Firms of all sizes are being challenged to meet the changing demands of clients and maintain relevance in the face of a rapid technological evolution that is automating many traditional core services. The convergence of technology, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence and deep learning are disrupting the profession. At the same time, these technologies present an opportunity to build upon the compliance and transactional services clients need and provide the proactive advice they really want and value. In short, they provide the key to making the leap from technical advisor to a trusted business consultant.
CPAs are well-positioned to serve as a trusted business advisor to their clients, but it requires an investment in technology for two purposes.
When asked why some accountants continue to focus their efforts on the transactional, compliance and reporting services that technology is commoditizing, most respond that they don’t feel comfortable providing advisory services that are performance-or strategic-based. Their training and experience have focused on data. But transactions can now be recorded and coded more accurately by machine than by human and technology continues to gain capabilities to search and quickly respond to queries that previously required professional assistance, judgment and time.
The ability to access, organize and report data trends is essential to management and leadership, but technology is quickly becoming better (and cheaper) at it than CPAs. By investing in technology that can meet your clients’ need for information, you can continue to provide these services, while elevating your focus. It will require a shift in mindsets, toolsets, and skillsets. But the alternative is obsolescence.
In the past, most firms focused on client service on a human level. Their IT strategy was driven by tax and accounting software. In the future, firms will need to spread their IT investment across:
- Talent development
- Legal and compliance
- Services and products
- Client experience
The client experience – for both external clients and internal clients (employees) is crucial for making the leap to trusted business advisor. In the past, too many solution providers focused on convenience from the firm’s perspective while ignoring the client experience. You can implement all of the technology you want. If it’s difficult for your clients to use, they won’t use it.
Consider client portals. Portals were supposed to make collecting and delivering client documents more secure and convenient. However, from a client’s perspective, they were time-consuming and cumbersome. Few clients used them, and most that did were businesses who could instruct an employee to deal with them – the business owner wouldn’t waste their time or effort.
Tax organizers are another example. Paper organizers are usually ignored by clients and returned blank or not at all. Several attempts have been made to digitize them, but those efforts usually merely took a lengthy and complicated paper organizer and put it on a screen. Many firms who tried early forms of electronic organizers abandoned them after a single tax season.
Over the last two years, certain solution providers have incorporated digital organizers, document collection and electronic signatures in a way that is client-focused. These tools benefit the firms by helping to organize information and facilitate communication between the firm and the client, but they’re designed with the client experience in mind. The firms that are using these solutions are reporting excellent adoption rates for that reason.
By focusing on these areas, firms can begin focusing on value-added rather than activity-based processes. If you don’t have a firm vision and a strategic plan that addresses these areas, now is an excellent time to get started. Start with the question, “Where do we want to be in one, three, five or ten years?” Don’t be afraid to utilize thought leaders and peers to assist in developing your technology ecosystem. Executing on a plan requires leadership and resources, but once in place, your technology ecosystem will become a strategic asset.
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