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From number crunchers to triple threats: The evolution of professional accountants

In the professional arena, accountants are versatile utility players who possess the critical skills to build highly profitable businesses, except perhaps one.

Insights Barry McGee, AZ NGA 03 July 2020
— 2 minute read

The pop culture expression, triple threat, refers to a person (usually a performer) who possesses three desirable attributes or skills such as devastating good looks and the ability to sing, dance or act.

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Accountants do not immediately spring to mind, but changing client expectations and demands plus heightened competition is pushing practitioners to establish themselves as professional triple threats.

Accountants are already recognised as technical experts. They intimately know tax law and how it applies to households and businesses.

They also have a natural affection for numbers, so they are not intimidated by the increasing volume, variety and velocity of data. Their strong analytical skills enable them to interpret data and understand what it means.

If they can hone their listening and engagement skills to build deeper client relationships, they will be able to expand their role to act as trusted business advisers, too.  

As it is, accountants arguably know more about their clients, than any other profession.

They know which clients are doing well and which clients are struggling. For those in trouble, they have a fair idea of how they got in that position and what they can do to fix it. This is on top of everything they know about minimising tax, structuring assets and managing compliance obligations.

For example, an accounting firm looking after a logistics business may not know much about driver schedules or optimal fuel levels, but they do know the ins and outs of that company’s revenue, expenses and debtor days.

If a business is struggling to pay bills on time, an accountant can quickly determine if it is a cash-flow problem or a profitability issue. If it is a cash-flow problem, they can help implement payment plans and structure payment incentives. 

The broad knowledge and experience that accountants possess from looking after numerous clients gives them a unique insight into the processes and strategies that work and do not work.

Yet despite being suitably qualified and ideally positioned to act as a trusted business adviser, not to mention the fact that many accountants are successful small-business owners in their own right, few step outside the scope of tax and business administration.

This is partly due to the traditional, narrow view of an accountant’s role.

Accountants have also been limited by their soft skills or lack thereof: the X factor holding many back from achieving triple threat status.

Ironically, in the corporate world, accountants are everywhere; only they are called operations managers, business analysts, CEOs and the like. Accounting is a solid foundation for many strategic roles.

But in private practice, the vast majority stick to compliance-oriented tasks like record keeping, preparing and lodging tax and BAS statements, and business audits.

Fortunately, accountants are increasingly waking up to their potential.

A growing number of traditional accounting practices are expanding into business advisory and confidently charging top dollar for their services and advice.

These firms more closely resemble integrated, professional services firms.

Whether they are giving advice on strategy or succession and estate planning, they have found a way to engage with clients on a deeper level. That involves listening and understanding their short, medium and long-term goals.

The role of a business adviser is not to tell clients what to do but to educate them about what is happening in their business, based on the data, and help them to solve those issues and drive performance.

How this information and advice is delivered is important.

Accountants, like all professionals, must continuously refine their soft skills to foster deeper, stronger client relationships.

Barry McGee, director, AZ NGA

From number crunchers to triple threats: The evolution of professional accountants
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