BY NIKKI SUMMERS
Technology is making accounting invisible. Algorithms, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) handle much of the accounting and compliance process. The benefit to accountants is that, rather than recording invoices and doing bank recons, they can use their time and skills more constructively: to help clients build resilient, successful businesses and to understand the impact of technology-driven change in their own firms.
The caveat, however, is that technology has also leveled the accounting playing field and has increased the intensity of competition. As more accounting functions are automated, clients soon won’t need accountants to balance the books.
The good news is, there’s one crucial thing that can’t be automated: the accountant-client relationship. If accountants want to survive the next wave of digital disruption, they will need to focus on their roles as trusted business advisors who help clients understand the insights generated by AI.
Practice of Now
The latest Sage Practice of Now research provides some insights into the driving forces behind the adoption of technology by accountants: 56% of respondents cited increased productivity and 27% cited time savings. Our research also found that 58% of accountants agree that AI will help to automate tasks and drive business efficiency.
Ideally, accountants should be channelling these forces into improving their services, because future success in this industry will depend on us building long-lasting client relationships.
Ironically, the same technology that’s driving this accounting shift can also help to strengthen our relationships, by making us more efficient and giving us an opportunity to diversify our offerings and skill sets.
Identify time-wasting tasks
Start with your least efficient, non-revenue-generating tasks. Anything that’s repetitive, mundane, or takes hours to complete, like data capturing, auditing, and accounts payable, can probably be automated.
What would you do with hours of free time? We suggest preparing yourself to move into a more strategic, advisory role by learning a new skill and meeting with your clients more regularly.
Upskill and branch out
New technology gives accountants a compelling reason to learn new skills. Data analysis, for example, may soon be a non-negotiable skill for accountants, who will not only need to understand AI-driven insights but also how to apply those insights to help their clients fine-tune and optimise their businesses. For example, you can advise on seasonality or trading patterns that clients can exploit for growth.
Clients expect accountants to stay up to date with technology advancements so that we can advise them on the best solution for their needs. For example, you could explain the benefits of a cloud-based accounting solution to a client who still uses desktop software. If they upgrade to a cloud solution, ideally the same one you use, you can instantly share information and improve collaboration – that’s sound business advice because clients can respond faster to market developments.
With cloud solutions, you can communicate key insights at the click of a button, meaning your advice is based on current data and your client can make fact-based decisions.
With integrated accounting technology, you can also expand your service offering. So, rather than only offering tax consulting services, you can branch out into financial planning and business strategy.
Think beyond the numbers
Technology is revolutionising every industry, which means you can leverage solutions beyond accounting software to build better relationships with clients.
Take customer relationship management (CRM) software as an example. It records every interaction you’ve had with a client over email, phone or in person. It also provides a log of what was discussed and what advice you gave the client, which is useful to have on hand if you’re not available and a partner needs to assist the client.
You can also note your clients’ hobbies, children’s names, and where they spent their vacation so that, next time you chat, you don’t only have to discuss business and the weather. You can start building a rapport – and trust.
Meet in person
Arguably the biggest advantage of technology is that it has unshackled us from our desks, allowing us to spend more time with our clients. And the more time we spend with them, the more trust we build, the more loyal they become, the more likely they’ll come to us for financial advice throughout the year – not just during tax season.
Remember though: you’re building a relationship. Don’t dive straight into business. Spend the first 15mins of your meeting chatting about their families, what they got up to over the weekend, or the upcoming rugby match.
Use the rest of your time together to understand what success means to them. Do they want to expand into new markets? Or are they happy to build a stable family business in one region? Knowing their business goals helps you to give the right advice on everything from forecasting and financial strategy, to profit growth.
AI and automation just scratch the surface. There’s a lot more change coming: global studies have found that machine learning, cognitive computing, big data, and high-speed analytics will also impact the industry in future – not to mention wearable and blockchain technology.
We need to start thinking of technology as a business partner. And, as with any partnership, we need to invest in the relationship if we want to see results.
Writer is regional director for sage
in East Africa