For sole practitioners, having a trusted network is critical. It serves multiple purposes, from helping you pick your peers’ brains on how they apply legislative requirements to offering you support with tricky issues or providing additional expertise.
“A network of people who you can refer work to for areas where you’re not a specialist helps you as a sole practitioner,” says Dean Neaves, Senior Manager, Quality Assurance Department, ICAEW. “It not only relieves the stress of having to deal with every situation, but puts you in that position of being a trusted adviser and keeps the client happy.”
Tessa Davidson, a chartered accountant who has worked for a wide range of firms, including regional practices and the Big Four, now runs her own business offering tax and accountancy services. As a sole practitioner, she recognises the importance of a network she can refer clients on to.
“The typical examples for me would be a client where I'm just doing the management accounting and we need somebody to do the audit,” she says. “So I've got a couple of firms that I can refer them to and that works really well.”
A network also means having likeminded individuals you can consult when you need more information or want to know how to apply specific regulations or requirements in your business. “If you have people you can talk to in a similar situation and ask: ‘How did you apply these regulations; how are you following these rules?’, it becomes much more real and practical,” says Neaves.
“You might not realise you aren’t applying the latest guidance or thinking,” adds Angela Freeman, Manager, Professional Standards, Quality Assurance, ICAEW. “But if you maintain a network, you should get a broader perspective, as well as access to peer support.”
It’s not just about feeling cut off from latest developments. Even when you keep up with legislative changes and new approaches, you can sometimes feel isolated. Davidson keeps abreast of requirements and is committed to regular training and other aspects of Continuing Professional Development (CPD). But she also knows that one of the harder aspects of being a sole practitioner, especially if you work largely from home, is the lack of interaction with other people. “It can be quite isolating,” she says, “not always speaking to people day-to-day.”
One way of making more contacts is through ICAEW’s district societies, which offer a range of networking support, from general practitioner discussion groups to women in accountancy networks. “These are usually informal,” says Freeman. “And quite a lot of those who go along are sole practitioners.”
Some practitioners create their own groups. “We come across very good examples where four or five practitioners get together once a month for lunch,” says Freeman. “Then they chat about the issues they’re facing: how they approach anti-money laundering compliance, for example.”
“I know a handful of other sole practitioners,” says Davidson. “And every now and then we pick up the phone to each other and talk about a technical issue or a client management issue or just have a chat,” she explains. “I’ve also got someone who used to be a partner in a firm I worked at. He’s always been a sounding board for me. And because his practice is larger than mine, he comes across a lot more complex situations and issues.”
Keep up with your CPD
Making sure you're up-to-date with the latest thinking and developments is what CPD is all about. “I’ve always taken CPD very seriously,” says Davidson. She used to attend courses in person but now does online training, which fits more easily into her daily routine.
“Online training is fantastic,” she says. “It's 20 minutes a day for one week once a month, or sometimes it's a little bit more than that, but you just fit it in around everything else. I’d really recommend it.”
Beyond online training, she gets regulatory and other updates from a wide range of sources. “Many of these are from ICAEW for the groups I've subscribed to,” she says. “I look to see if there's anything relevant I need to review.” She also uses private subscription services that offer online technical information and helplines, a well as other sources such as HMRC.
She particularly recommends ICAEW’s practice assurance compliance review checklist after having used it recently to prepare for her review, and she now intends to check against it each year. “You can use all our compliance checklists to make sure you’re not missing anything or to highlight areas where you might be exposed,” says Neaves.
The checklists are regularly updated, which means they’re an easy way of making sure you’ve got everything covered from a regulatory point of view. “And if you find something you’re not quite sure you’re complying with,” suggests Neaves. “Then maybe at the next lunch or district society meet-up, you can discuss that with fellow practitioners.”
Think about your alternate
Another aspect of running a business on your own is planning for continuity. “If you’re a sole practitioner or sole director, we would recommend having an alternate who can step in if you’re incapacitated,” says Freeman.
“There’s no specific requirement for this under the Practice Assurance Regulations, unless you hold clients’ money,” she explains. “But it is an extremely good idea to have someone – maybe just informally – who can take over the practice and look after clients if something unexpected happens.”
“When choosing an alternate you want it to be someone who understands your client base,” she adds, “and who will get on well with your clients. They also need the capacity to pick up the additional work at short notice.”
If you’ve already appointed an alternate, it’s critical that you keep the arrangement under review and check it’s still practical and a good fit. “Have periodic updates with your alternate to keep them apprised of your clients, and check they have the necessary access to your records and computer systems should the need arise,” advises Freeman.
Davidson’s alternate is a firm she used to work for. “They're based quite locally and I've referred quite a bit of work to them, so I’m in touch with them regularly,” she says. “It’s important because you never know what might happen.”
Alternates might also form part of a sole practitioner’s succession planning. “If you find somebody suitable to take over the practice when you retire, having that person as an alternate for a few years could be a good thing,” says Neaves. “If you’ve built a relationship, it’s much easier to hand over your business and clients to someone you trust.”
As a sole practitioner, being open minded and resourceful goes with the territory. And this applies equally to approaching the regulatory environment. It’s important to explore all avenues of support, whether this is fellow professionals, ICAEW, or the wide range of commercial information and training providers available.
“We want to see all firms complying with regulatory requirements,” says Neaves. “And if you’ve got a good network, and you keep up with your CPD, then you’ll have a better understanding of the regulations, apply them better and avoid the common pitfalls. At the same time, you will probably also increase client satisfaction, reduce your stress and grow your business.”
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