Data-informed decision-making


Most clients need a combination of gut instinct and relevant, accurate data to make good decisions. Here’s how you can help them make sense of the numbers


  • Integrated business systems hold loads of useful information: it’s just a case of surfacing it.
  • Structuring the chart of accounts using jobs, categories, tags and more can help business owners understand what they are reading.
  • Encourage small business owners to trust their instincts, alongside the data.

A simple question I ask my clients is: ‘What information would you like at your fingertips to inform your decisions?’. Integrated business systems are full of data and, as a number-loving accountant, I use various strategies and technologies to help surface helpful client data.

I will explain what tools and strategies I’ve used over the last decade, starting within the accounting package and working out through to the more complex scenarios and requirements.

Design, define and refine

There’s massive value in structuring the chart of accounts and using jobs, categories, tags and so on, to surface nuanced, helpful business information.

Here’s a simple accounting hack you’re welcome to steal from me. I often find small business owners don’t split out their income, so they’re unable to determine the profitability of different areas of the business. The secret to doing this is hidden in plain sight. I ask them to show me a copy of their business card and – voilà! – it lists the services they offer.

From there, I can adapt the business card information into their chart of accounts, giving us a starting point to monitor segmented profitability. I also like to get the chart of accounts into the business’s language, so they can understand and use it. In fact, you can take it a step further and use the translate feature within Google Chrome to translate the software into their language.

Popular online accounting solutions include internal reporting customisation options, from filtering and grouping data differently to comparing data across periods and defining different report layouts. Time spent training in this functionality pays long-term dividends.

Accountants love manipulating data in spreadsheets. If, like me, you often toggle between your online accounting software and Google Sheets, linking the two could be a real time-saver. G-Accon can be installed in your Chrome browser to link and sync the solutions. It offers the ability to export raw data, bulk uploads, templates and consolidated reporting.

If your preference is Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets can be downloaded in Microsoft Excel format, or take a look at EXL Cloud, which does similar linking with Microsoft Excel.

Plug-and-play visual and reporting solutions

I encourage clients to use dashboards to help them drive their business to their desired location (business goals). I don’t expect my clients to understand every dashboard aspect instantly, but I believe it’s achievable.

Plug-and-play solutions feature visually stunning management and forecasting reporting options and can be quick to roll out supporting discussions about business trends and building out forecasts, budgets and analysis.

There’s a plethora of overlapping solutions available. Many small business owners ask, ‘Where has my cash gone?’ or ‘Why is my bank account balance not the same as my profit?’. I like the cash flow waterfall chart found in Fathom because it visually helps them see where the money went. Fathom was one of the original reporting solutions in this space and a massive rebuild of its forecasting and micro-forecasting in 2020 has improved the functionality, making it easier to use.

Spotlight Reporting has added Spotlight Sustain to its collection. The solution is focused on ESG reporting: tracking environmental, social and governance metrics. For the not-for-profit clients, Calxa has a suite of purpose-built solutions that includes the ability to discharge grant acquittal.

Powerful, customisable reporting

When comprehensive reporting is required, I’ll refer clients to talk to Microsoft Power BI experts who can design suitable reports, graphs and dashboards. If financial modelling piques your interest, it’s certainly a skill in high demand, but I’m happy to handball the development to the legion of experts in the field.

For multi-entity clients, a new solution designed to solve this problem is Translucent. It is built unlike any other solution I use. The way I explain it is that when your accounting files are connected, it breaks down the data into LEGO blocks (the technically correct term is data warehouse). As your five-year-old self knows, when you have a pile of LEGO blocks, you can build almost anything you can imagine.

I’ll also mention that Translucent has a phenomenally fast search app that searches transactions and attachments.

If the business is moving into enterprise resource planning (ERP) requirements, a solution like NetSuite offers standard reporting, report building options, a suite of analytical tools, customisable dashboards and the ability to export CSV files. The ERP solution also has a marketplace of reporting apps if you need more options!

Gut instinct

Remind your small business owners that they have a superpower that external accountants and bookkeepers don’t possess: gut instinct about their own business. They know their business. They know their industry. They know the market trends. Support clients to let their experience and insight complement the numbers, and embrace data-informed decisions.

I encourage clients to have faith in their gut instinct and ask questions like ‘Do the numbers seem reasonable?’, ‘Are the movements what we expected? and ‘Are the profits what we anticipated?’.

Lead the way

It’s a massive fail if we only see accounting software as a compliance tool that captures data for a tax return. Combining innovative reporting technology with strategic advice is a big win for SMEs and can help them make decisions and drive the business forward. By surfacing clean data promptly in a consistent format, you and your client can focus on the numbers and where the numbers are moving, and build upon that knowledge.

This article was first published by Acuity Magazine at the following URL: