There's little debate that the accounting world has changed dramatically through emerging technology. However, while the availability of apps that automate tedious workflows and connect accountants to clients in new ways seems to be a tide that raises all ships, the gap between high- and low-performing CPA firms is wider than ever, begging the question: What are successful CPAs doing differently in today's fast-paced, brave new world?
Is using a specific set of apps the earmark of today's successful CPA firm? 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 CPAs 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 true relationship with the client. Running payroll or preparing taxes may very well be a significant part of that relationship, but successful CPAs in the new world of accounting are thinking bigger.
CPA Dale Jacobson says, "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."
Not only does this approach open the door to an expanded accounting role in your clients' businesses—meaning more revenue—but it can infuse new life and job satisfaction into a CPA firm, which can have a significant impact on success in and of itself. Studies have proven again and again that happy, engaged employees work harder and more efficiently than their unhappy counterparts—about 12 percent more productive, to be exact.
Jon Baron, Managing Director at Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting notes,
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.Jon Baron, Managing Director
The Big Shift
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 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 the use of technology and actively shifting the way CPAs view client relationships. By approaching advisory armed with technology, accountants can decrease the sheer amount of time that tedious workflows take, shifting that time and energy into approaching current client relationships on a new level rather than soliciting more tasks from new clients.
Baron adds, "Firms today need to offer more than just the need. Firms need to serve their clients with a mindset toward optimizing client experience. 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 to such work. Some accountants have resisted making such recommendations, fearing that automation will cut into their value proposition or functionally outsource their work. However, just the opposite effect takes places. More work—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 shouldn't be surprised to learn that their profession is #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 2015 IBC Future of Jobs Report states that 47% of all jobs are at risk of becoming redundant through expanding technology—and that by 2020, we can expect to see a global surplus of 90 million "low-skill" jobs (e.g.., jobs that can be replaced by technology). The flip side of that coin? There's also a shortfall of 85 million "high skill" jobs anticipated.
In the accounting world, the difference between being edged out and becoming irreplaceable is synthesizing client relationship with big-picture business acumen with 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 CPA firm should be to "create a level of client service that the CPA profession has yet to see. We believe this is the key to our future. Out-service the competition."
Summary: The message is clear: Successful accountants 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 CPA firm.
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 a 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 Embracing Technology Functionally Look Like?
How does a firm embrace technology? And which technology specifically? The same study states, "This attribute, while it can be applicable 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 app in iTunes or Google Play 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 CPAs 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. CPAs who have change, knowledge, and project management skills will have a head start."
The specific tech solutions CPAs 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. The following 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 and paid invoices could easily be a full-time full-time job if done manually. And for most CPAs (and their clients) it simply isn't possible to dedicate the hours required for flawless manual expense tracking—meaning that expenses fall through the cracks. Automating expense tracking will save you and your clients hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Explore leading solutions 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. 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 #1 expense. On average, it takes 5 minutes to process each paper timesheet. Using an automated time tracking solution can decrease the time it takes to process a time card to 1 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 CPAs and their clients alike. When used in tandem with automated time tracking, it's possible to simply drag and drop billable hours by client, project, or location. Explore leading solutions for cloud-based billing and invoicing.
- Payroll: The American Payroll Association finds that companies save an average of 2-8 percent on gross labor costs by the simple act of automating payroll—and in turn reducing time theft, human error, and manual data entry. Meaning, if you have 20 employees, each making $20 per hour, that's $18,000-$72,000 in savings annually—a benefit that's as applicable to your own firm as it is to your clients' businesses. In addition to eliminating manual entry and increasing speed and accuracy in running payroll, you'll also gain the benefits of easily accessible records. Explore leading solutions 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 leading solutions 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 with powerful tools to help their clients succeed, as well as shifting their own business focus to interpreting rather than compiling business-critical information:
"Tools that automate data-entry tasks and other lower-margin work will shift the focus of the CPA's job from compiling data and reports to mining the data to find the nuggets of information that produce profitable business decisions." (Executive Summary, "Technology and CPAs," Journal of Accountancy.)
Working in Technology
As important as it is to work with technology in the form of apps and software that help CPAs streamline and understand their own business and their clients' businesses, 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 sends a clear message to increasingly mobile, increasingly tech-dependent customers who are likely to balk at outdated processes.
Why Go Paperless?
The numbers speak for this trend. 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 own 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 great experience to draw upon for helping 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." (Response from high-performing CPA firm, "7 Habits of Highly Successful CPA Firms.")
Going paperless also facilitates anytime, anywhere, any device access to information. Work isn't held hostage by papers getting left at the office, or even a computer hard drive failing. Far from the risky or difficult to navigate sphere that some tentative accountants imagine when it comes to cloud accounting, data stored in the cloud is secure—and available whenever and however you need it.
Why Go Mobile?
Going mobile is important for two main reasons: First of all, mobile-optimized websites and tech tools are an expectation for today's consumer, not a nicety. If a website or tool doesn't have a mobile component, your customers are likely to simply gravitate toward someone who does offer mobile technology. And don't think it's just about convenience. Firms that offer mobile technology are seen as 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—meaning, if you don't offer mobile optimized content, your competitors are showing up in Google searches before you are.
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.
Gary Boomer, Visionary & Strategist at Boomer Consulting, predicts that in the future, "He who owns the portal will own the client."
A portal, which allows CPA and client 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, through where they conduct their business.
Summary: Successful CPA firms are embracing change and innovation through business-critical apps, mobile technology, a paperless office space, and the use of client portals. While the specific tech tools CPAs 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 previously cited study of CPA performance, high-performing firms were far less likely to commit to a single software vendor. "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 to their clients) is beneficial for everyone. CPAs 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 speciality. 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 clients' businesses, 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 a CPA who knows their craft so deeply and 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.
Jim Boomer, CEO at Boomer Consulting says,
CPAs 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 clients' business and offer services that focus on business performance and strategy.Jim Boomer, CEO
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 the competition.
Summary: High-performing CPA firms will become the best in their niche, able to provide honed solutions and counsel for businesses in their wheelhouse. By forming partnerships with best-of-breed tech solutions, these firms will likewise successfully be able to maintain a breadth of revenue streams without losing honed focus in their niche.
Moving Beyond Cloud Computing
By embracing technology, taking a client-centric approach, and specializing to provide an in-depth, holistic approach, CPA firms will find success in the new world of accounting. "Cloud computing" may well be the catch phrase du jour, but the client-centric, holistic approach made possible through cloud computing will be the true test of high—versus low—performing CPAs in the future.
Jon Baron says: "The firms that will withstand disruption must be in synch with changes in technology, and elevate themselves to be connected advisors rather than after-the-fact reporters of financial or tax information. 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."Back to Resource Center