FreeAgent enhances the customer experience (Sponsored)

Oct 01, 2020

Started in Scotland in 2007, award-winning accounting software FreeAgent now has 100,000 users across the UK, and they are determined to make the customer experience even better, writes Barry McCall.

Ulster Bank NI business customers now have free access to award-winning accounting software FreeAgent. Voted the UK's number one accounting software for small businesses at the 2018 Accounting Excellence Awards, FreeAgent allows small business owners to do their business administration from anywhere in the world with all the features they need to keep their finances on track.

“It’s completely free of charge to our small business current account customers in Northern Ireland,” says Richard Lusty, Regional Performance Manager with Ulster Bank NI. “Ulster Bank NI is here to support business, and this is another part of the NatWest Group suite of measures which have been put in place to help businesses recover, rebuild and, ultimately, thrive.”

As a result of this launch, all accountancy practices in Northern Ireland with Ulster Bank NI business current account customers can offer access to FreeAgent for free. “We are helping them add value to their clients,” says Lusty.
“FreeAgent connects with Ulster Bank NI Anytime Banking to give our customers a real-time view of what’s happening with their finances,” he adds. “It also connects to other online banking platforms. The drudgery associated with recording transactions on an accounting system disappears. It’s all automated and there is no longer a need for rekeying. That frees up time for business owners to work on other things. Better data leads to better decisions and if you seamlessly share that data with trusted partners, you can get even better outcomes. This is one of the ways we are supporting customers across Northern Ireland.”

FreeAgent’s beginning

FreeAgent was founded in Scotland in 2007. “The founders are still with the business,” says FreeAgent Chief Commercial Officer, Kevin McCallum. “They were three freelancers working for themselves who felt there had to be a better way to manage their business finances. This coincided with the arrival of the cloud. They developed FreeAgent and it has gone from strength to strength since. Our customers love what we do.”

FreeAgent’s focus has remained on serving small businesses with up to 10 employees or more. “That’s the sweet spot for us,” says McCallum.

Ease of use has been a key differentiator for the software from the very beginning. “We pay a lot of time and attention to making our software accessible for all our customers,” he says. “We don’t expect everyone to be Chartered Accountants.”

The business grew initially by a combination of people finding it online, responding to marketing efforts and, latterly, users being added from its network of over 1,800 Chartered Accountants across the UK.

This success drew the attention of NatWest Group (then Royal Bank of Scotland Group) in 2016 who asked FreeAgent to partner with it in offering the software free to small business customers. NatWest Group then acquired the entirety of the business and, as a result, the FreeAgent offer has been extended across NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank NI customers. “That was the first acquisition made by NatWest Group in 10 years,” McCallum points out.

This represented a new departure for a major bank. “Some of the larger banks like NatWest have been doing fantastically innovative things,” he says. “FreeAgent is not a traditional banking product – it’s a combination of banking and accounting. It brings your accounting and financial management together in one place and helps businesses comply with the HMRC Making Tax Digital initiative. We have 100,000 active users in the UK and that number is growing all the time.”

Richard Lusty agrees: “This is different to what our competitors are doing. It is bringing accountancy software together with banking services and we are supporting business and removing barriers by making it free of charge, as well.”

He sees this in the context of the overall support being provided to business by Ulster Bank NI during the pandemic and points to the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, which provides financial support to smaller businesses across the UK that are losing revenue due to the impact of COVID-19, as one element of this. Another is the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. “This enables smaller businesses to access finance more quickly and, as of 1 September, small business customers had drawn down 8,000 loans valued over £235 million. Businesses have faced severe challenges this year and we want to leverage our strength as part of the NatWest Group to support them in every way we can.”

Accessible software

FreeAgent also assists users with tax, filing and other regulations. “That’s a particular strength,” says McCallum. “It is very accessible with very straightforward language. It helps people relax about tax as tax can be quite scary for many. Tax and compliance capability is a key differentiator for the software. For example, later this year it will ensure full compliance with FRS 105, the simplified accounting standard for small businesses.”

Businesses without an accountant can also use FreeAgent to find one. “Using the CoPilot offering, we’ll match users with a FreeAgent partner accountant who suits their business. We are also helping uninsured and under-insured businesses through our partnership with Hiscox. Users can get insurance quotes from Hiscox directly through FreeAgent. It’s fully integrated and may lead to dynamic insurance cover based on turnover and employee numbers. All of these things are made possible by integration.”

One accountancy practice which is already using FreeAgent is Belfast-based BMG Accountants and Tax Advisors. Established in 2000, the practice has grown steadily over the years. “I had worked in an accountancy practice before and decided to take the leap from employment to self-employment,” says founder Bill McGregor. “Business has been growing very strongly and we have doubled our number of clients over the last few years.”

McGregor believes the Ulster Bank NI offer will bring considerable benefits to small businesses. “I find the FreeAgent software very suitable for small businesses,” he says. “There is a bit less jargon to it than you find with other software packages. It is very user friendly. I have also found the support from FreeAgent to be very good and that is important for small businesses.”

Businesses using the same software package as their accountants is also very useful. “It is great from the point of view of the client. If something is not clear to them, we can pull it up on screen and see what they are seeing and help them with the issue. The cloud offers great flexibility and benefits like that.”

It’s all about customer experience for Richard Lusty. “That’s vitally important to us,” he says. “FreeAgent will offer our small business customers considerable benefits in terms of time and money savings. This is not a basic version of the software – it is the full package worth up to £400 per year to our customers. We are at a big moment in the digitalisation of banks. We are using digital technologies to enhance the customer experience and that has been reflected in improvements in our customer surveys. We are still on that journey and we are determined to make our customer experience even better.”