I have spent a significant part of my career providing services to the accounting industry. As a part of professional services industry, accountants often operate in an extremely competitive and complex environment. After the GFC when demand for accounting services experienced a short decline, accountants diversified into business consultation and advisory services to help them grow and tap into new revenue streams.
This change in the pursuit of growth has meant that many accountants now find themselves acting in the capacity of a business partner to their clients. This has placed them in a position of shared responsibility making their success contingent upon their clients’ success. This means that now more than ever, accountants need to have the right tools to support their clients by collaborating and communicating with ease and, in most cases, in real time.
In the face of fast technological change and changing customer expectations, how can firms choose the right technology for the right outcome?
One thing I need to point out before we delve into identifying some solutions that accountants are using with a great deal of success, is that merely focusing on growth should not be the objective for accounting firms. A recent report by Business Fitness warns the industry not to put the cart before the horse when it comes to its desire for growth. The report warns accountants that growth is a lag indicator which means it is a result of strategies implemented to achieve this objective. It cannot be acted upon.
In order to achieve sustainable growth, the groundwork needs to be done first by improving internal systems and processes and changing the habits and culture of the firm. Selecting and implementing the right technology, in many ways, helps firms drive a cultural change by encouraging adoption of more efficient work practices, delivery of real time advice to clients in shorter time frames and information sharing.
Technology needs to be selected as a part of a greater corporate mix. It is just as important as the right people, the right leadership and the right culture to achieve the right outcome.
When a firm decides to hire new talent, they should also ensure that they are ready to provide the tools that will meet their needs. For instance, a degree qualified accountant will get more out of providing strategic advice to a client rather than doing data entry. Hence a firm that focuses on technological solutions that take the hard work out of commoditised services such as tax returns and compliance based work, will inevitably make their staff feel more empowered to undertake mentally stimulating and strategic tasks, increasing job satisfaction and productivity.
The right technology will empower the firm’s talent and leadership while offering a far greater experience and outcome for your client. It must be exploited to its full potential to ensure it delivers the desired benefits.
In the accounting industry, the benefits of technology go much further still. . It opens other possibilities such as real-time collaboration with multiple stakeholders on single matters. To give you an example, SMSF administration platforms allow clients, auditors, brokers and any other interested parties customised access to specific funds that are tailored and relevant to each particular stakeholder. This helps streamline the somewhat painstaking task of relying on multiple parties to provide multiple pieces of information for a single result.
I cannot stress enough that the industry needs to take advantage of the digital revolution to leverage the benefits of technology. While process improvement may be a direct and tangible benefit, the indirect benefit of technology manifests into additional revenue generated when professionals can gain targeted insights in short time frames to deliver accurate advice resulting in retention of high value clients.
Furthermore, when accountants are relieved from data entry tasks due to automation and online access to tax services, they can focus on this revenue generating activity. This is especially important at a time when there is a proliferation of micro-businesses that need more than just tax help. They are the low hanging fruit that accountants can secure by proper use of collaborative tools. Micro-businesses seek a business partnership with their accountant for advice on how to cut costs, minimise tax and become more competitive. A word of caution though: accountants should take time to understand their client’s needs and understand how to best deliver on their expectations before selecting and implementing technologies.
With the right mix of technology, leadership and talent, the right outcomes can be achieved. Firms that don’t embrace the digital revolution will, no doubt, be left behind as the clients’ perceptions and needs change in step with rapid technological changes that surround us. Therefore, if the firms want to stay relevant to their clients and their staff to drive profitability, it is critical to weigh out the benefits of a solution in line with the firms’ objectives, be it revenue, profitability, additional services per client or improved client engagement, which ultimately all lead to growth.
I will leave you with these questions that I ask my clients to consider when evaluating technology:
• Will my client receive benefits such as better advice, faster turn-around, lower cost, increased clarity? ie. Will it help me improve the quality and speed of my advice?
• Will existing areas of the practice benefit without additional effort?
• Will I be able to better utilise the information available to me and if so, how?
• Will it empower my staff to engage in higher value, higher satisfaction work?
• Will it enable me to provide additional services to my client without me having to develop additional expertise or experience?
Steve Karro is Encompass Client Solutions Manager
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