There's little debate that the accounting world has changed dramatically through emerging technology. And while the availability of apps that automate tedious workflows and connect accountants and bookkeepers to clients in new ways seems to be a tide that raises all ships, the gap between high- and low-performing accounting and bookkeeping firms is wider than ever, begging the question:
What are successful accountants and bookkeepers doing differently in today's fast-paced, brave new world?
Is using a specific set of apps the earmark of today's successful accounting and bookkeeping firms? Is it a minute-or-less client response time on Facebook or Twitter? Is it investing in an intuitive, functional client portal? Is it adding new revenue streams to compete and maintain relevance?
The answer, surprisingly, is all of these things—and none.
Adopting the newest app or growing your fan-base on social media isn't the linchpin that will transform your business. However, emerging technology does present a unique opportunity for accountants to undergo a true paradigm shift that will mean the difference between mediocrity and success in the new world of accounting.
So, what are successful CPAs doing differently?
1. Taking a Client-Centric Approach
Successful accountants and bookkeepers are changing the way they approach client relationships on a fundamental level. Rather than responding to a request for tax preparation, accounting, or payroll services by simply delivering the service as requested, they're approaching each request as an opportunity to begin a relationship with the client.
Running payroll or preparing taxes is a significant part of that relationship, but successful accountants and bookkeepers in the new world of accounting are thinking bigger.
"Essentially, we're making the tax return a byproduct of everything else we're doing rather than the tax return being all we do. That's a big difference,” says CPA Dale Jacobson.
Not only does this approach open the door to an expanded accounting role in your client’s business — meaning more revenue — but it can infuse new life and job satisfaction into an accounting or bookkeeping firm, which can have a significant impact on success. Studies have proven again and again that happy, engaged employees work harder and more efficiently than their unhappy counterparts.
“The truth is many accountants are overloaded with tedious work and have lost the spark that once drew them into accounting. After all, most of us did not enter the profession for our love of after-the-fact compliance-related paperwork,” says Jon Baron, Managing Director at Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting.
We're making the tax return a byproduct of everything else we're doing rather than the tax return being all we do. That's a big difference.Dale Jacobson, CPA
The Big Shift: Optimizing the Client Experience
Moving away from a model that parses out tedious work in one-off portions by embracing an advisory role might sound nice. But many accountants and bookkeepers may wonder how this bigger-picture approach is even possible, given how busy they are simply fulfilling one-off requests for various clients.
The answer lies in embracing an advisory model through technology and actively shifting the way accountants and bookkeepers view client relationships. By approaching the advisory role armed with technology, accountants and bookkeepers can decrease the sheer amount of time tedious workflows take. They can shift that time and energy into approaching current client relationships on a new level rather than soliciting more tasks from new clients.
“Firms today need to offer more than just the need. Firms need to serve their clients with a mindset toward optimizing client experience,” Baron adds. “That's part technology, part relationship, and part offering true solutions — not just after-the-fact reporting and compliance work.”
Encouraging clients to use tools that speed up back-office tasks like time tracking, expense reporting, invoicing, and payroll is one of the best ways to meet client needs while eliminating the detail-heavy, labor-intensive aspect of such work.
Some accountants and bookkeepers have resisted making such recommendations, fearing that automation will cut into their value proposition or functionally outsource their work. But just the opposite effect takes places. Working on a deeper, more satisfying level is the result of allowing technology to take its place as the remover of manual data entry and rote tasks.
Accountants and bookkeepers shouldn't be surprised to learn that their profession is No. 2 on the chopping block when it comes to jobs that are predicted to be outsourced in the coming years. And if your clients see you solely as a service-provider, the hard truth is that your job is at risk from this disruption.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 “The Future of Jobs” report states those in financial services will experience a 43 percent change in skills disruption before 2020. And by 2020, workers across all industries studied will see the shelf-life of their existing skill sets significantly shortened by the impact of technology.
In the accounting and bookkeeping professions, the difference between being edged out and becoming irreplaceable is synthesizing the client relationship with big-picture business acumen and tech solutions. Part of that is a willingness to leave behind the old paradigm, and the other part is an attitude that, at its heart, is simply good customer service on a holistic level.
In the report "7 Habits of Highly Successful CPA Firms," one survey respondent from a high-performing firm noted that the goal of every accounting and bookkeeping firm should be to "create a level of client service that the profession has yet to see. We believe this is the key to our future. Out-service the competition."
Summary Successful accountants and bookkeepers are dramatically shifting the way they approach client relationships. They're moving away from a service-provider model and toward an advisory model with the help of apps and software that streamline data-intensive tasks and free up time and energy to focus on helping clients improve performance and operate their businesses more strategically. And they're setting the standard for what today's client expects from their accountants and bookkeepers.
2. Embracing Technology
It's impossible to embrace a client-focused, big-picture paradigm shift without wholeheartedly embracing technology. And the results speak for themselves. In the “7 Habits” study of high-performing CPA firms versus low-performing CPA firms, researchers found that high-performing firms were five times more likely to encourage innovation than low-performing firms.
What Does It Mean to Embrace Technology?
How does a firm embrace technology? And which technology specifically? The “7 Habits” study states, "This attribute, while it can be applied to technology adoption, is certainly not restricted to it. In fact, it tends to be pervasive in a firm's culture — applying broadly to service offerings, management techniques, employee benefits, and so forth."
In other words, jumping on the technological bandwagon looks less like rushing to download the latest iPhone and Android apps and more so an attitude of embracing change and encouraging clients to innovate. The speed of innovation is only increasing, so solutions will naturally evolve over time.
When asked "What technology skills will accountants and bookkeepers need to be successful over the next decade?" Gary Boomer, Visionary and Strategist at Boomer Consulting, responded, "Who knows? We don't even know what the service offerings will be. Accountants and bookkeepers who have change, knowledge, and project management skills will have a head start."
The specific tech solutions accountants and bookkeepers ultimately choose to advocate are less important than their knowledge of the options and their willingness to refer them in the first place. That said, there are a few key areas central to business that aren't going away or fundamentally changing and they should be at the top of your list when it comes to embracing and advocating technology.
- Expense Tracking: Accurately tracking and organizing receipts, mileage, and paid invoices could easily be a full-time job if done manually. And for most accountants and bookkeepers (and their clients), it simply isn't possible to dedicate the hours required for flawless manual expense tracking — meaning expenses fall through the cracks. Automating expense tracking will save you, and your clients, hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Explore a leading solution for cloud-based business expense tracking.
- Time Tracking: Estimating hours inevitably results in billable time lost and inaccurate records. There's the real and omnipresent threat of time theft, which adds up fast — as in $11 billion for all US employers. Because if 10 hourly employees making $20 per hour fudge even minutes per day on their timesheets, that's $4,340 lost annually. For most businesses, direct labor costs are the No. 1 expense. On average, it takes five minutes to process each paper timesheet. Using an automated time tracking solution like TSheets can decrease the time it takes to process a time card to one minute per employee. Explore the leading cloud-based time tracking solution.
- Billing and Invoicing: Avoiding or minimizing client disputes and getting paid on time are two good reasons to automate billing and invoicing for accountants and bookkeepers and their clients. When used in tandem with automated time tracking, it's possible to simply drag and drop billable hours by client, project, or location. Explore a leading solution for cloud-based billing and invoicing.
- Payroll: The American Payroll Association finds that companies save an average of 2 to 8 percent on gross labor costs by the simple act of automating payroll — and, in turn, reducing time theft, human error, and manual data entry. If you have 20 employees each making $20 per hour, that's $18,000 to $72,000 in savings annually — a benefit that's as applicable to your own firm as it is to your client’s business. In addition to eliminating manual entry and increasing speed and accuracy in payroll, you'll also gain the benefits of easily accessible records. Explore a leading solution for payroll.
- CRM: Put simply, customer relationship management software allows you to stop doing what isn't working and do more of what is when it comes to your customers. It gives you insight into who your customers are, how much you're spending to acquire and market to them, all customer touch points, resources allocated to customers, and patterns that emerge through these interactions. Trying to analyze and pinpoint these trends manually is a recipe for missed opportunities and endless hours spent searching for data Explore a leading solution for CRM.
These solutions hold the keys to streamlining onerous, data-heavy tasks and increasing profitability while reducing the amount of time dedicated to rote accounting tasks. Outsourcing those time- and data-intensive tasks to apps that can complete them with inhuman accuracy and speed will arm accountants and bookkeepers with powerful tools to help their clients succeed, as well as shift their own business focus to interpreting (rather than compiling) business-critical information.
Working in Technology
As important as it is to work with technology in the form of apps and software that help accountants and bookkeepers streamline and understand their business and their client’s business, it's equally critical to work through technology in your practice by taking a mobile, paperless, portal-centric approach.
Going paperless to streamline internal processes and encourage your customers to interact with you through technology (in a client portal, for example) not only improves efficiency, but it sends a clear message to increasingly mobile and tech-dependent customers who are likely to balk at outdated processes
Why Go Paperless?
Of high-performing firms, 76 percent have gone paperless by using electronic filing systems, scanning and saving files, rather than investing in more filing folders and automating their in-office processes.
Not only does ditching paper and moving into the cloud increase your efficiency and organization, it frees up your time and gives you a great experience to draw upon when it’s time to help your clients go paperless as well.
“We need to move away from old methods and adopt new methods that will enhance our productivity so that we can spend our time on more valuable tasks like servicing our existing clients and obtaining new clients,” said a "7 Habits” survey respondent.
Going paperless also facilitates anytime, anywhere, any-device access to information. Work isn't held hostage by papers getting left at the office or computer hard drives that fail. Far from the risky or difficult-to-navigate sphere that some tentative accountants imagine about cloud accounting, data stored in the cloud is secure — and available whenever and however it's needed.
Why Go Mobile?
Mobile-optimized websites and tech tools are an expectation for today's consumer, not an added bonus. If a website or tool doesn't have a mobile component, your customers are likely to gravitate toward someone who offers mobile technology. And don't think it's just about convenience.
Firms that offer mobile technology are considered forward-thinking and sensitive to customers' needs. Firms that don't are perceived as behind the times. And that's not the only reason to go mobile. Google ranks your website, in part, by how mobile friendly it is. If you don't offer mobile-optimized content, your competitors are showing up in Google searches ahead of you.
Why Invest in a Portal?
Investing in a paperless, mobile-optimized portal gives you all the perks of paperless technology, projects a forward-thinking, tech-savvy vibe, and functionally cuts down on time and energy that would otherwise be spent shifting piles of paperwork around.
As Gary Boomer predicts: "He who owns the portal will own the client."
A portal, which allows accountants and bookkeepers and clients to interact, exchange information, and ultimately deliver accounting services, requires an investment to develop but is an asset that will yield valuable dividends.
When given an option of a mobile-optimized, easily accessible web transfer to deliver a signature, versus a trip across town in rush hour, it's clear why clients increasingly insist on a portal. If not through direct feedback, it’s given wherever they conduct business.
Successful accounting and bookkeeping firms are embracing change and innovation through business-critical apps, mobile technology, a paperless office space, and client portals. While the specific tech tools accountants and bookkeepers choose to adopt will vary based on need and ever-expanding technology, a willingness to evolve will continue to be a hallmark of high-performing versus low-performing firms.
3. Specializing and Partnering
The good news is, taking a holistic approach doesn't mean doing it all yourself or spreading yourself thin. In the “7 Habits” study of CPA performance, high-performing firms were far less likely to commit to a single software vendor, but “a hallmark of a high performer is to overwhelmingly prefer best of breed solutions."
Partnering with best-of-breed tech solutions to offer a holistic approach to your clients’ needs (and encouraging your clients to take the same approach with their customers) is beneficial for everyone. Accountants and bookkeepers avoid spreading themselves thin in an attempt to become "jacks and jills of all trades" by relying on app partners and tech solutions that have honed in on a specialty.
For instance, while you may indeed add a revenue stream to offer payroll services, relying on a best-of-breed app to do the heavy lifting isn't cheating. It's good business. The same can be said for client relationship management, document storage, and so on.
Beyond partnering with technology providers, you should also be looking to form relationships with other professional service providers. You can't be an expert on all areas of your client’s business, nor should you expect to be.
By forming relationships outside your own organization, you can still provide those high-value services without building or hiring the expertise. And you can still play the quarterback position in the relationship with your clients.
Your clients want an accountant or bookkeeper who knows their craft so deeply and so well that they offer value beyond the service they're providing, which is only feasible if you specialize. At first blush, the idea of specializing while taking a holistic approach to business can sound contradictory. Think of it in terms of taking a narrow, deep approach to your clients (and potential clients) rather than a wide, shallow one.
“Accountants and bookkeepers have been playing the role of trusted technical advisor for years. In order to elevate their role to a trusted business advisor, they need to possess a deep understanding of their client’s business and offer services that focus on business performance and strategy,” Boomer says.
Anyone can offer off-the-cuff business recommendations and even use technology to complete a service request. But by specializing in an industry or type of business (for instance, construction clients or startups), you'll provide a depth of knowledge that can't be replicated through technology or by the competition.
High-performing accounting and bookkeeping firms will become the best in their niche and be able to provide honed solutions and counsel for businesses in their wheelhouse. By forming partnerships with best-of-breed tech solutions, these firms will successfully be able to maintain a breadth of revenue streams without losing that honed focus on their niche.
4. Moving Beyond Cloud Computing
By embracing technology, taking a client-centric approach, and specializing in providing an in-depth and holistic approach, accountants and bookkeepers will find success in the new world of accounting. “Cloud computing” may well be the catchphrase du jour, but the client-centric, holistic approach made possible through cloud computing will be the true test of high- versus low-performing accountants and bookkeepers in the future.
"The firms that will withstand disruption must be in sync with changes in technology and elevate themselves to be connected advisors rather than after-the-fact reporters of financial or tax information,” Baron concludes. “They also need to realize that accounting and reporting are only part of a good client relationship. Today's clients also expect them to bring new ideas, proactive thinking, and a higher level of customer service. This means redefining what they do, how they do it, and who they serve.”
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