What’s stopping you scaling up?

Understanding the key role systems play

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When I ask this question of accounting firm owners/partners who are struggling to scale up, they often tell me it’s their team.

They can’t rely on them to produce work to the same high standard as the owner/partners. Or they simply can’t recruit new team members for the business to enable it to grow. With recruitment such an issue at the moment, this is a particularly difficult challenge.

Well, there’s one solution to both those problems.


They may not seem very sexy, but systems are fundamental to building a scalable business (and crucially, a business that has real value when you want to exit).

If you feel you have to check every piece of work or that you’re the only one who can run client meetings, you’re making yourself into a bottleneck. Allowing your team to take on more is essential if you want to grow your business. And that’s where effective systems come in. Your workload decreases, capacity increases and you have time to work on developing and scaling up your business. So actually, systems ARE sexy!

Why systems matter

I’m sure you’re already using systems for some things in your business. Actually, I’ll rephrase that – I’m sure there are lots of systems being used in your business.

The problem comes when different people use different systems to do the same job, often systems that exist only in their head. When you start to build a team by employing qualified accountants, each of them comes with their own way of doing things (generally one they’ve learned from another practice). It’s not that they don’t produce great work, it’s just that they produce and present data and results in their own way. And that of course, leads to inconsistency.

Consistency matters to your clients. They have to be confident that everything will be produced in the way they’ve come to expect. A restaurant produces the same dishes, day after day, night after night. Customers come back because they love the way the restaurant makes its burgers or lasagne or steak and kidney pie. If the recipe changes from one day to the next, customers lose confidence and stay away.

It's exactly the same for an accounting business. Consistency is what your firm’s reputation is built on.

When you have effective systems in place and everyone in your team is following the same system, you get consistency.

Stop reinventing the wheel

How often have you had to explain the way you prepare a trial balance, for example, when someone new starts? Or any other task that comes up regularly? And how often do you get interrupted during the day with someone in your team saying, ‘Can I just ask you …’?

Having clearly documented systems in place eliminates this problem. Of course, when someone takes on a task for the first time, they need guidance. But their learning curve will be a lot faster when they can refer to a system to answer their questions rather than having to ask you. And the time you need to spend with them is significantly reduced.

Letting go without losing control

You might be shaking your head right now, and thinking that you could never trust your team to do things to the same standard as you. That’s why I talk about effective systems. An effective system results in the same quality of work, no matter who is producing it. So when you create a system, you build in all the details that bring it up to your high standards.

It’s also vital to keep reviewing and improving your systems. Make it clear to the people who are using them day to day that you value their input on how they could be improved. So rather than just robotically following instructions, they feel they have a part to play in making the business more successful.

Tips for implementing systems the right way

  • Make it clear to your team that there is only one system for a task. This may well need reinforcing from time to time. Yes, you may meet some resistance if someone has been doing a job for a long time in their own way. But if, as above, you emphasise that you welcome their suggestions for improvement, this should help to appease them.
  • Don’t try to systemise everything at once. Systems projects often fail because it feels too daunting to even try. Start with just one task that takes up your time. Document every step of the process, test it out, refine it. Only move on to the next one once the first one is finalised.
  • Create a central point for all your systems so everyone knows where to find them. AVN members use the AVN System Builder software, which includes organisation charts and workflows so it’s easy to find the systems associated with every role in the business. Other software is available of course. But don’t be put off from starting if you don’t have the right software. Store all your systems in one folder (digital or even hard copy to begin with) that everyone can easily access.

There are dozens more practical ideas for releasing the bottleneck in your business and freeing up your time in The Accountants KnowHow Club. It’s packed full of tips, training and resources to help you take your accounting business to where you want it to go. Find out more.

Shane Lukas – AVN for Accountants