EP136: Sarah Palmer - Bookkeeping Business Tips You Should Know

Every business needs a great bookkeeper.

It doesn't matter if you're in the US, Canada or Australia, all small businesses would benefit tremendously if they had the right person looking after their books.Our guest is one of those high caliber talents who runs the bookkeeping firm, Women Who Count based in the United Kingdom.

She sits on the board of the International Association of Bookkeepers and her commitment and passion have been recognized when she was a finalist for the UK Women in Business Awards.

She knows what it takes to build a strong business and is happy to share her success tips with you.

During this interview, you'll discover...

  • The process of hiring an employee

  • How to automate your business

  • Marketing strategies that work

To learn more about Women Who Count, click here.

For the Women Who Count Facebook page, go here.

For the Women Who Count LinkedIn page, check this out.


Michael Palmer: 01:18 Welcome back to The Successful Bookkeeper podcast. I am your host, Michael Palmer, and today's show is going to be an international one. Our guest runs the bookkeeping from woman who count based in the United Kingdom. She also sits on the board of the International Association of bookkeepers. She is passionate about educating her clients around their finances and recognizes the difference a great bookkeeper can make to the lives of small business owners. Her commitment and passion have been recognized by being a finalist with the UK women in business awards. Sarah Palmer, welcome to the show.

Sarah Palmer: 01:56 Hi Michael.

MP: 01:58 Yes. And I will just let everyone know that we're actually not related, but we do have the same last name.

SP: 02:04 Yeah.

MP: 02:06 So Sarah, before we get into what's going on over in the UK and what's going on in your business, tell us a little bit about how you got started in bookkeeping.

SP: 02:17 Oh Wow. I suppose I got into bookkeeping by default. Really. Um, I grew up in a family business and it was always made very clear. If it wants to earn any money, then I had to go and work for it. So I often found myself in the office with delayed days there and the older I got, the more date. Um, I suppose I was quite lucky. I used to get involved with a lot of the accountant meetings and he was very patient and really good at explaining why certain transactions need to be coded in a certain way and what the reason and the outcome was. Um, but thinking about it while I suppose my real takeaway from that time was what you want my father did with that information. Um, he made so many business decisions based on what his bookkeepers and what the accountants told him. So whenever I'm working with any clients, now I'm always asking myself, what would the business owner wants to know from me? You know, the numbers tell a story and I kind of feel it's my job to translate that for the client.

MP: 03:12 Wow. And what I hear in that is incredible mentorship throughout your career. Yes. Both from the accountants that you worked around and as well seeing your father work in business and how, how those, the outcomes or results of the bookkeeping, the results of the accounting, how it made a difference for him. And now here you are taking that and providing that back to your clients.

SP: 03:38 Yeah, absolutely. And I, I don't think I realized how lucky it was till now when I'm know the other side of the fence and looking at this

MP: 03:46 Beautiful. Now tell us about the transition. How did you transition into being in business for yourself?

SP: 03:53 Well, I suppose, I suppose I started with an account in 2009 and it was after getting divorced, I had two young children and I had no income. I suppose I needed something flexible to work around the boys and I also needed something that was low cost to set up. And looking back on the experiences I had, bookkeeping was actually an obvious path for me to take. So that was how women account was born, if you'd like. And unfortunately, I can't claim that I came up with the name either. It was a dear friends of mine that came up with the name because I'm always asked about this, but we were out celebrating the divorce papers and it was her play on words and I was explaining to her what I would like to do. So yes, that was where the name came from. T so I have to thank her enormously for that and brilliant piece of marketing really. Because everyone does remember that night.

MP: 04:44 Yes. And it was, it was somewhat at the time, it was just one woman who counted, but it was a self, what was it? A self, a a self fulfilling prophecy, if you will, because you now have a team of the team. So it is plural women who count and uh, and, and you've built a wonderful business around that. What, what's been the, the feedback from your, your name, the women who count?

SP: 05:15 I think there's no feminist issues here with me. It was just, it was, as I said, it was a play on words, but everybody likes it. Both men and women. Um, I even picked up a client last week and it actually came from a Google set and it was the name that caught her imagination. She liked that. So yeah. And I kind of think is actually more relevant now, 10 years on than it was at the time because gender qualities, I'm sort of big news at the moment and I suppose it does suit who I am and the ladies I have working for me all have children. And what's very important to me is flexible working hours and that runs through the business. So it is a true reflection of who I am actually, but it's probably something I grew into.

MP: 05:57 It's interesting. Did you always think that? Yeah. Speaking about growing into it, I mean you've told your story, you needed flexibility, you had children, you were, you were to getting divorced and so this is what you needed and now here you are providing some, some of that back to the women who worked for you. Was that always in the picture or did that evolve itself?

SP: 06:21 That's a fold itself. It was a practical consideration for me at the time. But no, it's definitely, um, something which actually I'm proud to stand for at the moment. I have to say, uh, my practice manager, she, she's actually quite good, probably story to tell. She, um, actually previously was a mortgage advisor and a branch manager for one of the banks over here and she got married, had a child, you know, left work and then couldn't get back into working and she was cleaning, which is nothing wrong with cleaning, but she was a bright woman. That was the only work she could get with the flexible hours around to some school hours. So, um, anyway, she's come to me and she's genius. Absolutely genius, very bright girl. Um, and all she needed was an opportunity to be able to work around a family. So it's really important for me to see that. And I was thinking it's catchy, quite a big waste of education in society just because women haven't got that opportunity. So it's only a case of, you know, making work, you know, to suits around families and that's not difficult. It needs a bit full, but it's not difficult.

MP: 07:26 Yeah. Well, it's very, it's inspiring. You're making a difference in many ways, not just for business owners but also for your staff. Beautiful. I'd love to hear a little bit of the story of, you know, those early days in your business, what it was like. Many of our listeners are, uh, starting out and it can be challenging. What, what was the journey like for you?

SP: 07:47 I suppose market marketing was the hardest thing to understand. So initially, I mean, I suppose it was just like work leg work, like work. In the beginning I went to every networking event. Uh, I walked up and down every high street and knocked on doors. I left leaflets, I told everybody I knew what I was doing. And I do remember one of my first clients came from Charleston to a parent on the sidelines of football match that we were watching with our kids. And actually, they still apply it now. So I was just getting the message out really. And then also strategic partnerships have become fundamental really to creating streams, constant referrals. By that, I mean sort of business coaches, accountants, accountants were a really good source of referrals. But I've found that hard to work out how to get those meetings and stuff. But once I figured out that every new clients I got, I had a new accountant and I could arrange a meeting with their accountant on the pretense of discussing something about our new, you know, mutual clients work, I'm guessing in front of that accountant and then actually use that meeting to really promote myself.

SP: 08:55 So that was a good way of starting those relationships. Banks were also another good one for me to start with. I had a really good relationship with my personal business manager and what I realized was that he managed a portfolio appliance that were actually my ideal customer. He was really good at promoting my services to his customer base and that was another way which got me going to start with the asset business has grown just by sheer, you know, by numbers. I get more referrals because clients do a on it. The more clients you have, the more fair as you get. And the business really has grown through those referrals, but it has changed over time. And my job now is more nurturing those relationships, maintaining those strategic relationships, um, looking after clients so that those were pharaohs keep coming in. But what I have noticed probably in the last six months year is that actually the newer clients I have have come from social media and I had a big rebrand last year, new websites off the back of this. And I kind of really think that the online presence is, is really going to be important going forward. So that's my new new plan.

MP: 10:14 Wow. You, you know, you've give given some really great thoughts and ideas about marketing your business and the core theme, I think there is the relationships. It's not just, hey, here's some people and they're gonna, they're gonna provide leads or referrals or whatever the case may be. In every single instance, there was some relationship that you leveraged. It was good relationship that it starts with. So, so for Alyssa is like, think about where, where do you have good relationships? I may not be the first place to start even though it might not occur like there's any opportunity but nurture and develop those relationships and get the word out like you've done with the bank manager, with the people on your, you're at the soccer league with not just accountants but the clients of those accountants. You leverage those relationships. Uh, beautiful. A beautiful story and outlining to how it can work and where to focus. Now you, you started out, your business started to grow, then what happened?

SP: 11:19 So yes, transitioning to having staff that did not go to, I'll start with, I suppose I was actually quite good at the marketing Beth and I thought and I ended up having more clients than I could deal with quicker than I was expecting. So obviously my next thought was I need help. And I fell into the obviously trap of employing a trainee basically because they were cheap and I also had the grain, you know, the ground I did, I could mold them into all of mine. My way of thinking. And my way of doing things, but um, that was very wrong. It actually turned out to quite expensive. So I was paying them seven pounds an hour. But then I was also not billing out my time because I was training them. So I was paying the guy seven pounds an hour. I was not charging out 30 pounds an hour.

SP: 12:08 So she became a 37 pounds an hour expense. Then I had to double-check a work and I just basically didn't have the time or the money to support that. And so I just much quicker and chief myself. So I went back to being on my own, which get, you know, that loves it for a while, but then you go back thinking I can't manage this on my own. So my second is him probably wasn't a lot better than my first attempt, but I did learn something. So I actually employed someone who older and more experienced and we met, we had a coffee and I liked her and we agreed that she was going to start one of my clients. And I remember, Oh, horrible memory. Now going into and sat in front of the confines and introducing this lady and saying she's going to be fantastic.

SP: 12:53 And she's, you know, reassuring them that she'd got to pick up from where I left off. And it became very obvious very quickly that she had no idea how to use the software. And you know, I can only blame myself because I actually never seen the lady do the job that I was paying her to do. So that was an embarrassing and painful lesson to learn. So that didn't go any back into that. But I did crack it in the end and it was actually a conversation that I had with Debbie at pure bookkeeping and she helped me understand the process of how to, you know, employ people successfully. She made it really clear that I needed to have a really good interview pro process and make sure that I could hire someone who was very good at the job. And it now also made sense to me that if I hired someone goods and paid them well, they could actually walk into the business and start earning on day one.

SP: 13:45 And the other thing she taught me was I didn't have to have someone full time. The first person could have two days a week work. So I gave them two days of my work and then spent my time building myself up back to five days and then gave them some more work. And so they had the amount of work they wanted and I could build myself back up again. And then I took on a second person on the same premise that I gave him two days with my work and I built myself up and then I built them. And what I realized was that this was like a repeat, repeat, repeat process and it works. But also I had to realize I had to take a pay cuts to take that first person on and I had to be able to afford that. But then once I got to three ladies working for me and they're all on different part time basis is I was now making more money than I was. I was on my own. But there was a process that you had to go through to get to that point. But all I can say is if you will get there, if that, that was a really successful method to to grow and today now I have eight ladies for me and I do none of the bookkeeping. I still do some of the client meetings, but it's all self-fulfilling now.

MP: 14:56 Wonderful. I mean it's a very parallel story to the story that Debbie would tell as well about her experience hiring and making mistakes and many have made those mistakes. I'm sure there's many listeners that are bobbing their head saying, yeah, you know what this is. This is, this sounds like me, you know. Speak a little bit about the structure that you put in place because you're obviously you have staff, there's eight people. How do you ensure that they all do the things that you want them to do?

SP: 15:29 Oh, we have a very uniform way of approaching every client and every client's work is documented in exactly the same way and all the ladies understand that. I expect them to follow the same way of processing the work. I'm recording all of our reports and I think it's well known. If you put 10 bookkeepers in a room and asked them to do one thing, they don't want 10 different ways doing it, which is calling when you're on your own, but you can't quality control the business as it grows if you allow that to happen. So we do have checklists, we have the processes and they do get checked. So I have a practice manager who will approve any reports up for the go out to clients. So it is, there's real checks in place and just on a general level, I suppose everything's delivery across the business too. So all the emails are templated, are scripted, templated. All the touchpoints with clients would have been thought about in documenters.

MP: 16:27 Beautiful. You'd have Michael Gerber, who is the author for those that don't know of EMF. And I'm sure many, if, if you've listened to the podcast for a while, you've listened to Michael Gerber. It's about building a system-dependent business, which is, which you've done. Sarah, did you always intend to do that?

SP: 16:47 Uh, no. Um, that's what I did realize, um, as I went along, this is a, if I was going to have a scalable business, this is where I had to stay. I couldn't know that be ad hoc. It was impossible to manage. I've seen impossible and I have read that book and it's cold. Yeah, no. If you want to have a scalable business and you want to have the peace of minds that the business can, can work and grow with your input without your input on it. Yeah, it has to be documented. It has to be systematized.

MP: 17:21 Beautiful.

MP: 17:23 It's quite a business you've built and you have now working more on the business development. You've talked a little bit about going to, you know, another level of marketing you're leveraging online marketing. What else do you see in terms of the future for your business and where your business is going?

SP: 17:42 The bookkeeping profession is changing hugely. Partly driven by the soft ways. What see the challenges in the UK. I mean currently we've got Brexit and the software companies. I think the two biggest issues bookkeepers need to deal with really. So, yeah, I mean, if I consider Brexit first, I've had five clients go into administration in the past year, which is extraordinary. And if I look at some how the businesses have worked, I can attribute four of these to customers with your business, you know, with the uncertain financial climates. However, I've got clients that are doing really, really well. I suppose my response to this is just making sure that the marketing function, the business is really strong because I'm also going to need new clients to replace those that are in trouble. I think the results of Brexit will be recession in the UK. Not that's necessarily a bad thing, but keepers.

SP: 18:40 And when I say to women, you count in 2009 we were one of the worst recessions we'd seen in decades. And a lot of people said to me that they thought I was nuts starting basis when I'd said, but I'm, I'm very glad I ignored them. Um, I think the bookkeepers, what I realized was people trade down in a recession. So I was picking up a lot of work, which business owners were taken away from expense of accountants because they realized bookkeepers can do a lot of that work. So actually I think there's an opportunity for both for bookkeepers, but I think we always need Brexit to happen and we can all get on with what happens next. I think the software companies pose a greater threat to traditional bookkeeping. And by traditional bookkeeper, I made trading time for money. The software companies are aggressively marketing it to the end users.

SP: 19:29 I've got clients now that have an opinion about the software that they want us to use first 10 years ago, they wouldn't have a clue. So, and I think they're also feeling that they only need to subscribe to one of these new cloud softwares and you know, as if by magic or their financial needs are met. And I think that's slightly misleading message really. And I have picked up clients that are, now I've got a new cloud subscription and it's all falling apart and they need a bookkeeper to unpick it and sort out the mess. But I don't think that's really solid. I know way forward for me to base the business on, so pricing is where I think the next, if you can master the transition to sort of value pricing away from the, you know traditional time, oh no, hourly billing. I think that's, that's where we can gain advantage too. So for instance, I will now bill for the production of that term rather than the time it took me to actually produce that back return. It is, I have to say it's a very difficult area and I'm still learning and I have got kinds that sit on an hourly break because I think that's fair or fair way to both parties but it is a way I think bookkeeper's loop need to look at their value and really promote the value that they offer their clients. I kind of see that the way

SP: 20:48 the business will go forward is that I'll have more clients on a slightly lower fixed fee but my profits will increase probably by adopting the efficiencies, the new softwares. Just to see that the geography my clients will change because more people are adopting cloud-based softwares and also the culture that goes with that. There isn't that necessary need to have a face to face. I can do an awful lot more of my meetings on zoom or you know, Skype, that type of thing. So I feel like I've gone off on tangent. Is that your question? Michael does. It's a, I think it's a credibly valuable to hear inside the workings of Your Business and as well, what's what you're dealing with and what you're working on. I mean this is it, right? It's like someone, our listeners get to listen in on what you're seeing happening and your perspective. Uh, it's a great, it brings up a great question that I have for you, which is tell us a little bit about your role with the International Association of bookkeepers and how that's how that's unfolding.

MP: 21:53 Yeah, that's interesting. I enjoy that role. So I sit on the board of the International Association bookkeepers, and that's one of our peak bodies in the UK. So, obviously as bookkeepers, we need to subscribe to a supervisory body. And that's one of them. So I get to set strategy basically for how the organization will go forward. And there is, again, in fact, I had a meeting with zero this morning and it was interesting to hear awesome. They want to, and I've made with some of the people who's here and their big pushes for education. So which was fantastic to hear. And they're really, really in supportive bookkeepers and really in a place to want to engage with bookkeepers and up their value and help them to do that with, you know, additional softwares and further training to, so that was. And then another role, which I also say the, um, is I actually go to the treasury, which is our government, what's in the house of parliament, where the government's, I'm on a focus group there, which, so I bring a lot of the problems that us as bookkeepers have to them to, uh, you know, to the government to listen to you.

SP: 23:07 And it's a lot where the policies are made. That's an interesting insight too because I often hear about what's going on before it hits the outside world and it's nice about bring that back into my business and you know, highlight some of the problems that are on the horizon for my clients. So that makes sense. That's a good angle for women accounts, but it's great to have that fee for that feedback loop if you like, of what clients are problems and I can go and feed it back at a other level that I hope will make a difference. It's remarkable. My opinion would make a difference.

MP: 23:39 So it absolutely will. And the International Association of there is as well tell, tell, tell me a little bit about that association and how it's supporting bookkeepers.

SP: 23:56 So the IB has been around for over 40 years now. That thing is one of the oldest bodies over here. We're very friendly, very supportive, big in education, big in education. So that aligns really well with CEO's mission to that off call regulators, which is one of the only peak bodies here and our qualities are education, awarding body. So the quality of the examinations are really high. What else can you say?

MP: 24:27 Um, that means that the government has said that being certified by the International Association of bookkeepers in the UK means that you're actually, you, it's at a higher level. Is that the idea?

SP: 24:41 Yeah, it is. So you explained that focus to the nineties yes. And the other area, there's three areas, so education and that would be their strongest piece. They are also compliance. So obviously you're anti money laundering, they are more supervisory body there and also for benefits as such. So members in the practice. So that's why I suppose I make the most noise cause I had one sandwich go support bookkeepers in their bookkeeping journey. So I suppose that's where we're, oh yeah. Why am I spending, I suppose.

MP: 25:21 Wonderful.

MP: 25:22 And it sounds like a fantastic organization with a lot of benefits. So for any of our UK listeners, it's definitely something to take a look at and, and, and see if it might be a fit for you and your business. You, you've also been recognized by being a finalist. And now at this time of this recording, if we're not sure yet who is the winner, but you've been, you're a finalist out of, what was it you said that we have a, having a quick chat before this conversation, 800 600 other bookkeepers, you've come down to a finalist for the UK women in business awards.

SP: 25:58 Okay. Yeah, that's what it is. Sorry, it's not just bookkeeping. It is based in cities in the UK. So yes, there was 800 entries and I have been, yeah, shortlisted for two categories. So professional development and for leadership and the whole team's guy. We've actually got the awards ceremony this evening, so when I finish this, we should be shooting to that. So fingers crossed. I would love to be two in one of those categories too, but I have to not, it's a big achievement. So even be a finalist. So that thing is crossed. It would be great for the team.

MP: 26:32 Wonderful. Well, you know what? I think our listener would agree that here you are a winner in terms of the type of person that you are. Commitment to your clients, your commitment to the industry and making a difference and really your, your passion about building the business and being successful but not just for yourself but for all the stakeholders, your staff, your clients and the industry as a whole. I think it's fantastic. And what an inspirational story. Sarah, if people wanted to connect with you, what would be the best way for them to do that or learn more about you and your business?

SP: 27:12 I suppose I signpost people to, are you websites which is women account or code at UK or you can find us on Facebook or you know, I'm very happy people want to email me directly if they've got any questions. I'm very, very happy to answer any of those questions. Um, I really do enjoy watching people grow and develop.

MP: 27:31 Wonderful. And I will, I will mention that we do have a budding very, very early days budding Facebook group for the UK successful bookkeepers. So if you're part of the, the larger successful bookkeeper community group on Facebook, you can also join the UK successful bookkeepers. And Sarah, you're one of the budding members in that group. So that's another place to connect and have conversations with Sarah fat if that works. Sarah, this has been awesome. I really hope that you win that award tonight and we'll celebrate and, uh, and cheer you on, uh, regardless of it. But as I said, it's been great having you on the show.

SP: 28:13 Thank you very much.

MP: 28:16 And with that, we wrap another episode of The Successful Bookkeeper podcast. To learn more about today's wonderful guests and to get access to all sorts of valuable free business-building resources, you can go to Thesuccessfulbookkeeper.com. Until next time,

MP: 28:31 goodbye.