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Creating A Community With Your Clients – With Accountant Alasdair McGill

June 10, 2020

Alasdair McGill is more than just an accountant. He’s a man with a family, a successful and forward-thinking business, a dedicated workforce and an unshakable determination to do the right thing.
This article originated from the Xero blog. The XU Hub is an independent news and media platform - for Xero users, by Xero users. Any content, imagery and associated links below are directly from Xero and not produced by the XU Hub.
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He’s passionate about people and community, and like many of us, is searching for that elusive work-life balance. Or in his words, “workplaces that feed our soul”.

Using empathy, research and design skills to create an accounting service may sound unconventional…

Then you meet Alasdair, co-founder of Ashton McGill.

Headshot of white man in green t shirt smiling

The last time Float caught up with Alasdair was at the Xero Awards 2020, just weeks before lockdown and life as we knew it was turned upside down.

This time, Zoom was the virtual meeting place and COVID-19 was the conversation.

Alasdair shared a quote from a business owner he had read recently that really resonated with him:

I’ve learned more about what accountants really do for business in the last two weeks than I have over the last five years. You guys are like financial doctors and this is like all your patients getting sick at once’.”

This couldn’t be more true.

Helping people build better businesses

Let’s go back to 2013. Ashton McGill hasn’t always been an accounting advisory firm; perhaps unusually, it started life as a design agency. As business owners, Alasdair and his son and co-founder, Andy, found that they were increasingly disappointed by their experiences with accountants and other finance industry professionals. Their services weren’t customer-focused or proactive and provided no additional value to their clients.

Armed with their vision of a different kind of customer-centric and streamlined accounting firm, 2017 saw the launch of Ashton McGill as we know it today. The company recently went one step further to become Xero’s rightly deserved Small Firm of the Year 2020.

“We provide simple, smart and supportive accountancy services that help our customers to grow.”

The personal and professional pivot

In eight short weeks since the pandemic made its entrance, Alasdair has pivoted the firm’s business model to do everything they can to just help clients. He says honestly, “very little accounting has been done during this period”.

They made the deliberate business pivot to focus on simply helping people. This uncovered new opportunities to provide experiences for their clients that weren’t just accountancy based. One-to-one advice calls rapidly turned into weekly group Q&A Zoom sessions during which customers could get accountancy advice, feel a sense of community and share their experiences.

“Sometimes it’s just about listening.”

Alasdair’s been trying not to focus on the negatives of the current situation, instead, he has been actively trying to inspire positivity for his clients, by supporting them emotionally as well as professionally. Some services Ashton McGill haven’t even been charging for and they’ve absorbed the cost themselves because it was the “right thing to do”.

IPhone 6 with loading bar on the screen

The internet never sleeps

Alasdair freely admits that doing so many advice calls became hard to manage and emotionally draining for his team. Whilst using tools like Slack and Zoom to stay connected is convenient, it means that his team working from home are always accessible. At one point Ashton McGill had even closed its doors to new business and had a waiting list for their services.

Daily check-ins with virtual coffees (and donuts) and scheduled holiday days helped put the team’s wellbeing first, so that they, in turn, could best support their clients in what is an emotional and turbulent time for them too.

With a conscious decision made to focus on the human connection that runs through the core values of their firm and with sound working and self-care practices in place, by April, the team was ready to take on new clients.

Cash flow forecasting should be a habit!

“I’ve never made so many scenarios in Float as I have recently.”

How has using Float impacted Ashton McGill’s service throughout the last two months?

Alasdair explains that he feels cash flow forecasting has evolved to become a necessity essential to navigating the COVID-19 situation.

“Not enough people value the importance of cash flow and haven’t been doing it well, or even at all.”

Alasdair is proactively encouraging people to use this period to build good cash flow habits going forward, as it’s proven to be the best decision-making tool for his clients during this time.

For his own firm, Float became the app he was using the most on a daily basis. It’s enabled his team to model the impact of project work being postponed indefinitely and made sure their own cash flow stayed healthy.

Large yellow wooden hammer

The right tools for the job

The way Ashton McGill has been using Float since the lockdown began is to focus on short-term goals for their clients, looking mostly up to three months ahead for a really granular look at their cash flow.

‘What if?’ had become the burning question. Being able to create multiple cash flow scenarios to show clients how things might look in one, two or three months was invaluable.

“The dynamic flexibility Float offers us in day-to-day cash flow is where the app really came into its own for us.”

Cash flow forecast graph showing funding scenario

Float has also offered Alasdair precious insight for clients applying for loans or bank funding: making different scenario layers to calculate how much money a client would need to borrow and asking questions like, ‘is it enough?’, ‘do we need to borrow more?’ and adjusting their scenarios accordingly.

For one client, Alasdair used Float reports to apply for a loan on a bank holiday Monday, had a loan offer by Tuesday lunchtime and had it signed off by 2pm. Now that really is something to be proud of.

Ashton McGill’s bigger clients were using Float slightly differently before COVID-19. Previously, Alasdair and his colleagues trained clients on Float, with the goal of handing control of the software over to the clients, with occasional check-ins to ensure things were running smoothly.

However, during COVID-19, Alasdair has noticed a shift, and remarks that scenario planning began to play a more pivotal role as clients quickly needed a more granular, in-depth look at their short-term cash flow. Float was the tool to be able to provide that for them.

“Adding stuff up and making sense of the numbers is what we do. Managing your finances and helping you understand them makes us happy.”

A small effort, a big reward

Alasdair affectionately tells us about a particular client, an Edinburgh-based soft drinks company, who were looking to keep on a member of their team that was on a graduate program, despite the company having to shut down upon lockdown. It was the first time any of Alasdair’s clients had had a conversation with him about making what would be the first of many tough decisions due to COVID-19 over the coming months.

Looking at their cash flow and feeling that they had no other option, his client sadly made the difficult decision to make the graduate redundant. Then the furlough scheme was announced, and Alasdair received an email from them asking how the scheme worked and would there be any way that they could use it for their own situation?

With just one phone call, a negative became a positive. Alasdair found that they were eligible to be able to put her back on to the payroll and furlough her so that she would continue to be paid. It was a minimal amount of work for Alasdair but made a huge difference to the employee in question.

“It just felt like a really good thing to be able to do.”

The right thing to do

Alasdair’s purpose is not just accountancy; he wants to help people build better lives.

“We’ve forgotten about compassion, about empathy, about treating people well,” Alasdair says over his frustration over the way many organisations behave today. “They have no soul.”

From a heartfelt comment left on Alasdair’s LinkedIn page:

“The satisfaction and longer-term gain from treating people with kindness & respect by doing the right thing are priceless.”

Alasdair’s got this covered.

Because it’s the right thing to do.

This article was originally posted on the Float blog

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