Watch this trend take off among Millennial business owners. When a business owner wants to know how much tax they’re likely to pay that quarter, they won’t need to call up their accountant or run a report. They will just ask their phone.
Intuit announced QuickBooks Assistant, a voice-driven interface for QuickBooks Online accounting software, at last year’s QuickBooks Connect conference. CEO Brad Smith gave an on-stage demo of the prototype – and that demo was repeated this year by CEO-elect Sasan Goodarzi. But this time it was on a production app that has already fielded 1.5 million queries from US users of QuickBooks Online for Self-Employed.
A QuickBooks Online user can ask basic accounting questions, phrased in non-accounting terms, just like they would with Siri or Google Assistant. The app doesn’t talk back but instead shows the answers on the screen. It also has buttons for other searches that commonly follow each query.
Questions you can ask:
- How did I do last month?
- What did I make in [a month, eg. October]?
- How does that compare to [month] of last year?
- Show me my spending breakdown
- How much money did I spend this year?
- How much money do I have?
- Show my bank balance
- What did I make after taxes?
- What are my estimated taxes?
And so on. Button options after these questions include comparing the amount to the last quarter, showing the year to date, and offering to email a full report.
This is Reporting 2.0. Why bother clicking through the main menu to reports, finding the report and then trying to decipher a P&L or balance sheet? Your phone can give you the numbers that matter instantly.
It’s interesting to think about how this affects the relationship between accountant and client. The business owner has much more power literally in their hands to find out their financial position, including an estimate of their taxes.
Intuit’s holy grail is accounting software that calculates tax owed in real time. The accuracy of this estimate will depend largely on the complexity of the business. The lower end would presumably be reasonably predictable after analysing one or two years’ returns. For sole traders or self-employed, how much opportunity will there be for a tax agent to decrease that estimated tax payable in year three onwards?
The potential of QB Assistant is huge. Intuit is investing heavily in a type of artificial intelligence called natural language processing that turns everyday questions into data requests, and then serves up the answers in everyday language. This is turning into a signature product for Intuit as no competitor has released anything similar, apart from perhaps Sage’s Pegg. And certainly nothing as advanced.
How likely are business owners to switch from on-screen or printed reports to talking to their phone? Listen to primary graders having conversations with Siri. In less than a generation, millions of new business owners will expect to interact via voice and not keyboard.
Virtual assistants like Siri, Google Assistant and now QB Assistant will become more sophisticated and eventually be able to respond conversationally with business owners, with instant answers to questions about your accounting file.
“Our vision is to give you access at your fingertips to ask any question that is on your mind. And as we learn from you, then we can proactively give you insights,” Goodarzi said during the demo. “We can interact with you; that is the fastest way to learn, to amplify you and your business.”
Intuit is also gathering some very interesting data through QB Assistant that reveal a fair bit about the concerns of business owners. The most commonly recurring themes among those 1.5 million questions was, “Who owes me money?”, and questions about future profitability.
Intuit has added these questions and their responses to QB Assistant. The former shows a carousel of invoices with the name and amount on each. The latter, with the question demoed as, “What do you expect my profit to be after taxes for the rest of the year”, shows a line graph with an estimated range of projected profit.
The lesson from these questions is that small businesses out there still want help in two areas; debtor management and cashflow forecasting. Firms that develop and market explicit services for these areas should find plenty of takers.
The interactive chatbot is now available via QuickBooks Self-Employed for iOS, Android, and the web as well as in QuickBooks Online Labs.
There were quite a few neat ideas announced besides QB Assistant.
Client Overview in QuickBooks Online Accountant
A very clever feature in QBOA is an overview tab for each client file. This shows “the state of a prospective client’s books”. The overview is split into three panels. The first, Company Setup, shows the details of the QuickBooks Online subscription (including payroll), and the apps linked to QuickBooks Online.
The second panel, Banking Activity, compares the actual balance for each bank account with the balance shown in QuickBooks, shows the number of unaccepted and unreconciled transactions, and the last reconciled date for each bank account.
The third panel is probably the best. Called Common Issues, it shows the number of transactions and amounts for uncategorised assets, income and expenses, and undeposited funds. The panel also shows the number of negative asset and liability accounts, and assets (inventory, uncategorised and original).
All the common issues are deep links that take the user directly to the relevant area in the QuickBooks Online file.
This snapshot of a client’s books is intended to help an accountant or bookkeeper estimate how much time it will take to clean up the file. They are then more likely to price the work correctly – one of the greatest challenges for firms moving to value pricing models.
An accountant can validate the price with the client by including some of the stats from the Client Overview screen in the proposal email.
One accountant I spoke to said that they would still need to check the QBO file in greater detail to confirm the price for cleaning it up. But the accountant also admitted that this dashboard would speed up the process of conducting those checks.
Intuit also showed off some more screens for its benchmarking service, yet to arrive. This will be a big conversation driver for accountants in business advisory.
You can read more about the Client Overview screen and how it works here.
Email-to-task function in QuickBooks Online Accountant
Intuit is using natural language processing again in QuickBooks Online Accountant, its fledgling practice management tool for small firms. The idea is that an accountant can forward an email to QBOA and it will automatically turn any requests in the email into tasks in the practice management software.
It’s an ambitious feature; something that you really have to see in practice rather than an announcement on stage.
“Accountants don’t have to lose their focus just because they got another email in their inbox,” Ariege Misherghi, Intuit’s director of accountant business, said.
The biggest cheer of the day was for a function that automatically imported bank statements into QBO. The auto-statement importer fetches PDF statements from bank accounts in a way that looks very similar to HubDoc, recently acquired by Xero.
(This is only available in the US at time of writing.)
“When an accountant connects a financial institution to QuickBooks we are also going to get the financial statements too,” Misherghi said. “The next time they reconcile, the bank statement is just going to be there.”
Xero and QuickBooks both now have this capability but Intuit’s integration of statement fetching into the bank feed process sounds neater than the acquisition approach.
QuickBooks Online Advanced
Another interesting change in direction. Intuit announced just before the conference the launch of QuickBooks Online Advanced – a version of QuickBooks for slightly larger businesses with 10 to 100 employees. QBO Advanced is in fact the same code as QuickBooks Online, though it will develop further from that base.
The biggest change from the standard SKU is the inclusion of Fathom, a reporting tool that “transforms data into dynamic reports”. Fathom already had favourite status among the reporting apps as one of four key apps mentioned in 2017 (the others were TSheets, Bill.com and Receipt Bank).
Intuit has since acquired TSheets. Could Fathom be next?
Sholto Macpherson travelled to QuickBooks Connect 2018 in San Jose as a guest of Intuit.