Believe in Better

On Saturday evening we went to hear my good friend Lauren Currie speak at the University of Dundee. Lauren is one of the people who’ve inspired me on my journey in the world of design over the last decade, so it’s always a delight to see her.

When she introduces herself on stage she’ll typically say, “I’m Lauren Currie and I believe in better”. It’s a simply phrase, but one that sits at the core of everything she is and does.

Lauren has this ability to make you look at the world in a different way, to see the things that aren’t working, and then to do something about it. All with a focus on social change and making our world better.

It’s become a mantra for me too over the past few years. It’s why I do what I do. Why I get involved in the things that I do. It’s a question I ask of myself each and every day – are you really making things better today?

Let me explain.

My world is the world of business. It’s where I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life. For several years I’ve been trying to find my ‘thing’. Where can I make most impact; how can I help people the most?

It was staring me in the face, and it was my son & business partner Andy who helped me to see it. You see, I’m an accountant. Always have been and always will be. An accountant with an ability to communicate often complex things in an easy to understand way. An accountant who’s embraced the world of design and who believes in better.

That’s why we setup our accounting business last year. We could see that the world of accounting wasn’t delivering what customers needed. Accounting needed to change and we were up for the challenge of leading the way.

We’re now 9 months into the journey and I believe that we’re making a difference. But there’s still lots to be done. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

Do you believe in better? How can you use your skills and experience to make a positive difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Let’s talk about paper

It’s been a week of talking about paper. Specifically, organisations that continue to insist on printing & sending information to customers, whether they like it or not.

In 2018 there’s really no excuse for doing that. The common refrain is, “well, we’ve always done it like that”. However that doesn’t mean you should be.

Last weekend I recorded a video about accountants posting financial statements to their clients for signing, without any explanation of what these statements mean. It’s a practice that many accountants have used for decades, but what we found in our research before we launched Ashton McGill was that clients really dislike this. They often don’t understand what they’re being asked to sign, it feels cold and impersonal, and there’s no attempt to explain or educate.

That video generated a lot of interest and people shared their individual stories with us. We got a bunch of enquiries on the back of it, and so for we’ve won 3 new clients as a result. There’s a message there for the luddites who insist on continuing to send stuff out in the mail……

The second example this week was a local college whose finance department insist on posting paper invoices out to customers. This seems to be a practice that many education institutions still use. They also expected us to phone them to make payment. I mean, really?!? Their process couldn’t have been less customer-friendly if they had tried.

And yet we see this sort of thing time and time again. Systems designed around the needs of the organisation, without any thought for the user or customer. Systems that are never reviewed, they just do it that way because……..well, because that’s how they’ve always done it.

Surely we can do better than that? You have my email address, you know my name, company, and our physical address (because you insist on mailing stuff there!), so why not email me a copy instead? It’s costing you money to post documents to me. Not only the paper cost, the ink, the envelope, the postage, but also the cost of someone’s time to do this.

Then I’ve got to do something with the paper documents. I’ll sign them if I have to (assuming I understand what I’m signing!), scan them, then email them back to you (see the irony there?) before shredding them. What a waste of time.

So, come on. If you’re the recipient of this type of behaviour, then insist they change (unless you like receiving mail!). And if you’re printing, stuffing envelopes, sticking on a stamp, then mailing them – ask yourself why? More importantly, ask your customers what they want.

We don’t need to print. Not only will it save you time, it’s also better for the environment. It’s time to be better.

Why are you still charging by the hour?

When I worked for Ernst & Young back in the early 90s, we had to account for every 10 minutes of our time. Each hour equated to 6 units, and we had a weekly target of billing a minimum of 75% of chargeable time.

In reality, most of us were billing over 100% of our time – working 70-80 hours, that was how you got on in the firm back then. Time was our currency.

The legal profession worked on similar principals, charging clients for the amount of time spent. It was a model that worked really well for the Professions – you could plan with certainty and huge profits were made.

Little has changed over the past 20 years.

So why do I have a problem with charging for time? Quite simply, it rewards inefficiency. The longer you spend on something, the more it costs me as the client. Where’s the incentive for you to innovate, to think out of the box? No, it’s easier just to load time onto the client.

But the world has changed. That kind of behaviour is no longer acceptable.

However the majority are still doing it and that’s where the opportunity lies. Modern firms think like businesses. They’re designed around the needs of the clients, not the needs of the firm.

Pricing is fixed. As the client, you know exactly how much you’re paying and what you’re getting for that. It’s much fairer. If you can innovate and find more cost-effective ways of delivering your service, then that’s absolutely fine. As long as both parties recognise the value that’s being delivered, at a fair price, then no-one will have a problem.

The days of the accountant & lawyer dictating terms are over. For those that don’t adapt, it’ll be a bleak future. Put the client front and centre. Focus on delivering value.

It’s what every other kind of business has to do, now it’s time for you to think like a business too…..

Embracing the past

I left school in 1986 and went to work as a trainee accountant with Turnbull Kemp, a small firm based in Perth. I was always good with numbers, so accounting seemed a natural fit for that. Within a couple of years, I’d moved on to join Ernst & Young, one of the world’s biggest firms. I enjoyed my time there, the opportunities were tremendous and I seized them with both hands.

After qualifying in late ’92, I left to join a client as their financial controller. I wanted to see what life was like in business – that was where my real passion lay.

Through the 90s, we built that business into a group, with interests as diverse as construction, food manufacture (we made amazing dessert products!), snooker & pool clubs, IT, and consulting. I had a lot of fun doing this. We were starting businesses, buying others, selling some, with a few spectacular failures thrown in for good measure. I learned rapidly in this environment, my earlier years as an accountant giving me a solid foundation.

Over the last decade I’ve run businesses in consulting, professional & financial services, retail, and then most recently at Ashton McGill, in the world of design. Somewhere along the way I forgot about the accountant stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I was still ALL OVER the numbers in every business, but I wasn’t using those valuable skills I learned back at the start of my career as much as I should have.

Part of that was because it’s much better introducing yourself as a designer than an accountant at parties! People actually want to speak to you, they don’t look for a reason to make a swift exit. I’m naturally curious and love solving problems – in another life perhaps I’d have studied design, but in 1986 that was a world that I wasn’t even aware of.

A lot of the work that we do at Ashton McGill is based on design thinking and service design. For me, the customers and users should be at the heart of any organisation, so it makes sense to design for them. We use the language of customer experience, as more business people understand this, however the same design principles underpin everything that we do.

Recently I’ve been doing more financial work and I’ve really enjoyed it. I spent Friday building a financial model for a client after we identified the need to do some modelling in a Strategy Workshop. I’ve also been doing accounting work for my brother’s golf business, along with forecasts for a couple of other businesses. It’s like riding a bike – it never leaves you.

I’m not embarrassed to talk about my accounting background any more. It’s a part of who I am, and I’m really rather good at it. Then when you add in 25 years running businesses and all the experiences I’ve had along the way, plus my knowledge and capability as a designer, then it’s a unique skill set.

Now I just need to figure out how to sell that to the market. If you have any thoughts, then I’d love to hear them!