Much of the discussion surrounding the move towards an online accounting model has been focused around potential benefits that a practice can reap. Some of the benefits mentioned are greater internal efficiencies, outsourcing of hardware maintenance, seamless data flow and better client engagement.
The move to online accounting is often framed as an imminent, urgent and inevitable. The premise is often that any accounting practice, if it tries hard enough, will be able to realise the benefits of online accounting and enjoy a significant competitive advantage.
In reality a few firms will benefit, most will be average and some will struggle. Established strategy management principles can help predict how the emerging online accounting market will develop. Simply using online accounting technology will not be sufficient to mitigate this strategic hurdle and is likely to result in mediocrity.
Online accounting merely provides a platform for discussion and an opportunity to re-examine how your practice is managed. It is not a solution nor cure for shortcomings in strategic thinking in other areas of your business, but it can be a catalyst for change.
Practices that will succeed will take a proactive and focused approach at reshaping their recruitment, training, marketing, client communication, remuneration, promotion, team structure and many other policies to drive what matters most – the client service experience.
Why Cloud = Hard
The reason why the move to online accounting often has a difficult start is because the process of change exposes a firm’s policies and habits that are at odds with the goals advocated by an online accounting model.
Many firms would agree that high standards of client service are a good thing, yet fewer would define what a high level of service and analyse how their internal processes contribute to this client experience.
In a cloud model the client experience is supported by quick response rates, competitive fixed fee pricing, day-to-day customer care, strong junior staff, intimate knowledge of the market, advisory services along with strong client scoping and selection processes.
The fact that successful online accounting firms use cloud technology is a result, not the reason for strong customer focus and a drive for internal excellence.
How can an accounting firm provide rapid response times when junior staff cannot communicate directly with the client and all communications have to go through a director or a partner? How can a firm have client interest in mind when internal focus is on billable hours and not on the value delivered?
How can a client experience the exemplary levels of service your firm provides if they are scared to be billed for a six-minute phone conversation?
Perhaps online accounting technologies have brought less change than most believe and merely exposed cracks in an already crumbling foundation.
Self-assessment is both painful and beneficial. For some firms it will be difficult to admit that their junior staff are so deprived of experience in communicating with clients that they would be a liability under an online accounting model.
In other firms, proactive partners will find it difficult to explain to their senior colleagues that “change as little as possible” is not the same as “change as much as needed”.
And interestingly enough some firms will not need to change, as their ability to dictate fees stems not from client service but from specialised expertise or geographical location. While also prone to disruption, the latter firms are insulated against the imminent need to adopt cloud technology, at least for now.
Whatever the case may be the decision to switch to the cloud is a strategic one, the transition plan is tailored and affects every fibre of what it means to be an accounting firm. Surprisingly enough technology is the easy part!
An army of consultants can help you learn the software and provide templates for the best practice, but without the “why” it would be pointless.
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