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A new purpose for the accounting profession

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The words ‘accounting’ and ‘bookkeeping’ were once used interchangeably. But their respective meanings are drifting apart.

As technology rapidly and unblinkingly learns how to perform routine accounting tasks, the traditional accounting value proposition of bookkeeping is being commoditised. Now, accountants, and the businesses they work for, must find a new purpose; instead of ‘balancing the books’, they must find what is valuable within them to the benefit of their clients.

The status quo under threat

Not everyone has acknowledged the winds of change in the accounting industry.

In the 2020 Practice of Now (PoN) survey, 46% of the accountants that participated still considered themselves as reporting focussed number-crunchers. It’s a concerning admission, both in its scale and character.

Processing power will shortly assume total responsibility for counting beans and the like. And that’s a good thing – it means that the accounting profession must shoulder a higher purpose, an ingredient that could not only make the profession more attractive for talented, ambitious individuals, but also work to uplift the image of the industry as a whole.

What does that higher purpose look like? It’s advisory. It’s sophisticated. It’s personal.

Interpreting the numbers

Another intriguing finding from the PoN survey was that 82% of accounting firms are willing to recruit people from non-accounting backgrounds. It’s a trend that is being driven by the evolving needs and expectations of their clients; they don’t just want the numbers; they want to know what they mean, and how they can leverage them.

The disciplines of marketing, cashflow management, human resources, people management, and growth modelling/forecasting are increasingly expected to be within the wheelhouse of those offering ‘accounting’ services.

To be sure, understanding the numbers is a prerequisite for interpreting them. It follows that it’s the accountants who have the best foundation to deliver valuable insight across their clients’ businesses.

But it means that the professional bodies that shape the emerging accounting professionals must redesign their courses to include teachings on technology, business intelligence, data science, machine learning, project management, sales, communication, and emotional intelligence. That’s not an exhaustive list, either. Luckily accountants aren’t scared of hard work!

This applies equally to experienced professionals; they must upskill themselves in these areas in order to serve the new, advisory-based purpose that their profession is quickly pivoting towards.

Embrace software

At AXCELERATE, most of our clients are accelerating the use of technology in their businesses. As a result, we have to understand and be able to assimilate with, the software they’re using. The expectation – which is gaining momentum across the industry – is that we’ll be able to integrate with their systems when delivering our accounting or payroll services.

Our business, and others like it, must continually invest the time and money necessary to deliver sophisticated accounting services that leverage up-to-date technologies. Some of the advances we’ve made include:

  • automated, recurring invoicing;
  • cloud-based, paperless accounting;
  • using Sage and SQL business intelligence tools;
  • automated debtor’s management;
  • using APIs to eliminate duplicate entries; and
  • remote client interfacing and delivery of services.

We’re all familiar with the saying that what worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. And it rings true when it comes to the use of technology. It will not suffice to make an upgrade here and there; rather, those delivering accounting services must adopt a continuous learning attitude and get comfortable implementing the necessary changes as their clients’ demands evolve.

Software and technology are inextricable parts of that equation.

Yes, soft skills matter

When you move from handing over a product to delivering a service – the journey the accounting profession is currently taking – a different set of skills is required to be successful. The first step toward becoming a trusted business advisor (the new purpose) is to fully understand both the people you’re engaging with, and the challenges they face within their businesses.

You can achieve neither of those effectively without practicing empathy.

Ask thoughtful questions. Listen carefully to the answers. Show them that you understand their pain points. At this point, there’s a common misconception that you need especially gifted creatives to come up with the solutions. Sure, some lateral thinking is required. But really, the key to finding a solution is to understand their challenges as well as they do.

Once you and your team have a potential solution for your client, communicating it effectively is non-negotiable – many great ideas are lost in badly worded proposals or disjointed presentations.

If they like your service/solution, the next soft skill that must come to the fore is sensitivity toward customer service. Do what you say you will, and then some more. Remember the finer details, like birthdays or what their personal interests are. Take the time to tell them, specifically, why you enjoy working with them. Those small touches mean everything.

Little bites, but keep eating

Change is only daunting when we look at where we are versus where we need to be, and then let our imaginations run amok about everything it’s going to take to bridge that gap. It’s a surefire approach to keep you stationary.

Choose not to overwhelm yourself by breaking down the bigger changes you need to make into bite-sized pieces. This will help you start the process sooner. And, once you get a few wins under your belt, you’ll find the necessary momentum to achieve real, sustainable change.

From the perspective of the individual accountant, developing a habit of continuous learning has never been more important. The rate of change that the accounting profession is currently subject to is unlikely to relent; more likely to steepen. To be in a position to consistently add value to both the firm you work for, and the clients they service, you’ll need an ingrained ability to adapt and upskill yourself into perpetuity.

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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