that Alteryx provides, and the onus is now on all of us to leverage the skills and knowledge our bright new crop of young accountants will bring to the workplace. Reflect on the tasks we are required to complete regularly as part of our role as a modern-day Chartered Accountant. Many of us would find that, despite not considering ourselves to be data experts, we cleanse, filter, summarise, append and cross-reference datasets – even if we don’t think of our actions in these terms. We often turn to spreadsheets to do these data-heavy tasks. Many of us have picked up a spreadsheet which has multiple tabs, complex formulae, thousands of rows of data and found it challenging to figure out what is happening. Also, these complex transformations and calculations often have undocumented steps, can be slow to update, require manual effort to repeat, and generally could be better controlled. Alteryx is a data processing tool that facilitates data transformations and calculations in a controlled and repeatable manner and can revolutionise how we process and analyse data.  Given the user-centric design and functionality, all accountants should be able to pick up Alteryx and get started. In Alteryx, steps in a process are represented graphically in a format called a “workflow”. It should, therefore, be far easier for a colleague to view such a workflow and figure out what is happening than if they were to pick up a spreadsheet, as described above.  Repeatable data transformation Take the simple scenario where we need to carry out a task that requires information from two or more systems. We typically export information from each system into separate files and then transfer these files to tabs in a single spreadsheet to carry out the task by summarising information from one tab and looking it up in the other. In an ideal world, with fully integrated systems perfectly tailored to all of our needs, this would be possible to do automatically on the systems themselves. However, this level of integration is not a reality for most of us and as a result, we regularly spend our time on these data transformation tasks. In many cases, data manipulation often represents a significant proportion of the time taken and does not leave much time for the accountant to review and consider the results. Alteryx can help with the data transformation and processing elements of such tasks. It provides the accountant with a way to build a workflow to complete each of the required steps each time such analysis is performed. It would then be a matter of refreshing the input files as needed and running the workflow, eliminating almost all of the time associated with the transformation of the data (see Figure 1). Similarly, Alteryx offers excellent value to an accountant by cleansing the data. In a world with imperfect and unintegrated systems, there may be data quality issues as well as inconsistent data across different systems. We have become used to removing leading zeros in an account or reference number, correcting misspelt names, or translating names of customers or products, so they match across systems. Alteryx allows us to build these data cleansing routines into a workflow to ensure that they are automatically performed the same way any time a file of this type is processed, unlocking real efficiencies. Where we need to perform tasks such as sorting, manipulating or joining files of any reasonable scale, Alteryx comes into its own. Standard steps that are performed regularly are prime targets for Alteryx. This affords excellent opportunities for Chartered Accountants to begin using this tool, as they should have an exceptional understanding of the activity required and the associated inputs and outputs. Robust data processing While many of the functions discussed above would be possible with other tools, Alteryx also has the added advantage of allowing the user to make the data transformation process more robust. While at first, it may be slightly more challenging to use Alteryx rather than filtering, sorting and using copy and paste in a spreadsheet, a Chartered Accountant will quickly become familiar with the tool given its graphical nature. Also, the rigour that is brought to a process by a user deliberately building specific steps into a workflow lends itself to robust processing. In Alteryx, it is also possible and recommended to build in controls to provide comfort over the completeness and accuracy of the information being manipulated at critical stages of the process, assuring that all required data is included and that the result is accurate. The processing is a little more opaque since it generally sits in data files rather than yet another tab on a spreadsheet. You should, therefore, build in the ability to browse the interim data at various stages of your process so you can troubleshoot or review how it looks and check that the different steps are performing as expected. When performing calculations or analysis in a spreadsheet, a small change can cause an error in a set of calculations, and it can be challenging to identify where the error is occurring. There may be hundreds or even thousands of iterations of a formula. As a result, we often see data anomalies fixed with hard-coded values. This is much better in Alteryx as good design will allow errors to be identified and a user cannot revert to hard-coding values, which may not be appropriate for future iterations of a calculation. It is also easier with Alteryx to ensure that inputs are used as provided. It provides a mechanism to revert to the source data when required, which also contributes to the robustness of a process.  Processing at scale In Alteryx, tasks can also be carried out using large volumes of data that would only have been attempted by the bravest of spreadsheet proponents, making tasks that were previously tricky (or in some cases, impossible) more feasible. Some spreadsheets have an outer limit of up to one million lines, but in many cases, the practical limit is much lower since adding formulae to files with only thousands of records can cause them to slow down drastically. Alteryx can handle the bigger datasets we now encounter. In addition, making changes to calculations in spreadsheets can be time-consuming and many have encountered spreadsheet files crashing. Alteryx generally allows changes to be made and re-run quickly. Many workflows will run in seconds while processing simple transformations for millions of records should only take a few minutes. This is a huge advantage when building a workflow, as it enables the user to experiment efficiently and add additional functionality with ease. Documentation The ability to review a workflow and the controls built into it affords management excellent oversight of calculations that may drive critical outputs. Detailed documentation of processes is something that is not always present, especially for data-heavy tasks that began as an ad hoc exercise but are now embedded in everyday activities. Performing data transformation in a tool such as Alteryx and adding annotations to workflows has the added benefit of encouraging the user to define and document what is happening in a process. Outputs The outputs from Alteryx workflows can be produced in a range of formats. It may be that the most convenient output from your Alteryx workflow is a spreadsheet, such as debtors who are over their credit limit. It is also possible for visualisations, such as those covered in previous articles, to be refreshed automatically with data files produced from Alteryx. This can help Chartered Accountants provide significant value to their businesses. Significant value Alteryx may not be required when you are working with easy-to-manipulate data on a once-off basis. In an increasingly regulated and controlled business environment, however, the benefits associated with repeatable, efficient and documented data transformations are of significant value. As we are supported by our soon to be qualified Chartered Accountants on our data analytics journey, we encourage you to share your experiences within your teams. Knowledge-sharing and an open attitude to the improvements technology can bring will breed success.   Richard Day FCA is Partner, Data Analytics & Assurance, at PwC Ireland. Alannah Comerford ACA is Senior Manager, Data Analytics & Assurance, at PwC Ireland.

Apr 01, 2020