London Calling: How Newcastle’s Blu Sky Reached City Startups by Innovating on Client Experience
At Blu Sky Accounting, every decision we make centers around the client experience. Because if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters.
When I started here, Blu Sky was transitioning to a full-blown cloud accounting firm. The move was part of our mission to serve our clients better and to reach new customers in London. We weren't amongst the earliest adopters, but once we made the decision, we were aggressive in our pursuit.
The core of our initial offering was Xero. As an accounting platform, it’s second-to-none. Although we liked the features, and its ease of use, another factor influenced our decision. Many of the tech startups we were targeting as potential clients were already using Xero. It was a smart business decision for us. We offered a combination of their chosen accounting platform and the expertise they lacked.
A New Market
Right away, we created a niche for ourselves as we focused on R&D and SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme). The latter provides tax incentives that encourage investors to back smaller startups. Through income and capital gains tax relief, as well as loss relief, SEIS helps riskier startups find backers.
Our focus on R&D and SEIS, and our familiarity with Newcastle's startup scene, made us a natural fit in the North East. But we set our sights on London—Europe's biggest startup scene. Home to 30 accelerators and some 2,000 startups employing 48,000 people, London is the premier market for a firm like ours.
Thanks to the cloud, we can offer our services remotely and at a very competitive price. Operating costs are much lower in Newcastle and we pass those savings on to our clients in London. None of this could have happened before we switched to the cloud. Even then, we needed the right mix of cloud-based platforms to provide the right product to our customers.
We settled on Xero accounting software right away because our clients were already familiar with it and the feature set was robust. But another pillar of our operations is Futrli, a dashboard-based reporting and forecasting tool. We’re actually currently looking at a white-label version with our own branding to help us better serve our clients in an advisory capacity. But even with these two strong, cloud-based platforms, we were still missing one major piece of the puzzle.
Removing Receipts and Barriers
Because we serve the startup space, our clients are mostly Millennials. They are very comfortable using cloud-based solutions, but the experience has to be seamless. Getting financial information into Xero and Futrli was the hard part. That's where Receipt Bank came in.
We were introduced to Receipt Bank through a client. We instantly recognized it as a way of removing barriers. Before Receipt Bank, clients used various methods to provide their receipts and invoices. Some would show up with boxes full of paper. The savvy ones would scan them and upload them to DropBox. Either way, it wasn't very efficient. Someone had to set aside time every month to work through all those receipts.
Receipt Bank eliminates that bottleneck. The platform provides real-time data entry and processing. Now, our clients simply take a picture of a receipt with a smartphone and then upload it to Receipt Bank. It’s then published into Xero and Futrli automatically. But to reach the platform’s full potential, our clients have to make a habit of using the Receipt Bank app.
Even if it's coffee at Starbucks, we ask them to photograph the receipt and upload it right away. This way they can chuck it and forget it. As far as they're concerned, it comes to us, and we look after it. And for us, instead of dedicated staff to collect and process receipts, it’s done automatically behind the scenes.
Part of what made us successful with Receipt Bank is how we rolled the platform out to our clients: we started small. Blu Sky has mini teams we call “pods.” We rolled out Receipt Bank with one of these pods, targeting customers who were willing to try new technology. The feedback was immediate: "This is Awesome!" "Why would we not be using this?" In-house, and amongst our clients, it was a hit. Once we were able to get buy-in from this small group of clients, we were able to bring the platform to everyone.
Another big reason for Receipt Bank’s immediate success was that the platform is very polished. It provides an excellent customer experience. Competitors, like Datamolino, don't provide the same ease-of-use. The simple truth is that clients won't use a product that isn't easy. And everything else falls apart if they don't upload their receipts.
From Mess to Success
At the same time we started to roll out Receipt Bank, we also became Xero Platinum partners. There are different levels of partnership, based on the number of clients. We’d entered the top tier, but we still supported other accounting platforms, like QuickBooks and FreeAgent. If a client came in who was already using QuickBooks, we'd continue with that platform.
After a while, however, this mess of systems became unmanageable. We supported something like 10 different cloud packages and couldn't expect our staff to master the intricacies of so many different platforms. Our only option was to streamline our product offering. We opted for the trifecta of Xero, Futrli, and Receipt Bank. Those three offered the best of everything we were looking for.
We focused our internal resources on these three platforms. Now, every single member of our staff is a certified user of all three. We also started moving all of our clients to these three packages.
New customers don't have a choice. These are the platforms we support. When it comes to receipt processing, not a single new client has walked through that door in over a year who is not using Receipt Bank.
The move to only three platforms was a difficult decision for us. Some customers wanted to use their previous platforms, but we needed to ensure we could provide the best experience and solutions to our clients. If they weren’t willing to make the switch, then maybe they weren’t the right client for us.
Making Compliance a Breeze
Now that we’re all-in on our three solutions, we couldn’t be happier. Receipt Bank, in particular, has changed the way we do business. We’ve made data entry, and follow-up, part of our client's daily routines. We have our bookkeepers internally clear Receipt Bank every day. If there’s a discrepancy, we know what to ask the client for. This allows our bookkeepers to build up strong relationships as well as giving our clients the peace of mind that when they send us a receipt, everything is handled. This process means customer data is always up to date. At any given moment, our clients have fresh information they can use to forecast and plan.
Although they deal with a single account manager, they know we have a team looking out for them. Receipt Bank has opened up a whole new layer of collaboration and communication. There are many more touch points. You could say we provide clients with an outsourced finance team. They're getting bookkeepers, payroll staff, controllers, and expert advisers from us. Compliance is only part of the service.
Receipt Bank has also boosted our ability to manage data entry. In the old days, two out of three clients would bring in the paper receipts we needed to stay on top of everything. Our completion rate hovered around 60%. Now we're up to 95%, month after month. Customers are now in the habit of putting everything in, every day.
Receipt Bank has also helped us maintain six years of consecutive growth. We're talking 30–40% annually and it’s exciting to think about what the future holds. Automation is helping accounting firms offer better and more efficient services to clients. But the industry is at a crossroads. On the one hand, a company like ours can service more clients with fewer resources. On the other, we can take on a more advisory role with our existing base. We've managed to do a bit of both.
Not everyone has the means, or the desire, to take that second route. As a result, some people will get left behind. You can't go from being a bookkeeper or an accountant to being an advisor overnight.
Who knows what accounting will look like 20 years from now. It won't be the boring old man in a suit with a briefcase and calculator. That image is going the way of the dodo. We are already asking if we need to attract hires with different skill sets. Is it better to hire an accountant and then train them like an MBA? Or is it smarter to hire a business strategist and teach them some accounting?
But whatever the future holds for Blu Sky, and our industry, one key player will always be front and centre: the client. Every move we’ve made over the years has been to serve them better and position ourselves to provide more value. Without our clients, we wouldn’t survive. We hope they think of us the same way.