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Booming opportunity: how technology can empower finance teams to do more

In this op-ed, Warwick Haycock, accounting software specialist at The Access Group, looks at how the use of tech can empower finance teams to do more.

The past 18 months have been characterised by uncertainty and unexpected opportunity in many industries, and estate agents are no exception.

The property market did briefly grind to a halt, but when activity returned, big changes had to be made. Back-to-back viewings were replaced by much more cautious appointments, with PPE, enhanced cleaning and ventilation as standard. Online viewings became the norm and estate agents quickly got to grips with using video calling technology to offer the same standard of service.


A perfect storm of economic decline, loss of job security and consumer uncertainty led many to fear the worst but as anyone working in the residential market knows, this wasn’t the case.

Rather than ‘hunkering down’ and waiting for the period of uncertainty to end before making big financial investments, the public largely took the opportunity to change their living arrangements, often prompted by the larger cultural and social shift brought in the form of remote working - as well as the incentive of the government’s stamp duty holiday.

New priorities, particularly for space and location, emerged as people began spending more time at home. Remote working, made possible by technology, meant that careers could still thrive away from big cities, leading many people to search for rural locations with greater outdoor space. Although not the case for everyone, the lack of opportunity to spend money meant that lots of people were able to save up significant sums of money by staying at home - perfect for a house deposit.

All of this accumulated in the property market setting new or breaking long-held records of property transactions during the second half of 2020 and into this year. According to figures, 2021 is set to see the most property transactions in one year since 20071.

With the huge number of transactions agents have been managing, this will have had a significant impact on finance professionals and teams working to manage cash flow, provide accurate forecasting and a view on financial performance within estate agencies. And there’s a new set of challenges to overcome ahead.

A changing market

As we move on from the flurry of activity in spring and summer, the autumn season brings with it change.

The stamp duty holiday that gave so many people the confidence to buy has come to an end. To pay back the huge volumes of public funding that made furlough and business grants possible last year, many expect to see big tax increases at the end of 2021. Experts predict that property will bear the brunt of it, due to its healthy performance over the past 18 months. Another change, affecting property finance teams especially, is the number of new mortgage products also entering the market. Numerous new buy-to-let (BTL) propositions are being launched, and could become the norm as we head into 2022.

As the sector enters yet another period of change, while coping with the knock-on effects of the summertime boom, finance teams are going to be working harder than ever. As well as processing each transaction, good levels of cash flow and reporting will need to be maintained, all while managing high standards of traceability and due diligence. This alone is a challenge and could see tasks for finance experts quickly pile up.

Time-consuming tasks

A survey recently revealed that finance specialists spend an average of one day a week completing administrative duties. Over the course of a month or a year, that equates to more than seven weeks of time that could be used on much more value-added activities.

A report commissioned by The Access Group towards the close of 2020, which surveyed 1,000 finance professionals working in professional services like estate agents, found that 26 per cent thought their payments system was the least efficient process in their department and 21 per cent chose their budgeting and forecasting methods. Other prominent areas for improvement were document processing, invoicing, expense management and month/year end, all factors likely to hamper growth.

While the rest of the property industry has been reaping the benefits of using new digital technologies, their finance teams have been left behind, still subject to slow and manual processes – despite there being many advances in the wider sector to increase efficiencies and ensure business continuity.

To overcome the challenges of lockdown restrictions, sales and lettings teams embraced tools such as virtual video tours and meetings took place over conferencing apps like Zoom. For agents and buyers, data aggregators fuelled by prop-tech can quickly build comprehensive property reports, while important documents can now be securely signed and sent from screen to screen.

Despite all this, finance staff are still working with silos of information across spreadsheets, disparate or manual systems and disjointed, outdated software tools. With so much growth on the horizon, this could be a frustrating time for accounts departments who could be using their skillset to help agencies strategise for the future, rather than complete day-to-day manual jobs. Although they don’t earn direct commission, equipping finance professionals with the time to do more could lead to new realisations that could increase an agency’s commercial performance just as much as a star salesperson does.

Not only from a business perspective, their new-found freedom could allow them to invest time in their personal development, such as honing their skills or reading up on industry-related news to stay in tune with the latest developments. Supported by the technology their employer has invested in, these changes might create a more driven and engaged workforce.

Better insights and experience

To help finance teams guide their agencies towards security, amid a busy and changing market, it’s important that their senior leaders embrace technology that works for their sector. Moving towards a central finance management system can dramatically save time by automating tasks. Additional insights can also be found in an instant, thanks to the integration between systems, including CRM (customer relationship management), HR, sales and marketing, and so on.

Having customer data from across all divisions in one place ensures that finance teams aren’t left scrambling between software or numerous applications to compile the latest information. Instead, they have in their hands one version of the truth and that ‘big picture’ perspective will provide them with a holistic view of the entire business’ performance.

Rather than spending hours reconciling invoices, analysing inventory, orders and stock, or managing costs, finance teams can take action on the data their finance management system provides. These tools offer a centralised view of a business’ entire financial data, empowering staff to find solutions to complex problems, rather than having to simply cross-reference and double check financial data. These tools, alongside automated invoicing and real-time reporting systems, could be especially helpful with project accounting and management, helping finance teams to keep track of WIP (work in progress) and ensuring that clients are billed on time to maintain good cashflow.

Elsewhere in the sector, similar technology is transforming processes such as credit checks and referencing, and the digital-first customer now expects a smooth, streamlined experience when interacting with your business. Technology can enable this, making agencies agile and flexible - as well as offering the levels of customer experience needed to remain competitive.

Ensuring your ‘back office’ departments, including finance, have the right technology in place could enable your staff to do much more. At a time when maintaining business stability is key, it helps them to make informed decisions using intelligent data analysis rather than rely on ‘guesswork’ or data that’s likely to be more prone to human error.

Profitable opportunities can be seized, while senior leadership feels safe in the knowledge that day-to-day activities such as processing invoices are still being completed quickly, potentially speeding up payments and easing cash flow in the process.

The past 18 months is another example of how quickly the property sector can change, and having a strong finance department can help every estate agency to steer a stable ship. Being fast, efficient, removing human error and making smart decisions using data can help to navigate through any future crisis, while making the most of opportunities when they appear. Technology is a booming opportunity for agencies right now.

*Warwick Haycock is accounting software specialist at The Access Group


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