When accountants consider the Covid-19 outbreak, the overwhelming reaction is to see it as a period of doom and gloom. Businesses and their advisers have had to confront real tragedies, but there have also been some positive signs emerging from the crisis.
With so much organisational handholding taking place at the moment, accountants have really lived up to their “trusted adviser” billing. Almost everybody I talk to says their relationships with clients are stronger than ever.
Accountants are being more proactive about government support, loans and what companies need to do to ensure their survival. And clients are seeing for the first time how useful their accountants can be.
With clients constantly turning to accountants for advice, firms can break the perception of them as box-ticking compliance drones to become proper business advisers.
New tools & techniques
I’ve always said accountants are very good at managing change and the speed with which they’ve adapted to the crisis has proved that. Things that were considered cutting edge three months ago are now mainstream. For example, we’ve seen a huge movement in online communication.
With government advice about the coronavirus business support schemes coming out in dribs and drabs, practices are taking information from government websites and distilling it into email updates for different client groups on a regular basis.
Before the crisis, if you suggested setting up a Skype or Google Meeting, some firms might have balked. But with working from home the norm, people are becoming very comfortable with virtual gatherings.
New ways of communicating and meeting remotely demand new ways to plan and co-ordinate these activities, which points to a kind of practice solution.
Alongside digital comms and meetings, cloud-based practice management is also proving itself during the crisis. People are linking their practice systems into bookkeeping tools like Xero, sharing data via application programming interfaces or tools such as Xapier and Microsoft Flow, and building new tasks and workflows to suit their practices’ expanding needs.
A lot of Senta’s customers use integrated suites, but many of them have told us they are open to changing if a better solution comes along. The reason most firms opt for this approach is convenience: the software may not have everything they need, but it’s easy to access. They sign up and off they go. Two-thirds of our customers told us this was what they most liked about integrated suites - but the same proportion told us they liked the idea of data-sharing.
The current integrated systems that are gaining market share may be OK for smaller practices. Once they start to grow, however, firms rapidly become aware of the things integrated suites can’t do very well.
Yes, you may be able to access a database of shared names and addresses from different modules in an integrated, but with third party tools and APIs, sending addresses back and forth is small potatoes.
When we polled accountants about this issue recently, 70% of respondents from bigger firms said it was very important for practice software products to link together via APIs. It may be difficult to expect a sole practitioner to take on that kind of implementation work, but once you get up to 10 people or so the productivity benefits will reward your efforts to link best of breed tools.
This crisis has shown that accountants can go out there and tool up rapidly with new software products. Programs they thought were beyond their capacity three months ago are now part of their workflows. This is the brave new world.
Our job as developers is to educate the profession and make it easier for accountants to do the basics and the really cool stuff. My call to action to other vendors is to work together and integrate more. We have to collaborate and co-operate if we’re going to meet the needs of our collective customers – and overtake the bigger, integrated suite suppliers.
Software architect James founded Senta in 2014 and has been guiding the company since then as CEO responsible for realising his vision of a cloud-based best-of-breed accounting practice management solution.