The value of a good back office team cannot be overstated. As companies grow, business processes have to evolve too. Back office support functions might be less appealing – perhaps even less glamorous – than product development or client networking, but as a small business it is incredibly important to understand what back office support you will need and to get it right from day one.
The engine room
The role of the back office can very enormously. From monitoring tax and payroll obligations, HR and employment law to managing the logistics of office moves as your business grows, researching the complexities of taking your business into overseas markets and maintaining good supplier relations, back office support really is the engine room of any business.
So, for a business owner it is not enough just to be good in your own role; for the business to run smoothly you have to make sure the business support is there too.
At Cathcart Associates we are proud of how our back office team has grown and adapted, creating from scratch the processes and systems that the company runs on. We’ve gone from sending a small number of invoices and paying the bills ourselves to running a multi-sector, multi-currency business, supplying contract and permanent recruitment services to over 100 companies a year.
An early mistake we made as we were starting out, and still our worst decision to date, was committing to using an invoice financing facility. Not only did this become a large administrative burden, but we didn’t even use it.
However, all business owners make mistakes and the key thing is to allow these experiences to feed into the decision making process next time. It’s about staying focused and forward thinking and tackling all challenges head on, no matter how big or small.
Businesses can save time and money by streamlining processes to make them as slick as they can. Examples of streamlining include automating systems, reducing manual input, and therefore margin for error, and moving documents, records, invoices and recruitment online, thus avoiding the need to hold paper, copy and print.
It can be valuable if at least one person in your back office function has experience of your business from a customer facing point of view. That way they have a clear understanding of the ins and outs of the day-to-day job done by those client-facing members of staff and can incorporate the business needs more thoughtfully into the behind-the-scenes processes. In response, this will build trust in back office by those members of staff in customer or client facing roles, making it possible for them to do their job with confidence.
Furthermore, a back office that you can rely on means the management team is in a position to focus on delivering business results rather than being caught up with concerns about internal efficiency and communication.
An efficient and competent back office function/team can also have a significant impact on the extent to which customers are satisfied with the service they receive from a business, even though customers rarely have any direct interaction with back office personnel at all. Efficiency of the business, and competency when it comes to dealing with problems of customers complaints, will often depend on back office though will reflect on the customer-facing staff and affect perceived customer service by the business.
We understood early on in running our business that we should create a comprehensive staff training programme. Recruitment is often tricky (even for a seasoned recruitment specialist) and we are committed to our approach of recruiting graduates and training all our staff from scratch. We recruit for attitude and it pays to be picky – we are very proud of the office environment that we have created and the strength of our team.
As an organisation we are committed to growing organically – we don’t have any external investors – and because of this, our growth prospects depend on the quality of service we offer. Having started up in Edinburgh in 2009, we have since opened offices in Manchester, Hamburg and Bangkok.
Setting up overseas
When we set up in Thailand we had to get to grips with everything, from a new currency and a different legal system to a completely alien business culture. We relied heavily on the support of our back office team to help us prepare for taking our first steps into a foreign market.
For example, they spent a great deal of time researching the market in Bangkok, freeing management up to make business decisions and establish links with companies and potential candidates in the region. Our mission was to ensure that we offered the same quality recruitment services in Thailand that we did in the UK, and having a strong team in place, with a front and back office that spoke to each other, was key to this.
We really wanted to understand the needs of Thai companies and job seekers, and this did not end when we opened the office – it’s an ongoing business need. It’s the nature of the industry to reassess constantly how best to deliver our services to meet the requirements of the market we are working in. And so the value in our support staff continues long after the opening of the office.
Getting our back office support team right has made it possible for us to grow from a team of three in rented office space to a multimillion pound international recruitment firm. As a small business you will of course be focused on winning new business and developing client relationships, however, paying attention to staffing and ensuring you have the right back office support will be time well spent now and will pay off as your business begins to grow.
Gordon Kaye and Sam Wason are co-founders and directors of Cathcart Associates.