If email is the bane of an accountant’s life, is the chatbot the answer? Both internally and for talking to clients?
I started thinking about this when I saw an infographic that claims chatbots are taking over the world. Clearly – from Facebook to online retail and even major banks – this is a trend that is going places. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that it is taking over the world just yet.
While millennial consumers are consistently the most accepting of chatbot technology, writes Business News Daily, most data indicate the majority would rather speak to a living customer service rep than a chatbot. In fact, according to “The Chatbot Consumer Report,” 71 percent of respondents said they didn’t like using chatbots because they were unable to answer their queries efficiently.
And yet. Dig deeper into the surveys and it becomes evident that the reason why people don’t like using chatbots is because they don’t know enough to answer their questions.
But this is just a problem of technology. If you have a bigger database of questions and answers, or the chatbot is smart enough to deduce answers from what it knows, then the willingness of customers to use chatbots will surely rise.
And the technology is improving very quickly.
Take a look at this chatbot produced by American bank Capital One. The user makes payments by voice command only.
Take a look at QuickBooks Online Assistant, launched in November. How easy it is to pull up stats from your accounting file using voice recognition with a chatbot. Probably the best example so far.
Sage was first out of the block with Pegg – not a full program but more a proof of concept.
And Of course Xero is doing the same, back in 2016, with this FaceBook Messenger version.
You can also use Slack to enter accounting and sales data into ERPs such as NetSuite. Here’s the video from that article linked just above.
So if you can talk to your accounting software by chatbot, and you can talk to your bank by chatbot, then why would you want to talk to your accountant by email?
Again I think the issue is not whether the client wants to use a chatbot. They do. It is the accountant’s willingness to retrain on a new interface. The use cases seem pretty obvious.
Let’s take queries for coding transactions. As we move towards monthly reconciliation, or even a weekly or daily reconciliation for SMBs, these queries should happen relatively soon after the event.
If an accountant can quickly send a chat message to client saying “Dave, was the printer you bought on Saturday last week for your office or for your client?” Then Dave should be able to answer on the spot. Or a minute later after a quick look at his calendar or CRM.
So how will accountants start using chatbots? Well obviously some are using them already. Tanya Titman at Consolid8 is another great proponent. Firms are using Slack, Yammer, Microsoft Team and the like. And it’s pretty clear that chatbots will be built into cloud accounting software for accountants to interact with clients.
Given that you can now add drop-down selections and multiple-choice to a chatbot window I can see some really cool ways to get quick answers to transaction coding questions.
(I have a vague memory of Intuit demoing an accountant-client chatbot in QBOA last year. Or perhaps it was mocked up in a video.)
Either way, let’s agree that the technology is ready and will imminently appear in accounting software for accountants to talk to clients. The bigger obstacle, as always, is cultural. How many firms will be willing to step up to using chat?
These things will need to normalise first.
Use the audit trail
Accountants will need to become comfortable using the audit trail in chatbots; i.e., how to search chat history for a particular part of the conversation in a single client’s chat “channel”.
At least this will only require searching within the conversation history with that particular client. There is no need to sort through every conversation with every client as they currently do when looking for emails in their inbox.
But partners and juniors are likely to want a way to transfer audit-trail mentality to chat.
You don’t waste a line in chat to say “Dear Sally”. You just get straight to the point. Firms that like seeing their logos and overdone signatures in email will need to cope with the informality of chat. The younger peeps will be :thumbsup:, obvs. Will older partners worry about loss of authority?
Chat is still asynchronous communication – you don’t need to reply immediately to a question as you do on the phone. But you can’t exactly leave a chat sitting there for a couple of days. What is an acceptable response time for a firm? And how does an accountant get work done without stopping every five minutes to answer a chat from another client?
The answer is to have a support desk that handles the simple queries (“when is my tax due?”) without bothering the men and women punching out the returns. How many firms are ready to move to a customer-first structure where customer service is more than just words in your dusty mission statement?
The larger firms also have to worry about maintaining control over thousands of chat conversations between their staff and clients. Not impossible but definitely an adjustment from decades of managing email.
What do you think? Are you ready for chat? What will stop your firm from getting there?
Image credit: HelloPegg