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The power of specialism

I made the decision to specialise early on in my career. While still studying for my accountancy qualification, I shifted my focus to capital allowances and, after qualifying, to R&D tax credits. My choice was prompted by wanting to become an expert in a specific area.

Don’t get me wrong: We don’t want everyone to follow my lead. We need general practitioners. Businesses absolutely rely on these professionals, and for many people it’s a career path that fits their ambition perfectly. But there’s a time and a place for specialist expertise too. Indeed, I’d argue that ‘expertise’ is often a matter of recognising one’s own limitations and delegating effectively.

Consider R&D tax credits, for example. It’s a complex area for many accountants. Not because the numbers are ‘hard’ – we’re all numerate, after all! – but because it incorporates fields of knowledge that are outside of the accounting discipline. An effective claim is often built on an understanding of what your client does. A task easier said than done in some cases!

‘Specialising’ in a tax context

Two years into my training, I worked in KPMG’s specialist capital allowances advisory team before moving into its R&D division. At the time, two things struck me. First was how good capital allowances advice blended both tax and quantity surveying expertise. It was my first exposure to multi-disciplinary tax advisory work.

Secondly, working in an area of tax which worked to ensure that businesses accessed the tax reliefs that government had carefully designed for them was a really rewarding experience. Put simply, it was nice to offer (generally) a good-news story to my clients.

Over time, I found my niche as an R&D tax specialist. A decade later, I’ve learnt that beyond numbers, building an awareness and understanding of the principles of the particular field of science or technology in which your client operates helps you to advise them effectively in making successful R&D tax credit claims.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to do this alone; my expertise depends not only on my dedication to continually keeping up-to-date in my field, but it also depends on the team around me. They all add different skills and specialisms vital to the quality of advice I give my clients at ForrestBrown.

ForrestBrown itself is a specialist business built on unique specialisms. We supplement our high-quality tax expertise with a team of industry-experienced sector specialists to help achieve positive outcomes. And our tax and sector experts are supported by marketers, business development, data and operations, HR and numerous external partners.

We have a culture embedded in the business to recognise the value of specialisms to support the growth of teams; putting this support in place early rather than adding them in once there was a dire need or doing anything half-heartedly.

Hedging your bets

R&D tax is a small but complex piece of tax legislation which relies on both tax and technical expertise. For many generalists, the challenge is that they can easily underestimate the complex nature of the UK’s R&D tax rules.

All too often we see accountants getting particularly caught out on the specialist expertise required to navigate the technical side. For example, properly advising clients on what projects qualify and helping them to assess activities and costs against the definition of R&D for tax purposes.

There is specialist help available, but against the backdrop of a crowded R&D tax advice market, many accountants have had poor experiences working with spurious R&D tax advisers – damaging important client relationships in the process.

Over time, this has created a general sense of mistrust between accountants and the R&D tax market. Subsequently some have turned their backs on the specialist market entirely and have decided to provide this service themselves, without having specialist expertise in-house.

Unfortunately, this can often be to the detriment of clients. Getting it wrong not only puts relationships at risk, but it can ultimately bring into question all of the services you might have previously delivered – and it could even result in what could have been an avoidable HMRC enquiry.

A vital part of being a good adviser is knowing when it’s the right time for your client to bring in a specialist, and when you consider that spurious advisers are actively cold-calling clients and making them unrealistic promises, drafting in a reputable adviser doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Collaboration is key

Certainly a significant part of being a good adviser is knowing when it is right for your client to bring in a specialist. With that in mind, it is critical to make an informed decision when choosing who to partner with. Always do your due diligence and recommend your clients do the same.

Reputable and actively PCRT compliant R&D advisers do exist, and collaborating with specialists such as these can add real value to clients whilst affording them all the protections of proper regulation. Working with a good specialist can add value to your client relationship as your client not only gets the direct benefit of receiving decent specialist advice, but you get recognition and build a relationship of trust. A win-win outcome.

“Niche-ing” early on in my career taught me a lot; not only is tax a hugely complex area, but it’s impossible to keep a handle on everything all the time. It also taught me the value of specialists and collaboration. A big part of developing expertise is knowing what you don’t know and accepting that. I don’t think anyone could retain an expert knowledge across all areas of tax, but I firmly believe that collaboration between generalists and specialists provides the best value and service to clients.

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