By Chris Downing, Director for Accountants & Bookkeepers at Sage
The end of the financial year is still some time off, but the holiday period is an important time of reflection for businesses. After one of the most challenging years on record, the holidays will be a make-or-break opportunity for many. They may need to make difficult decisions and consider new options, including changing their accountants.
However, rather than feeling like they are under the microscope, accountants should see an opportunity. Perhaps now more than ever, clients will be seeking guidance, advice and novel solutions to their problems. Indeed, Sage research shows that client expectations are widening to areas not covered by traditional practices. A combination of new people, processes and technology can help them transform digitally, enabling accountants to create fresh value for their clients during the most important quarter of the year.
Keeping up with the clients: beyond compliance
A good accountant understands their client’s business, exactly what can be claimed as expenditure and what can be done to minimise their tax bill. But a great accountant moves beyond bookkeeping and number-crunching to become a close business partner. They have a 360-degree view of their client’s finances, its compliance requirements, and its overall business goals.
To be competitive, an accountant needs to be a trusted advisor, not just on tax and compliance but increasingly on strategy and technology as well. This is especially true at a time when businesses are facing disruption and pressure from all angles. They should be able to closely monitor a client’s finances, warning clients of problems before they arise and discussing opportunities. This requires an in-depth understanding of the business, only gained through data insight and the use of accounting software that quickly collates, integrates and analyses data in separate environments.
In the current climate, agility is also a crucial differentiator. Accountants can’t always predict what clients may need, and the advice they seek will be ever-changing. Protection from late payments could be the topic of client advice for one day, and the next they may want guidance on how a new ecommerce platform could insulate their business from continued, intermittent lockdowns. Being able to roll with the punches, manipulate and analyse client data rapidly to offer timely advice will be key. Yet this isn’t always easy when client data is siloed across different parts of the business.
Fortunately, moving client data to the Cloud can make it far more accessible and easier to analyse. Accountants will be able to access the data in real-time, improving service and the speed of delivery. Cloud accounting tools also make for easier reporting and business planning.
For added agility and process efficiency, accountants should also consider how AI and machine learning tools can automate high-volume, repeatable tasks. Indeed, 69% of accountants believe the adoption of new technologies is integral to success. Robotic process automation can free up precious time by taking over tasks like data input and output, reconciliation, and data quality management. Instead of worrying about the nitty gritty, accountants can focus on being advisors and delivering real value for clients. They’ll also have the time to be truly proactive – something clients appreciate at this time of year when so many are winding down.
New blood, new possibilities
However, technology is just a tool, an enabler for people to achieve their objectives. Cloud and AI tools can be powerful but only when they are in the rights hands. A firm needs to be built on a foundation of experts, skilled in the areas that clients care most about. If a client is considering the benefits of AI for their business, they’ll want to hear from an AI expert.
As a priority, accountants should seek to diversify their client teams. Traditional accounting skills, tax and compliance knowledge, are still central but they increasingly need to be supplemented by new hard and soft skills. Technological expertise – particularly around AI and digital – should be prized, as well as interpersonal skills. Clients want reassurance and a stronger, consultative relationship, so it’s important that staff master their people skills. To obtain these skillsets, more firms are recruiting outside the industry – 82% say they are open to recruiting candidates without an accounting background, such as project management or client services.
Of course, such skills are in short supply and attracting them to a practice will be a challenge in itself. Ultimately, if accountants want today’s most sought-after skills, their practice has to modernise. Flexible working and integrated collaboration tools aren’t just a nice-to-have, they’re essential to attracting the brightest talent – many of whom are young and entering a world of work that’s digital-first.
There are many things that make a 360-degree accountant. An entrepreneurial mindset, a consultative approach, and a flair for problem-solving to name but a few. With these skills in their back pocket, and aided by cloud-based technologies, accountants will have an impressive overview of their clients, and the agility to adapt to their needs. Ultimately, the most disruptive and competitive practices are the ones who breed innovation with progressive and diverse people. While these accountants respect the existing accountancy model, they aren’t afraid to experiment beyond their comfort zone in order to deliver new services. In a digital-first world, technology is the enabler, but strong client relationships are built by people.