Social media has turned the rules of doing business upside down. Forget billable hours: accountancy firms should be collaborating with clients and providing value-added information for free, argues Mark Appel, marketing manager at Twinfield.
On the face of it, the dynamic world of social media and the traditionally conservative, structured world of accountancy seem poles apart. Tweeting, sharing multimedia content and collaborating online hardly sound like features that would add value for figure-hungry clients or the firms that serve them. What more could they possibly be than a gimmick?
Yet the world of business has changed beyond recognition in recent years. The Internet is largely responsible, unlocking information and empowering those who need it. With some maturity now, and enhanced by ever more dynamic tools, things have changed up a gear.
Used to consuming content in all manner of flexible ways in their home lives, business managers now have a certain level of expectation about their entitlement to free, unfettered information access. No business sector can hide from this. Just as the public is now being given more rights to information in their medical records, and can easily look up their credit rating, or bank/retail account status, clients of accounting services are demanding greater, more flexible access to their own business information. And who can blame them?
The challenge for accountancy firms is how best to meet the challenge. Ignoring it is no longer an option.
Busy managers and entrepreneurs have so many sources to track that the process can slow them down rather than add value to what they are trying to achieve. Yet, they depend on rapid access to timely, relevant information to keep them sharp and ahead of the game.
Just as intelligent filtering tools can help managers filter Twitter feeds and sales leads, so they should be able to proactively drill down into their financial accounts – presented in a way they understand - to quickly spot trends, issues and new opportunities.
Accountancy firms should be enabling this.
While sharing and being open doesn’t come naturally, especially to a business with competitive advantage to protect, social media changes all that. Many organisations now provide products or services online for free, to show what the business can do. Analyst firms publish extracts of their research findings online, and legal firms by providing top-line advice about new or forthcoming legislation. Once a new client has been reeled in, the firm can then sell them a fuller service.
Accountancy practitioners could be adopting similar practices to showcase the wealth of information they are sitting on – and the services they can offer to organisations on the back of this.
Information services provision is now a product business, like any other. The knowledge that accountancy firms hold about their clients is of no value to anyone but the given customer, so they have nothing to gain by keeping this information locked up. By sharing it with the client, on the other hand, the firm has an opportunity to enrich the client relationship and promote additional services.
Continuing to guard their knowledge and price their services in terms of billable hours is to miss the way the service industry is moving.
The Internet makes the transformation easy. By employing graphical reporting tools, accountancy firms can automate secure, online client reporting, using colour-coded dashboards to bring the figures to life for non-financial users, through illustrative graphs that highlight themes, trends and anomalies.
The investment required is minimal – simple iPhone or Android apps to provide information snapshots to clients’ mobile devices are easy to get up and running, allowing clients to see at a glance which invoices are outstanding, and so on.
To deny such content to clients who are now so accustomed to information freedom in just about every other aspect of their working and personal lives is to deprive them of full control over their businesses.
In a fiercely competitive global market, what kind of service is that?
Mark Appel is the marketing manager at online financial accounting company Twinfield.