Regardless how quickly or dramatically the world changes, business will always be defined by relationships between people. That’s what makes doing business so rewarding. The way we interact has progressed from telegrams over the wires to mobiles, but the essence of why we interact is still the same.
It is our ability to forge meaningful,lasting connections with one another that determines our success. I believe this is particularly true for accountants (and their clients),who are currently under goinga period of digital disruption.
For an accounting firm to succeed in this new digital age it will help to have a combination of old and new skills. The old skills need to be reimagined for the new digital landscape, and the new skills need to be absorbed into your existing way of doing business. The most important thing is to understand how these five skills interact and reinforce one another to deepen your relationship with your client.
One: Understand your clients’ business
As the French saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Accountants still need to understand business processes from end to end and how they intersect with accounting.It’s an old skill but, thanks to the internet and more recently the cloud, it now needs to be reimagined to include businesses that exist either partially or solely online. This presents a whole new range of accounting challenges, from e-commerce through to cloud-based inventory solutions.
I spoke about this with accounting thought-leader Clayton Oates. “It’s about getting back to basics on the processes of running a business. Where does the client connection start? We have a financial outcome, but well before that there is human connection.”
He believes it goes beyond just looking at the general ledger. “You need to go out and see how these businesses work,” he says. “When you understand the key business processes, you can see where they intersect with accounting.
“You can then play a role that is closely aligned with their business and personal goals. They may want more money in the bank, or more time with their family, like seeing the kid’s football game on a Saturday morning instead of working on the business.”
Two: Empathise with your clients
Clayton makes a strong point about the importance of seeing how business works first hand. It’s an approach we at Intuit have long valued. We regularly spend time with our customers on “follow me homes” to better understand their pain points. It directly informs our product development and services, underpinning innovations that address specific customer problems. So this is the second skill accountants need to succeed in the digital age – empathy. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your client.
“Technicians tend to be solutions-oriented,” says Clayton, “jumping straight to the answer. We really need to take a step back. It’s taking the time to understand what the challenge or opportunity is and working together to find a solution. Sometimes the client and advisor discover things together that neither of them knew before the conversation started. It creates a deeper bond.”
The challenges small businesses faced 10 years ago have been replaced with new challenges, many of them digital in nature. This can be unnerving for some, while other will see these challenges as opportunities to prosper. Either way, small businesses are looking for guidance not just in how to manage their finances in general but how to manage them in the new digital era.
This leads me to the new skills that accountants need to absorb into their existing operations.
Three: Understand the benefits of the cloud
There are many small businesses that have already embraced the cloud. And many more are beginning to test the waters. The advantages are clear. Being able to manage your finances on the go in a central environment that can be accessed 24/7 from a mobile or a laptop saves considerable time. As Clayton says, “Small businesses want the flexibility to be able to access their finances anywhere, open up new markets beyond where they operate. They don’t want to be tied to the office.”At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping people who work for themselves to make smarter business decisions. They now have access to insights drawn from millions of transactions relevant to their industry.
So if you don’t yet have a grip on what the cloud offers, start doing your homework. There are plenty of resources online that will bring you up to speed. Sign up for email newsletters, watch webinars, attend conferences. The first thing you will realise is that what is good for your clients’ small business, applies equally to your own. Being able to automate manual processes such as data entry, is going to put hours back into your week. That’s more hours to secure new clients and more hours to glean better insights into your existing clients’ operations.
Four: Know the cloud accounting landscape
Small businesses that have already cottoned on to the benefits of the cloud need accountants and bookkeepers who understand cloud accounting software. And those that are yet to take the plunge will need help soon enough.So the next skill is to know your cloud accounting vendors. And we’re not talking being an expert on one vendor’s product. Accountants in the new digital era need to be across all the offerings in the market. As with any industry, different vendors will have varying strengths and weaknesses. Some will be terrific at payroll, others will be stronger on inventory. The key is to knowing which solution is best for your client.
Now cloud accounting solutions strengthen their offering by partnering with app developers who provide improved functionality to the core product. You will notice the PayPal app is available through most reputable vendors. However, a truly open platform like QuickBooks Online actually encourages developers to create solutions that speak directly to their offering. Accountants should take the time to learn which vendors have partnered with which app developers so they can bundle tailored solutions for their clients.
As Clayton says, “You are going way beyond compliance to a real human connection to fit them with a technology solution.” Which brings me to the fifth and final skill.
Five: Be able to provide software advisory services
Cloud accounting software is driving the shift in the accounting industry from compliance to business advisory. Accountants now have more time, thanks to automated processes, and more information, thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, to dive deeper into their clients’ finances. In turn, the client is relying on their accountant to have the best tools to hand to help them make sense of where their business is at and where it should be going. What is required is a closer relationship with their software vendors. This also applies to bookkeepers who will increasingly be relied on to help their clients choose and set up cloud accounting solutions.
“You need to partner with software vendors to provide greater insights,” says Clayton. “We want to actively demystify accounting, and business processes. You can then play a role that is closely aligned with your clients’ business goals. Getting insights on your own is one thing, but with back-to-back insights from a technological vendor you can further help the business.”
Clayton suggests taking the courses software vendors offer to get your baseline accreditations. “If you are going to talk about software, you better be across it. You need to be an active participant. What level of the market are they addressing? What’s the sweet spot for your client? You need an array of solutions. It’s a profession within a profession – software advisory. We’re missing the moment if we just focus on streamlining automation in our firms.”
The new digital age is here!
The idea behind developing this combination of five valuable skills is to create deeper, lasting connections with your clients so your business relationships continue to grow over time. Technology is simply the enabler. The cloud is creating opportunities to find new clients and to work more closely with your existing base, so embrace it.
We’ll be discussing many of these ideas at QuickBooks Connect in Sydney later this month. It’s our flagship conference, which has been hugely successful in different cities around the world, such as London and Toronto. We urge you to come along to meet with other accountants and small businesses to find out more about cloud accounting software and how to grow your business into the next financial year.
To register, visit QuickBooks Connect and use promo code GROW for 20% off for $119 tickets.