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 worldwide paints a picture of a profession on the brink of positive disruption—and a profession perfectly primed for challenges such as those presented in 2020.
What is disruption? Simply put, it’s when clients drive change. No profession or industry is immune. Those who need transport think first of Uber or Lyft, 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 thought of Amazon 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 expect more flexibility and better service levels—but with no increase in fees.
Disruption is further shown by the fact that 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 digitization 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 customers and use the following themes to inform about their service offerings:
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 a client’s business able not only to access the accounts, but to benefit from them by way of regular reports or access to dashboards? Are you able to help businesses 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 flip side of the accounting coin in today’s world. The practices that don’t realize this are running the risk of irrelevance.
During the coronavirus disruption, accounting professionals worldwide have more than demonstrated their value in consulting, 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 and data protection. Again, for clients there are few boundaries between different areas of knowledge—they expect those who manage 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 basic compliance work.
Where can your practice specialize to provide this degree of insight? Could the solution be training, or perhaps even recruitment to bring in a person or team that specializes 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?
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 digitized workforce, and an expansive service menu to match.
There is strong indication that accountants are already modeling themselves on this image, and tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation are no longer uncommon 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. Payslips and other employee documentation production can be automated, as can the approvals workflow.
On a more basic level, manual data entry can be automated with the aid of a scanner, and this in turn can be built upon to automate the production of quarterly and annual direct taxes, and sets of accounts.
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-ons. The issue is simply to make use of it, and ensure training is available so that all staff know how to use it.
Rolling out automation within your own practice for your own accounts and practice management as a first step creates instant authority on the subject that can then be offered to clients as a new service offering, or extension of an existing one.
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 practices to make the process easier and aim to learn while doing so.
There’s little doubt that the coronavirus disruption has thrown a lot of unexpected work for accounting professionals. This may have 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.