How to make your accountant work smarter for you… and pay less for the privilege

Homer's 'To Do' Pile

[Homer is scrambling to complete his taxes]

Marge:  I put the tax forms on the top of your ‘to do’ pile a month ago.

Homer:  I have a ‘to do’ pile?! [looks at the mountain of papers next to him on the end table, which wasn’t there before]   Marge, how many kids do we have?  Oh, no time to count, I’ll just estimate!  Uh… nine!

Marge:  Homer, you know we don’t have…

Homer:  Shut up! Shut up! If I don’t hear you, it’s not illegal!  OK, I need some deductions.  Deductions… Oh, business gifts! [hands Marge the sailboat painting from above the couch]  Here you go, keep using nuclear power!

Marge:  Homer, I painted that for you.

Homer:  OK, Marge, if anyone asks, you require twenty-four hour nursing care, Lisa’s a clergyman, Maggie is seven people, and Bart was wounded in Vietnam!

Bart:  Cool!

Marge:  Homer, you can’t write that.

Homer:  [With his hands across his ears] Shut up, Shut up!  If I can’t hear you, it’s not illegal!

It’s that time of year again.  The Self-Assessment deadline is looming, marking a period of joy unfettered (!) for optical business owners and locums.  And for many, January and March/April (the end of the tax year) are the two key touchpoints they will have with their bookkeeper and accountant.  It’s easy to view finance professionals as a ‘necessary evil’, the source of a large bill for fees, closely followed by another from HMRC.  And while their role in minimising tax liability is appreciated, many ECPs gain little further benefit from this – quite significant – investment.

At lookahead Consulting, we believe this is a mistake.  Used effectively, a good accountant can add value to your optical business throughout the year.  Many will offer a range of business support services, from negotiating with banks/HMRC and sourcing good-value merchant services, to advising and assisting with cashflow planning, providing quality management information, or reviewing your business plan.

There are three key phases in effective financial governance of any organisation, and we’re going to outline these in this blog.

Preparation

As with most things, the ‘Five P’s’ priniciple applies here: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance!  The preparation phase is not simply limited to preparing effectively for tax returns (although keeping on top of your invoices/receipts/credit notes is certainly vital).  To begin extracting real value from finance professionals, optical business owners need to be thinking about goals and targets for the coming year.  The simplest way to do this is to work with your accountant to ensure that your business plan is up-to-date.  Your BP should reflect the needs of your business both tactically (short- to medium-term) and strategically (longer-term).  Particular attention must be paid to high-impact events planned or expected for the coming period (eg capital purchases, the shopfitting cycle, staffing changes, imminent rent review etc.,).  The effect of new products and services should be assessed (and not just those in your own business, but also those in your community and those of your competitors).  Your BP then becomes a point of reference throughout the year, both for the business and for your accountant: set your benchmarks, and then ensure that you can easily measure business performance against these.  Your accountant may run a Porter’s Five Forces analysis with you to help with this stage (although many analytical other tools are freely available).

Implementation

Advances in technology have brought key elements of bookkeeping and accounting well within the reach of the business owner – even the time-poor.  With minimal training, anyone working within the business can engage effectively with the finance function, including reception and admin staff.  This adds value in two ways: firstly, by significantly reducing bookkeeping/accounting spend; and secondly, by developing your existing knowledge and understanding of key financials within the business.  We are constantly amazed at the number of professionals paying their accountant to do simple bookkeeping work (and often paying over the odds for them to do so).  More concerning is the proliferation of optical business owners who view business finance as something of a ‘black art’, and who do not even have a basic understanding of the Profit & Loss or Balance Sheet.

lookahead Consulting is an accredited partner of one of the major online accounting systems, which means that we can provide training and support in using (and getting the most from) the system.  A system like this – if used effectively – means that your accountant and bookkeeper have far less work to do (and so should submit smaller bills!), and will also provide near-live ‘business intelligence’ (including management reporting) to support decision-making within the business.  Regular and effective analysis of this information helps with three aspects of implementation: reflection and review (that is, looking at historical financial information, eg last week’s sales figures), prediction (that is, managing expectations for the next clinic/coming week etc.,), and the identification of risk factors/possible threats – although, as the adverts say, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance!  Your practice management software will certainly be capable of delivering some in-depth reporting, but does not replace higher-level financial analysis like a dedicated accounting system.

Underpinning all of this is, once again, your business plan.  Your BP is a working document, and it should be expected to evolve over time in light of new information, including financial information.

Review

While reflection and review needs to be ongoing, your accountant should also work with you at the end of your financial year to examine the overall performance of the business.  This will include comparing actual figures with targets set; but must also include a look at the successes and areas for improvement within the broader business plan.  This review should also include revisiting both your overheads (eg utilities, merchant services contract) and ‘direct cost of sales’ (lenses, frames etc.,), something which is often neglected through force of habit.

These analytics then become a vital part of your preparations and business planning for the coming year…  and so we come full circle.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive study of optical business finances.  At lookahead Consulting, we provide support and guidance on any aspect of your business finances, including changing accountant (we recommend at least once every three to five years – ask us why!) and writing/developing your business plan.  You can start saving today by contacting us for a no-obligation chat.  We look forward to hearing from you.

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Driven to Distraction

So finally, we have in place a DVLA visual standard that makes some sense. Drivers may not drive a private vehicle with corrected binocular VA of less than 6/12 (Snellen) and an Esterman pass.

At our practice, optoms are required to record binocular vision for every patient. Not only is this good practice, it informs our dispensing and our advice about driving. Yet we never cease to be amazed by some patients’ approach to the need for distance correction.

Many of you will have frightening tales about patients driving without correction. I recall a gentleman in his mid-80s with +4.50 / -4.50 R&L, swearing blind that he didn’t need glasses for driving, and he didn’t care what the optometrist or the DVLA said. When asked what he would do in the event of a crash, he said “If that happened, I would quickly put my glasses on so the police would never know”!

Or a lady who brought her children in for examination. She’d never had an eye exam herself before…. and turned out to be -9.00 / -3.00 R&L! She was offered a complete pair of specs on an emergency basis for just £25; she said she’d think about it, and then drove her children home again…

For patients such as these, the rewards (freedom, independence) of driving outweigh not only the risk of causing harm by driving with poor vision, but also the risk of being caught. What is it that makes these patients so resistant to wearing vision correction? Since when has it been acceptable to pilot 1.5 tonnes of metal around, sometimes at motorway speeds, with no thought or care for themselves or other road users? And why are some people content to drive around with vision that is ‘borderline’, or ‘just about good enough’?

I’m not suggesting that making the DVLA standard stricter, or requiring eye examinations for all drivers at regular intervals, would transform road safety in this country overnight. Safe driving is a highly complex process that requires many co-existing skills and abilities, of which good vision is but one element. But 6/12 is the VA one might expect from a young patient with +1.00 blur (it’s called ‘blur’ for a reason!), or perhaps an older patient with moderate cataract. Is this really good enough?

If you drive a Class 2 vehicle it isn’t good enough (the DVLA now require binocular VA of 6/7.5) – but is this a valid distinction? Given the choice of being mown down at 40mph by a 40-tonne juggernaut or a Nissan Micra, I’m not sure the end result would differ hugely…

Until recently, the UK had a driving standard roughly comparable to 6/10 (Snellen), so this new standard appears to be a slight relaxation of the rules. The number plate test does give the police a roadside tool and is easy for patients to self-monitor; but for me, the real questions include:

Is the best-corrected acuity requirement sufficient to enable the driver to read road signs and spot hazards – at a distance which allows them to process the information and to react, regardless of the ambient light conditions?

Is the visual field full enough for effective and useful hazard perception, and sufficient for more general awareness and judgement?

Do we have a system that ensures all drivers’ vision is regularly assessed, and is there a clear and effective pathway for sharing our findings with the relevant authorities for the prevention of harm?

Are the penalties for ignoring the visual standards a sufficient deterrent?

Consistency in applying the standards is another issue. A patient of mine was a driving instructor who had a significant vascular event, leaving him with 6/24 vision in his better eye (he was amblyopic in the other). Esterman was an ‘epic fail’. His ophthalmologist said he probably shouldn’t drive a car any more… but he was OK to ride a motorbike!

However, the biggest issue – and the most controversial – is where the responsibility lies for communicating visual concerns to the DVLA. The responsibilty is currently the patient’s… meaning we expect patients to sign the death warrant for their own driving license.

The problem is the issue of medical confidence. There are guidelines in place which allow practitioners to contact the DVLA when it is believed that the patient may pose a danger, either to themselves or others. The advice is to contact the AOP before taking such action, and to ensure that the patient’s GP is informed.

I know the ‘Jolly Green Giant’ receives, shall we say, mixed press amongst their fellow professionals. But Specsavers’ ongoing campaign to raise awareness of drivers’ vision through roadshows etc., should be lauded.

This latest development provides a welcome update to the driving standard, but to me it still falls short, and feels as though we’re lagging behind some of our more progressive neighbours (even the French have a legal requirement to carry spare specs in your car at all times, if you are required to wear correction for driving). Is this an example of our professional bodies being insufficiently robust in their lobbying?

To stimulate further conversation, there are some interesting comments toward the end of this consultation document.

An Introduction

My name is Ian Sheppard, I’m a management consultant, and I’ve worked with opticians and optical businesses for the last 25 years.  I set up lookahead Consulting with my father Ron in 2006.

Whilst working with so many opticians, we noticed how often optical businesses would benefit from experienced, external support to help them grow and develop.

When an optician doesn’t take a ‘helicopter view’ of their business, and isn’t able to intelligently analyse every aspect of their business plan, the business will stagnate, and will lose ground to their competitors.

I work alongside business owners to identify and deliver specific, measurable improvements in the key functions of their business.

I’ve worked with many clients, each with unique business needs, and delivered measurable improvements in key performance indicators such as average dispense, sales turnover, new patient rate, profitability, staff churn rate and patient satisfaction.

This blog is a magazine of contemporary issues in our sector, news items, opinion, a forum for debate…  You can follow us on Twitter, on Facebook, on Google+ and on LinkedIn.  Get involved!