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Disrupting the profession: 3 ways accountants can grow and thrive

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John D. Rockefeller infamously said: “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.”

With this in mind, accounting professionals recently felt both were thrust upon them following the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve formed the bedrock for businesses, providing advice and assisting with claims for government help.

This ties in with the themes of this year’s Practice of Now 2020 research, carried out late last year by Sage in association with Savanta. The data from more than 3,000 accounting professionals in Australia and worldwide paints a picture of a profession on the brink of positive disruption – and a profession perfectly primed for challenges such as those presented across 2020.

Free research report: The Practice of Now 2020

We surveyed 3,000 accountants from Australia and worldwide to reveal how the accounting landscape is changing. Discover how your fellow accountants are preparing for the next decade and learn what you can do now to keep your practice successful.

Download Report

Defining disruption

What is disruption? Simply put, it’s when clients and technological innovation drive change. No profession or industry is immune. Those who need transport think first of Uber, rather than hailing a taxi. Those looking to arrange holiday accommodation turn to Airbnb, as much as they would to a hotel booking website or travel agent. And, of course, those looking to make a consumer purchase over the past decade think of eBay first, and their local shopping mall second.

Technology often facilitates disruption, but is rarely a cause of it.

In our survey, disruption is indicated by the vast majority (87%) of respondents who said clients expert more flexibility and better service levels – but with no increase in fees.

Disruption is further shown by the fact 82% of accountants in our survey agreed clients are demanding a wider service offering, regardless of any technological or societal factors. Having said that, technology does play a factor – 82% agree that customer expectations of accountants and bookkeepers have widened to include services such as advising on relevant finance and accounting technologies. Meanwhile, 83% of accountants agree that new technologies and a culture of digitalisation means they have had to invest more, and quickly, in order to keep pace with the market.

Getting ahead of the curve

To prepare for disruption, practices need to listen to their clients and use the following themes to inform their service offerings:

  1. Anywhere, any time

The need for people to adhere to social distancing requirements has defined recent working conditions for most of us, and the solution has been to work from home.

But how many accountants are really digging down into what’s required of this need to, essentially, work anywhere and at any time? Are you able to assist clients so they can digitally pass documents between various parties (both internal and external)? Is every part of the client’s business able to not only access the accounts, but benefit from them by way of regular reports or access to dashboards? Are you able to help the business facilitate this goal?

These kinds of requirements are not going to go away, and businesses are increasingly going to turn to their accountants for answers. Who else can they speak to for help with – from their perspective –managing the numbers?

According to this year’s Practice of Now survey, the majority of accountants (54%) provide clients with a faster service thanks to technology, while 43% believe it means their client service and satisfaction has improved.

Technology is the flipside of the accounting coin in today’s world. Those practices that don’t realise this are running the risk of irrelevance. Cloud technology that can help your practice collaborate with your clients and team, from anywhere at any time, is now more critical than ever to adapt to a world shaped by COVID-19.

  1. Compliance

During the coronavirus disruption accounting professionals worldwide have more than demonstrated their value in explaining, as well as providing certain data, and in helping apply for emergency legislation in a way that’s formed a lifeline for business.

Again, this isn’t going to change in the long term. As an accounting professional, you already knew before the events of 2020 that governments were taking more of a regulatory approach to business. The role of an accountant is increasingly to be on top of this legislation – not just tax, but issues such as employment laws, or data protection. Again, for a client there are few boundaries between different areas of knowledge – they expect the people who deal with their financial data to know about issues like securing it, for example, while also ensuring it’s accessible.

Our survey demonstrates clearly the need for compliance knowledge – 79% of accountants agreed that regulations from government, industry, and international bodies are forcing changes to working practices. This is in addition to existing basic compliance work.

Where can your practice specialise to provide this degree of insight? Could the solution be training, or perhaps even recruitment to bring in a person or team that specialises in this kind of consultancy? How can you be sure that, when a client phones or emails, you can provide the response they need – and without delay? Could this even be a route to a new kind of client business to augment more traditional service offerings?

  1. Automate, automate, automate

A customer requiring a broad range of service offerings best served by modern technology is primed to trust you with the complete management of their business if you are building a diverse and digitised workforce, and an expansive service menu to match.

There is strong indication that accountants are already modelling themselves on this image, and tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are no longer atypical in aiding progress. Only 6% of respondents in the Practice of Now 2020 said they don’t believe automation can help with any business tasks at their firm. Meanwhile, 45% say they intend to automate repetitive, time-consuming accounting tasks, such as data entry and number-crunching, while 40% say they intend to automate invoicing and accounts payable processes and workflows.

But where might we actually find automation within a typical practice or client business? Take payroll as one example. Online timesheets can automate the capture of employee information. Payslip and other employee documentation production can be automated, as can the approvals workflow.

When it comes to implementing automation, the tools are likely to be already there in the software you and your clients already use – or are likely to be available via add-ins. Or it may require your practice to leverage modern accounting solutions that help automate workflows and data entry.

Creating a plan

What’s needed to implement the suggestions above is an action plan. The rules of creating a plan like this are elementary. Ensure an owner is assigned, so they can manage the project and always be relied upon to provide an overview. Ensure any plans created are widely understood and remain fluid enough to respond to everyday life at your practice – no matter what fate might bring in terms of ongoing coronavirus disruption.

Evaluate clients to discover which are likely to be amenable to the kind of changes outlined above. As you know, they tend to fall into one of two camps: traditional, and progressive (to various degrees). Work out how you can sell the changes discussed above to either kind of client, but perhaps start with the more progressive clients to make the process easier and aim to learn while doing so.

There’s little doubt that the coronavirus disruption has thrown up a lot of unexpected work for accounting professionals. This might’ve been a shock to the system, but for a practice that aims to grow, this is the start of a positive transformation – and the creation of a practice and service offering fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

Free research report: The Practice of Now 2020

We surveyed 3,000 accountants from Australia and worldwide to reveal how the accounting landscape is changing. Discover how your fellow accountants are preparing for the next decade and learn what you can do now to keep your practice successful.

Download Report

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