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What does an accountant do?

accountant works at his desk, he is using a calculator, a laptop and a large screen with an invoice on it
Posted by Laura Bell on 10/01/2023

Will is an Assistant Manager at PKF Francis Clark in Bristol. He is eight years into his accountancy career and has just completed his Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Adviser qualifications.

We asked him for the inside track on what an accountant does day to day and how to progress in the profession.

How do you approach managing clients?

I’m working to become their trusted adviser. It’s about relationships, not really so much about the technical side of the work. You definitely don’t have to be a genius at maths to be an accountant, that surprises some people!

You’ll be expected to prepare statutory financial documents, such as annual accounts and tax returns, but a good accountant takes a view beyond the pages. I want to support clients in doing what they do best – running their business; we share their ambition.

I’ll use my technical accounting and tax knowledge to advise clients on statutory matters like preparing accounts and I can support them with wider strategic questions such as succession, remuneration planning, reviewing key performance indicators, and managing cashflows.

How do you learn to manage client relationships?

You’ll get your technical skills from your training, which is fully funded by the firm, but you’ll learn communication and relationship building skills by seeing them being modelled by others. There is great support from the partners and directors, they are the most senior members of our teams, and they take trainees out to client meetings and teach them how to develop great client relationships.

Sitting in on client meetings with senior team members is invaluable. They seem to have an answer to absolutely everything the client asks, from financial planning, to shares structures, to international tax.

Clients are so grateful to receive such broad advice from a single trusted adviser. I’m starting to get to that stage with some of my clients now where they feel I can help with anything. I want to be their first port of call, their trusted adviser.

What are clients typically looking for from their accountant?

No two clients are the same, that’s why no two days are the same in my job! Some clients have immediate problems for me to solve while others bring longer term strategic challenges for us to work on.

Accountants all do the same thing really so what sets you apart is the quality of the relationships that you build. Being an accountant is a people business more than a numbers business. You need expertise as well as great communication and interpersonal skills.

I found that my soft skills developed through experience and working closely with senior leaders. It takes years of experience to get to the point where you can be that trusted adviser to a client, but along the way you can support the client to the best of your abilities at the time.

When do you start managing your own clients?

I now manage my own client portfolio which typically happens after you qualify as a Chartered Accountant. I’m their first point of contact and a partner or director oversees the client relationship and supports me with higher level advice as and when needed.

You slowly progress from meeting the client with a director or partner to meeting them on your own. To start with you might just be taking notes but it’s invaluable to see how more experienced colleagues deal with situations.

You’ll speak to clients from the go and over time you’ll start to lead client meetings and take on responsibilities for the day-to-day management of those relationships.

What’s the difference between the AAT and ACA qualifications?

AAT and ACA are both accountancy qualifications. AAT is for school and college leavers, while ACA is a higher level qualification. To do ACA you need to already have either AAT level 4 or a degree.

Both the AAT and degree routes onto ACA get you to the same place, neither is better, it’s just what works for you. Personally I think that if you start with AAT your career progresses a bit quicker as by the time you start studying ACA you have a few years work experience. It worked for me!

What are the best things about being an accountant?

I feel valued as an accountant. I get to help our clients and most of them really appreciate it. I’m advising on the tax and accounting so that they can get on and build their business. It’s especially rewarding if you’re working with a family or owner managed business as you see the direct impact on their life.

What is the hardest thing about being an accountant?

Some clients have more complex problems than others that test your metal, but that’s part of developing and learning.

The hardest thing can be letting go with a client. You’ve worked hard on building that relationship and sometimes it’s right to let your trainees take the lead with them. It’s so important to pass over the reigns, it’s how I learned myself. The challenge is striking that perfect balance. I want to develop our trainees and keep progressing that relationship in tandem; you need to balance both things and get it right.

Will’s story

“I left school at 16 after GCSEs to take up a scholarship for my hometown club, Plymouth Argyle. I had the best two years playing football across the country but like it does for most the dream ended so at 18 I needed a new career.

I’d studied BTEC Sports Performance alongside the football and the club encouraged me to apply to university. I applied for sports courses but unless I was playing it didn’t feel right.

I thought about my long term goals and established that I wanted a career that offered good pay and the opportunity to develop and progress. After some research and soul searching I picked accountancy because you can go all the way to the top without a degree. Having already left full-time education I wanted to continue developing myself in the working world.

I started studying AAT which is a great base qualification. It’s not too intense and I soon found my (formerly half decent at football) feet in the business world.

I’d lived in Plymouth all my life so after four happy years at the firm I thought it time to expand my horizons so moved to pastures new in Bristol. Not long afterwards PKF Francis Clark had their own expansion plans and opened an office in Bristol. They kindly called me offering a job; I didn’t hesitate to re-join the squad!

In the Bristol team I progressed to ACA-CTA which is a higher level qualification, that of Chartered Accountant and Tax Advisor. I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in the summer of 2022 and I’m waiting for the results in my final Tax Advisor exam.

I’ve studied for seven years in total but your career progresses even while you are training. The knowledge gained from exams ties in with your job every step of the way. I’m now an Assistant Manager, managing my own clients and a small team of trainees.

Now I’ve finished with structured studying, which develops the technical skills of being an accountant and tax advisor, so I’ve got more time to focus on my self-development. I want to hone my soft skills, become a more active advisor in the Bristol market, and work on becoming a better manager to my own team.”