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What real customers say: 3 ways to improve your practice

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The Practice of Now survey has captured the thoughts and feelings of accounting professionals since 2017, and the latest version is now available.

For the 2020 edition of the report, a new element was added: an additional qualitative survey from Coleman Parkes, which carried out in-depth interviews with users of accounting services. This included small and medium businesses in the UK, US, Spain, France, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

The questions are candid. What pain points do businesses experience with their accountants, and what expectations do they have? Put simply, do they feel their accountant is meeting their needs—and, if not, what are the areas for improvement?

Below we look at some of the answers, and the surrounding areas that less progressive accountants might still struggle with: dealing with digitization, helping businesses with compliance and attracting the next generation. These insights can be used to improve your practice and its service offerings.

The Practice of Now 2020

Discover how accounting is on the brink of positive disruption and what accountants and bookkeepers should do to be successful.

Get the report

The results make fascinating reading for any accounting professional, and provide a snapshot that can guide growth and help create improved service offerings.

All the responses are anonymous except for details about the nature of the survey respondents’ businesses and their locations. But they are reproduced verbatim.

Ongoing digitization

According to this year’s main Practice of Now research, 82% of the survey respondents agree that customer expectations of accountants and bookkeepers have expanded to include advising on relevant finance and accounting technologies.

Meanwhile, 83% of accountants surveyed 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.

The C-suite executive of a medium-sized energy sector business in Australia explains the business benefits clearly: “Technology has enabled us to make real-time decisions.”

If technology is this important to clients, then it simply can’t be ignored by accountants.

“Technology has positively affected our relationship,” said the CFO of a small construction business in the US. “Our accountant has been flexibly adapting to technology. This has been delighting us and they definitely have elevated the quality of their work with the proper utilization of technology.”

The financial controller within a medium-sized retail business in Canada said of their accountant, who they’ve used for more than 30 years: “They have always been progressing with the emerging changes. That is one of the reasons why we have stayed with them this long.”

This same individual explained which technologies their accountant has been helping them with: “We have not deployed AI yet, but we are already using automation, cloud, and cybersecurity. They have been doing a great job.”

It’s clear from the survey that businesses measure their accountants by their willingness to embrace technology. One director of a small analytics business in South Africa offered a warning: “[My accountant] hasn’t yet adopted any technologies, which is the reason why she is being replaced with somebody who can. My accountant is not adopting technology; but the industry is.”

A private individual with income tax responsibilities in the UK said of their accountant: “They need to be IT literate. This is the modern world. Everything is computerized now.”

There’s clearly a need for accounting professionals to stay on top of technologies. This can be done by following advice from industry bodies you may be affiliated with, who regularly produce reports about what’s not just available, but what’s coming down the pipeline. Above all, the goal should be to keep an open mind and adopt technology earlier rather than later. Applying new technology initially to your own accounting practice is a good way to get a taste for the power, and to learn, before rolling out the technology to clients.

Keep up with changing regulations

In our main Practice of Now survey, 79% of accountants agreed that regulations from government, industry, and international bodies are forcing changes to working practices.

Around the world, the legal requirements that customers deal with—and that accountants might be expected to assist with—are expanding exponentially. The recent coronavirus (COVID-19) disruption has only emphasized this, when businesses turned to their accountant for help with government assistance.

When asked what skills and talents they valued, the financial controller of a medium retail business in South Africa said: “The most important factor is regulatory compliance.”

Hiring an accountant today is about more than just accounting, said the CEO of medium-sized security business in France: “My accountant gives me information about the law in France so I can take charge of new laws and change.”

It isn’t necessarily just about compliance with accounting legislation either.

“I know they’ve been doing a lot about GDPR,” said the owner of a small technology business in Spain. “Sometimes I needed legal advice. We discussed it with them, and they recommended a lawyer.”

Businesses also indicated that helping them comply with changing regulations was one way they expected their accountant to accompany them on their journey.

“The company is growing,” said the CIO of a medium-sized business in France. “So, they are doing more in terms of work, because we have more things to do. They are doing payroll, they are doing all the regulations for the government such as VAT.”

The C-suite executive of a medium-sized energy business in Australia commented: “Our current accountancy firm has a knowledgeable team, who are experts and know all about taxation, corporate finance and compliance. We can rely on their team. These are the main factors that keep us loyal.”

Staying on top of changing regulations presents a challenge, especially considering clients increasingly expect that knowledge to be both broad and detailed. Once again, any industry body of which you’re a member will undoubtedly track these changes, but a basic approach of regularly visiting government websites can also pay dividends. Support from your software vendor can also help—if new legislation requires additional functionality be added to software, then the support documentation is very likely to explain this need, and the underlying law that requires it.

Embrace the younger generation

If your practice wants to grow in the areas of compliance offerings, or wants to improve its digitization for the benefit of clients, where should it start?

It’s certainly possible to instigate training in these areas but an alternative solution that should underpin any plan to improve your practice lies with another finding within this year’s Practice of Now survey results: embracing the new generation.

In our survey, 84% of respondents agreed that one of the biggest external impacts on their working practices and culture has been employees from younger generations, who bring different expectations and attitudes. This in turn forces practices to change, if only to attract this talent.

The strength of millennials and Gen-Zers—considered to be those to whose adulthood began in the 21st century—is in their ability to embrace change; a prospect that older generations might typically be more resistant to.

Whether it is implementing cloud-based solutions, digitizing workflows, finding technical solutions, or reaching new business in alternative spaces, this generation is a crucial asset for traditional accounting firms looking to evolve in tandem with the digital landscape. And their ability to learn the compliance landscape as it exists today, without baggage from yesterday, is a real advantage.

How can your practice go about attracting younger talent?

  1. Fish where the fishes are. In our survey, we asked more than 1,000 of the respondents in the US where they find new talent for their organization. The most popular answer from 38% of respondents, was social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. This dwarfed more traditional routes, such as college recruitment efforts, listed by 15% of respondents. It’s no exaggeration to say that younger people live their lives on social media, so they simply expect you to have a presence there.
  2. Hire from outside the traditional accounting background. In our survey, 88% of respondents said they were amenable to recruiting from areas such as project management, training, customer service, and more. To capture the best entrants from the younger demographic to meet the needs as outlined above, it might be time to ease the requirement for young recruits to your firm to have an accounting qualification.
  3. Be flexible. We asked our survey respondents, ‘what is the main reason for new staff to join their practice and not their competitors? The top answer for 38% of respondents was flexible working practices—working from home, for example. These issues are known to be important to the younger generation. PwC’s Millennials at Work research talking to more than 4,000 graduates reported flexible working hours as the second most-valued benefit from an employer, behind only training and development—and more important to them than cash bonuses, healthcare, and pensions.

Conclusion

The challenges presented across 2020 have been difficult, but challenges also present opportunities, and it would be a waste if accounting professionals didn’t build upon the effort to create a more competitive practice. As the results from the Practice of Now 2020 show, this

The Practice of Now 2020

Discover how accounting is on the brink of positive disruption and what accountants and bookkeepers should do to be successful.

Get the report

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