Why the accountant partnership is the most important success factor for small businesses in the online age

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The two-way relationship between accountants and their clients is something that has radically changed in recent years.

Choosing an accountant is much like choosing a life partner, someone who is there for the long haul who will take the journey to success with you. Amongst other factors, many small businesses choose to go with a firm that is of similar size to them – often because a similarly sized firm understands their needs, as well as sharing the same aspirations and challenges. The decision is a personal one to the business, and is made on a variety of factors, of which size of the practice is just one.

Along with the change in relationships there has been an evolution in the role of the accountant. No longer are they just running the books, or managing payroll, accountants are the trusted adviser, the strategic counsel, the business partner. SMEs grow hand-in-hand with their accountant, be they based just around the corner or on the other side of the country by utilising cloud and online technologies.

The monthly Sage Omnibus survey regularly reveals a majority (around 44%) of small business owners turn to accountants as the first port of call for business advice, a significantly higher proportion than those who search the internet (21%) or call on business groups and industry associations such as Chambers of Commerce (18%).

As business confidence in the economy continues to grow, small accounting firms in particular will benefit from the strength of their business partnerships as SMEs look to invest, export and expand. Particularly with the huge growth in online client collaboration, the time is now to maximise this unique offering to clients. This is a coming together of equals, not just the provision of a skilled service.

This type of partnership is strong, because of the shared experiences that one small firm can offer another. Best practice learnings, advice on navigating shared compliance and legislative hoops. They can offer sage counsel with authority from one similarly sized firm to another because they already walked the walk.

A small business often chooses an accountancy practice because they offer expert insight to help a business with strong ties to the local area they both reside in. However, in ever increasing numbers, smaller accountants win new clients based on entirely different factors from their location. Because of the cloud, physical location is far less important today than it was even just two years ago.

It’s interesting to look back on the 2013 Sage Pulse survey of accountants in practice, which underlined the role technology was playing in this shift. The survey found that 57 per cent thought their role had changed the previous year. This was namely driven by technological advances (60 per cent), the economic conditions (60 per cent), legislation (46 per cent) and client demand (43 per cent).

Whichever peg you choose to hang it on, this changing role of accountants has been greeted with a positive response from small business owners. Last year, for the first time, more than a third (35 per cent) said they viewed the relationship with their accountant as a partnership rather than a purely transactional relationship. I would argue it’s this partnership approach that is one of the strongest weapons in the smaller accountants’ arsenal.

What’s then important is how accountants are supported in delivering this ever-changing role. Once again, cloud has produced one of the answers. Support for marketing, business planning and keeping on top of the latest legislation is at the fingertips of accountants on move, helping them not only manage their own practice but stay one step ahead on behalf of their client.

Small businesses are looking for a company they can grow with, that’s with them every step of the way for the long term. There is nothing like having a partner one can count on, and for the start-up, or small to medium sized business, there’s nothing better than being given back time to focus on business ambitions to plan and to grow. Small business clients know that similarly sized accounting partners are genuinely interested in their success, because it’s so integral to their own.

There is love for the profession out there in the marketplace, but the challenge for the smaller accountant practice is the perennial challenge for smaller businesses everywhere – how to stand out. The opportunities provided by online working practices provide the means – it’s up to the business to provide the will.

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