25 May 2022

Jeremy Hyman, principal at Jeremy Hyman associates, explores the role of payroll bureau services within accountancy firms, how they’re perceived and how they can change attitudes, using technology to help them boost their value


I spend a lot of time working with firms of accountants around the UK, and most of them offer payroll services. Regrettably, these bureaux can sometimes be regarded as the poor relation of some of the higher-billing departments. I believe this view is driven by three considerations:

firstly, payroll is a relatively cheap service in terms of fee; in fact, it sometimes isn’t billed as a separate service at all, but bundled together with other services

secondly, payroll is a largely transactional service, and there is potential for advisory work to be, not just ignored, but entirely misunderstood

thirdly, payroll is sometimes provided from a protective stance. It isn’t that the firm wants to provide payroll services, rather, it doesn’t want a client going to a competitor to obtain them.

In those firms, there isn’t a great backdrop against which payroll professionals can feel valued and appreciated.

 

What can be done to address this problem?

Years of experience working with technology has taught me that, although technology can support change, it rarely drives it in a positive way. Two interdependent themes will be considered here: using technology to improve efficiency, and how users can best use the time released by this.

 

Achieving efficient operations

There’s a trend within accountancy firms, and indeed all professional service organisations, to move from being processors to advisers. Together with this, we’ve observed a fascinating maxim in our work. The work clients most resent paying for is, in general, the work staff least like to do.

What do I mean by this? If a client pays a firm £250 a month for processing data, they’ll resent that fee as they feel it doesn’t add value. If, on the other hand, a client pays £250 a month (or indeed more) for a service that includes advice, narrative and insight, as well as processing, there’s less resistance and more differentiation.

This means we’re no longer in a race to the bottom on fee but competing in one to the top in quality. And while fee never becomes irrelevant, with other factors in play, we’re less of a commodity and more able to justify why we’re worth what we’re charging.

Here are my top three bits of technology, which any modern payroll operation wanting to achieve peak efficiency should use:

 

A portal

For the secure exchange of information between parties. This portal should serve employers and employees, as well as staff and any other stakeholders. It should be easy on the eye and deliver a great user experience with minimal maintenance. It should also include a mechanism for export, transform and load, which accepts input in various formats from employers, and transforms data to fit an organisation’s standard operating practices.

Automation

In the form of robotic process automation (RPA) or similar, to act as a ‘virtual worker’ for repetitive tasks, to release valuable human time. The best robotic systems, once initiated, are aware of who they should escalate issues and new scenarios to. They learn from these and won’t escalate again in future if those same circumstances occur. You can think of RPA as a perfect trainee. A prerequisite for a successful RPA project is an excellent set of manual processes. If you don’t have your standard operating procedures formally agreed and followed, don’t start with RPA yet. Incidentally, for payroll departments within bigger firms, there may have already been investment in RPA, so the full cost of this needn’t be borne by payroll alone.

 

Integration

Wherever possible, payroll systems should integrate with other systems, so data is only entered, stored, processed, validated and handled once. This is especially true in an accountancy practice, where the same data is used in multiple service lines. Although RPA can compensate for poor integration by emulating the human steps you might already employ, system integration is the more elegant solution here.

 

What do we do with the time we’re saving?

We’ve identified three key technologies to free-up time. This should release the team to provide advice.

That’s great, but not only must the team be trained in how to advise, but we also need a mind-set change across the overall firm. In opening, I described some of the ways in which payroll is sometimes viewed as the poor relation. Well, part of the remedy to this is to restate the value of the service. This needs to be both inside and outside the department.

I don’t believe most payroll staff are going to suddenly become consultant-advisers. That is too big a change of outlook – I think the way forward here is as what I prefer to call ‘data-advisers’.

By this, I mean experts who can examine, understand and interpret data, leveraging their familiarity with it as most of their skill set. Perhaps some communication skills could be added to this expertise, to round out their new role.

At the heart of the value of this service is what we refer to as data-into-action. Lots of payroll systems can generate reams of reports, but they’re not useful per se, except at a technical level. Our ideal payroll adviser can take the report data, and their years of experience, and translate this data into key actions, alerting the responsible party to take those actions. Some simple examples include:

a payroll user noticing the staff turnover for a client is increasing, suggesting there’s  a certain degree of unhappiness among the workforce

comparative data might show a client is paying too much, or too little, for various grades of staff, when compared to an industry or local baseline

comparative data may also look at gender, age and other metrics, or ratio of permanent employees to contractors, and so on.

What’s more – and this is the key point to achieving value – the impact of this data can be multiplied many times over within an accounting firm. This would be achieved by combining it with data from other sources, such as book-keeping and accounting. In this scenario, payroll data becomes a key component in analysing a client’s financial well-being, commercial viability and future trajectory.               

And that, combined with insight from you as an expert in payroll, will contribute to client engagement and advisory activity. This is data-into-action: armed with this understanding, a firm can report or alert information to a client, or update a partner or relationship manager with the information required to better inform their next client call. This is what clients want from their professional advisers, and you become a crucial link in delivery value.

Remember: it’s the same data you’ve always had; you just now have more time to think about it.

By adopting this approach, you’re enhancing the value of payroll processing. More importantly, you’re aligning it with a key goal any firm of accountants should have: increasing client engagement and delivering pertinent insight. Pro-active advice, and not reactive processing, is the mantra all professional service organisations should adopt, and payroll can provide a key part of the key data to drive this highly desirable behaviour. 


 

Featured in the June 2022 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.