What is the primary purpose of a small business accountant? What services sit at the core of an accounting firm? These questions were once easy to answer but a period of rapid change in the world of small business is challenging accountant’s identity.
Business owners as well as accountants now have the ability to look at the same financial information and have connected tools at their disposal for analysis and interpretation. This is changing the client’s perception of the accountant’s role in their business.
The new expectations have to be addressed by accounting practices by either creating new service offerings or outsourcing non-essential components.
The transition inevitably raises questions about the identity of the accounting practice. Which services are core to our firm and its skillset? What services and service levels are expected by our clients?
If our firm does not have experience in a particular area, can we partner with others to provide our clients with a holistic offering? Are we really outsourcing a non-essential service or simply allowing others to benefit from a high growth opportunity?
These are not easy questions to answer objectively, but they are important as the answers will affect the kind of people and skillsets the firm develops and its strategic position several years from now.
What the Client Expects
Before we look into what makes up the core of the accounting firm we must agree on what clients are starting to expect from their accountants. The most obvious change has been the speed of communication. Since accounting records are online and easily accessible, clients expect answers to minor accounting questions within hours.
And fast responses can be delivered, as these questions take typically less than 10 minutes to solve and can be resolved by a junior accountant remotely. It is a challenge of the accounting firms to ensure their junior staff are properly trained to handle this level of responsibility.
Faster communications and quicker access to client records allow accountants to build deeper relationships by taking an interest in the daily business happenings of their clients. There is no technological barrier preventing an accountant from quickly reviewing major purchases and reaching out to offer advice or simply touch base.
While definitely a positive step for the small business client, measuring goodwill generated in these daily relationships is challenging.
Advising on Technology
Since a lot of technological innovation in question is centered around accounting, it is also reasonable for clients to seek guidance about which technology will work for them. Would a particular cloud inventory system fit their process? Can a client’s cloud accounting program work with their online shop?
Accountants are in a position where they understand the client’s processes and the accounting behind them. If the accountant is not familiar with the technology then their clients may turn to someone who is. Strategic steps such as building out technology consulting services or working partners to provide these services warrant careful consideration.
Pick Your Partners
The good news is that accounting firms do not have to excel in every area to deliver the best mix of services to their clients. Internal skills can be complemented by partnering with technology and training experts.
Certain areas, such as technology setups, system conversions and associated training and support do require a deep understanding of the technologies but not necessarily deep accounting expertise. This work can also be repetitive and time consuming.
If an accounting practice is willing to forgo revenues associated with these services they will be able to find partners within the growing community of cloud integrators to address a potential gap in their services.
While accountants should experiment with various models of service delivery, there is one area that cannot be outsourced. Accountants must take responsibility for their practice’s internal processes and adapt them to the new operating environment of cloud software.
If they fail to embrace the wave of technology breaking across their profession, they will lose their identity, their relevance and finally, their clients.