Getting customers

The informal sector: an untapped opportunity for accountants

Speaking in the latest episode of the Sage #NextGenAccounting podcast, Njoli, explains how leaving the security of a corporate accounting firm quickly taught him that he needed to upskill himself, and add value in a competitive market if he wanted to be a successful, self-employed accountant.

Woman in audience raising her hand

Nyameko Njoli woke up one day believing he could be a great businessman and run a successful accounting consultancy. “I sold the idea to my wife and quit my job. The first two months were exciting – I even secured my first client. But then reality set in and I soon realised that running a business is not a natural skill – it’s something I had to learn.”

Speaking in the latest episode of the Sage #NextGenAccounting podcast, Njoli, explains how leaving the security of a corporate accounting firm quickly taught him that he needed to upskill himself, and add value in a competitive market if he wanted to be a successful, self-employed accountant.

Njoli discovered he could differentiate himself by adding value to the informal economy. He believes this is a largely untapped customer base for accountants – if they’re willing to become educators and advisors to their clients.

“There’s a lot they don’t teach you in university, partly because they can’t keep up with advancements in accounting technology. But one thing we’re not told is that – in the informal economy in particular – there’s also a lot that our clients don’t know about pricing, cash flow, and customer service, so we have to take on the dual role of teacher and learner.”

He recalls taking his car to a panel beater working in the informal sector. “He cut his labour costs in half because he was trying to make me happy. In the end, it took twice as long to fix my car and he still had to pay his staff. He was operating at a loss. That was the perfect time for me to educate him about why he’s not making money – because he was under-pricing his service.”

Much to learn

The technology advancements Njoli speaks about should be the biggest driver for accountants to learn new, softer skills.

“New apps and software solutions make accounting simple. When supported by artificial intelligence, these solutions perform many accounting functions faster – and better – than humans. The reality is, anyone can sell this technology, and businesses will go with the lowest price. Accountants need to differentiate themselves by figuring out how to complement these solutions. They need to learn new skills so that they can add value to their clients’ businesses beyond technology.”

Unlike working for an established consultancy that already has clients, working systems and processes, being independent means accountants need to be able to sell themselves – and confidence is not something they teach at university.

“When the clients weren’t coming to me, I realised I had to sell myself – and selling is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to accountants. No one teaches us how to sell. So, I asked my own clients how they got clients, I watched YouTube and LinkedIn videos, I spent time at SARS figuring out their systems and processes. You can’t make a mistake with a SARS submission because it’s your client’s business on the line. None of this is in the theory we’re taught. I’m still learning; there are no shortcuts – you have to get out there and learn.”

Bean-counter to consultant

Another skill Njoli had to learn fast was how to be a business advisor and consultant. He says new accountants should decide what sector they want to serve and what value they can add.

“Clients of large accounting firms have certain expectations, in terms of what reports they want to receive and by when. But businesses in the informal sector have different expectations and perceptions of accountants. Most of their challenges are directly linked to the success of their business. My role now becomes more than delivering a report on time. I’m an advisor who helps them make a success of their business, by guiding them on strategy and trends.

Many business owners in this sector survive month-to-month and don’t turn a profit. Their cash flow situation is precarious. For them, it’s not about the accounting package – taxi drivers don’t have time to click buttons and learn new systems. They don’t have the skills to manage their paperwork. That’s because accounting is not their primary focus. So, it’s up to me to make the accounting process as simple as possible – for example, by recommending easy-to-use apps. But the real value I bring to the table is the advice I give them – helping them to run their businesses better, to understand pricing, admin and quoting, and advising on how they can better interact with their customers.”

Changing perceptions

Njoli says there’s a perception in the informal market that an accountant’s role is to crunch the numbers, talk to the bank when a business needs funding, and get tax clearance certificates.

“We’ve been taught that, as accountants, we’re going to arrive at a company and solve a certain problem. But, in the informal sector, some business owners might only have a Grade 4 education – it’s hard work convincing them to do things differently. Approaching them from a sustainability perspective and telling them what they need to do in order for their business to survive, is how you gain their trust. A lot of these businesses don’t understand cash flow and how it affects their business.

Avika Ramdhani, Director of Accountants, Partners and Alliances at Sage, agrees that accountants need to start thinking like entrepreneurs if they want to be successful in the future. “They need to identify untapped markets and gaps in existing markets. They can only do that if they’re always listening, watching, and reading – about anything and everything. Soon, softer skills like advisory and strategy will be more in demand than the ability to crunch numbers.”