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A digital rendering of crossroads and a decision to take
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Accountancy at a crossroads: Reclaim relationships or surrender clients to software

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Digital solutions have revolutionised how accounting work can be handled, but as an accountant with more than 20 years’ experience, Jon Jenkins has also become increasingly worried about how accounting software is presented and marketed.

6th Dec 2023
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Cloud accounting is hands down the reason I’ve stayed in the profession for as long as I have. The ability to access and collaborate on data from anywhere, automate routine tasks and present up-to-date financial data has helped me assist thousands of small-business clients over the years.

But in 2023, I feel like we’re at a crossroads where there’s a need for a deeper examination of our dependency on digital accounting solutions, and the messages they’re sending our clients.

Vendors playing both sides

First, let’s touch on the delicate but potent issue of how software vendors partner with accountants while simultaneously marketing directly to our clients. 

This longstanding dual approach can create conflicts of interest and impact the trust between accountants and their clients in all manner of ways. Just look at the recent issues many firms faced when a couple of vendors raised their prices in successive weeks.

Vendor adverts broadcast on mainstream media platforms often oversimplify accounting, portraying it as a task that can be managed in a couple of clicks. This underestimates the expertise of professional accountants and bookkeepers and also misleads clients about the complexity of accounting tasks.

And with this comes over-inflated expectations and ultimately more work for accounting professionals. Small-business owners sold the dream of digital accounting try to do it themselves with little to no training and make a hash that needs tidying up. And we can no longer ignore the client spreadsheets and start again from the source records. The software is the source records.

You are your USP

I often see accountants on social media talking up the fact they use a certain brand of software, which sets off alarm bells. Software isn’t your unique selling point (USP) as a firm – you don’t see builders selling themselves on the basis they have the latest cement mixer. 

You are your USP and some accountants are scared by that. We’re a profession with imposter-syndrome issues – it’s a profession well known for attracting introverts after all.

We need to understand that with the knowledge, skills and real-life experience we have as accountants, we can have a massive impact on small-business owners’ lives. However, the way some vendors advertise demotes this to the click of a button, and that’s a real issue.

Automation eroding the client-accountant link

While I’ve talked above about the benefits of automation, without proactive planning, there can also be drawbacks. 

Unless firms are careful, automation can actually erode the personal interactions that form the bedrock of client-accountant relationships. That phone call to chase up missing paperwork that turns into a better working relationship, a client referral or a new piece of work now goes unmade.

Software should be used to enhance our communication with clients, not replace or hide from it, but firms under pressure due to a tidal wave of new regulations or demands from private equity owners to take on more clients just fall back on increasingly automated systems. 

So who do clients hear from instead? Their friendly accounting software provider. This isn’t the vendor’s fault – they’re just doing what they do – but all this erodes the client-accountant link. Firms need to draw clear lines and take real action on this, or risk losing control of the relationship.

What problem are new tools solving?

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a sea of washed-up apps that have never quite made it, and more are coming over the horizon. These apps are, in my opinion, focusing on the wrong things.

I have first-hand experience of this because I was one of them. Along with my accounting work, in 2018 I launched the insights platform Hindsight. Earlier this year I decided to bring this adventure to a close – if you’d like to read more about this, I’ve documented it in detail on the Hindsight site

Instead of fixing the day-to-day problems we’re seeing at accounting firms and small businesses, like the communication issues I’ve mentioned above, these tools seem to be built for investors to pump up through marketing, earn money quickly and then exit.

If we train and educate ourselves better on the tools we’re currently using, we wouldn’t need most of the new software out there, but as a profession, we’ve lost the element of curiosity with software. 

People are scared to click on buttons because they might break something. Current practice when training staff at accounting firms seems geared towards maximum efficiency and economics of scale, so you’re told what to do and when to do it. Don’t ask questions or poke around the software – we’re busy.

Our institutes and colleagues claim to want “empathetic advisers” offering creative solutions but don’t back this up with the right training.

Rebalancing relationships

I’d like to make it clear that I’m not happy saying any of this, particularly given the benefits I’ve reaped from these tools over the years.

However, I love accountancy and working with small-business owners, and I want people to have a positive experience with accountants. The sad reality is that many I speak with aren’t happy, and if we’re not careful, clients may end up siding with the software vendors, to their ultimate detriment.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, the message I’d like to get across is one of rebalancing relationships, not just between the accountant and their client, but between the benefits of technology and the indispensable human element of our profession.

Replies (26)

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By JS23
07th Dec 2023 10:03

Bankg on article.. I always thought that how can QB advertise its few click and you cna relax. We get client saying the software has done all.. when you see.. its all garbage input in it.

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Replying to JS23:
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By Yossarian
07th Dec 2023 10:15

JS23 wrote:

Bankg on article.. I always thought that how can QB advertise its few click and you cna relax. We get client saying the software has done all.. when you see.. its all garbage input in it.

I find Quickbooks particularly bad for that as it is too keen to suggest automated bank rules. A client only has to click once to accept a suggested rule and then all payments to a particular supplier will default to that same nominal, whether right or wrong, and frequently wrong.

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By carnmores
07th Dec 2023 10:23

correct and they keep changing the auto post protocols ...maddening. the best route is to sit down with client before they start the initial allocations. also with the accountants version there is bulk reallocation facility so errors can be corrected as accountant you should also delete the rule

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By Casterbridge Hardy LLP
07th Dec 2023 10:18

I have found that beating off the threat generated by the clever advertising of, for example, Quickbooks is easy. My practice has a rogues gallery of examples where clients "went it alone" and then faced the reality of failure where anything other than basic bookkeeping presented itself. Essentially, my practice sells peace of mind through the carrot and stick approach viz. we will get it right and you will sleep at night (alliterative) do it yourself and ignore our advice and expertise and you will be grateful for having taken out professional fee insurance. It works every time.

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By listerramjet
07th Dec 2023 10:23

I wouldn’t be surprised by any of this. It has been a problem at least since some clever clogs threaded some beads and created an abacus!
All modern technology does is increase the scope for selling bridges. And yes accountancy is a profession, but unfortunately it is not so well regulated as other professions in that anyone can call themselves an accountant!
So get some glossy brochures printed up and off you go. And unfortunately the budgets for solving the resulting mess tend to be smaller!

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By colinstewart
07th Dec 2023 10:30

I started work in the profession on 1 July 1975, so a bit of a Dinosaur! They gave me a desk calculator with a lever (you had to get to Senior Audit Clerk before you got an electric one!). In those days a spreadsheet was analysis paper - sometimes A3, bless. Anyway nearly 50 years on, I am still here but the role is no different, I still give clients the best support that I can, each according to their needs. Being focused on what each client needs from us and having broadly agreed areas of responsibility with each of them is good. Keeping the software in its place is the key, it is just electronic paper, don't make a God of it, as you say Jon, it is a cement mixer.
The adverts and cost increases are annoying, but the bit I hate is the fact that they all want to do everything! We used Taxfiler - it worked, it was simple, reliable, well supported and now (under Iris) it is a pig in a poke, price hikes every 5 minutes and rubbish support. Quickbooks is the same - good bookkeeping system but then they want to do tax comps, statutory accounts, payroll but nothing useful like making the tea!
Anyway, I wonder what the next 50 year will bring? maybe all taxes apart from VAT will be abolished, and, on the bright side Quickbooks will not only make the tea but offer a wider choice of quality leaves!

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Replying to colinstewart:
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By carnmores
07th Dec 2023 10:46

meet an older one April 1973 aged 19

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Replying to carnmores:
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By Jimess
07th Dec 2023 11:16

Me too - August 1976 aged 16!

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Replying to Jimess:
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By Geoff56
07th Dec 2023 12:50

December 1973 for me; I had just turned 17.

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Replying to colinstewart:
By Nick Graves
07th Dec 2023 11:28

colinstewart wrote:

I started work in the profession on 1 July 1975, so a bit of a Dinosaur! They gave me a desk calculator with a lever (you had to get to Senior Audit Clerk before you got an electric one!). In those days a spreadsheet was analysis paper - sometimes A3, bless. Anyway nearly 50 years on, I am still here but the role is no different, I still give clients the best support that I can, each according to their needs. Being focused on what each client needs from us and having broadly agreed areas of responsibility with each of them is good. Keeping the software in its place is the key, it is just electronic paper, don't make a God of it, as you say Jon, it is a cement mixer.
The adverts and cost increases are annoying, but the bit I hate is the fact that they all want to do everything! We used Taxfiler - it worked, it was simple, reliable, well supported and now (under Iris) it is a pig in a poke, price hikes every 5 minutes and rubbish support. Quickbooks is the same - good bookkeeping system but then they want to do tax comps, statutory accounts, payroll but nothing useful like making the tea!
Anyway, I wonder what the next 50 year will bring? maybe all taxes apart from VAT will be abolished, and, on the bright side Quickbooks will not only make the tea but offer a wider choice of quality leaves!

One had to clean the Addo's rubber feet with Sellotape, or else one would simply yank it across the desk.

1981 and it it was over a decade before the best godsend (generally) arrived - MS XLS! It was simply amazing what one could automate with that - and Kustomise to each situation.

We've added a lot of purdy screens, but sometimes I do wonder if we've not actually stood still since...

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By carnmores
07th Dec 2023 11:37

for me supercalc was the dogs doodahs . I was using it from 1965 till excel was up to speed in about 1994?

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By johnjenkins
07th Dec 2023 14:13

Very similar to yourself but went over to VT in 1997 or 98.
From using my head to automated services, I have found that it is a steady progress but even if you manage to link the software to AI it still won't make any difference to our job.
When will people realise that any AI or accounting software is a glorified calculator and that's it.

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By dmmarler
07th Dec 2023 14:14

Supercalc was not till 1980 (lovely program), Visicalc was its predecessor (1979 on Apple), before that it was analysis paper ..... so 1965 is a bit premature. I was fortunate to have been in charge of accounts at in a software house and had an Apple on my desk when it all started. We even had Hewlett Packard touchscreens ... but not the same technology as now.

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Replying to colinstewart:
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By dmmarler
07th Dec 2023 11:35

And another older accountant, starting c 1964 in temp roles (young ladies did not have careers then). I also cringe at all the software firms' TV marketing, and remember in horror the idiotic charts of accounts software and "management accounts" consultants had put in, the mistakes in large firm's bespoke software, small businesses which had completely messed up Sage (that takes some doing), etc. I also recall the painstaking work unscrambling the garbage, and explaining to the finance directors/auditors/board what had gone wrong and what had to be done to get it right, and the likely cost to rectify. Because the corrections cost even more money, people are less happy about coughing up than paying for the software and hype in the first place. I'm out.

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By carnmores
07th Dec 2023 12:06

you have given me hope

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By Jimess
07th Dec 2023 11:10

All too often I have sat with clients working through the software posting routines, given them "how to do" notes specific to their own circumstances, spent a lot of time helping them through the processes only to find that when it comes to accounts prep the clients have gone their own sweet way and the results were unusable. It's not just the software houses that are giving out the message that accounting software is easy to use - HMRC are good at that too and have been for a number of years. The drive towards MTD has been another HMRC lever to get smaller businesses to use software whether the clients can cope with it or not, or whether the business needs it or not. I am not a Luddite, I have used accounting software since the 1980's brought Sage, Pegasus and Auditman into the accounting world along with several others that may not have crossed my path. I have always taken on board not only client preferences, but also their accounting capabilities and the business need for the use of software. The drive towards digitalisation in so many areas of life now ignores that basic right of choice and software has become less of a tool to work with and more of an imposed methodology. It pushes people into areas that they may not feel quite comfortable with, but they have to go with because the people they deal with such as banks, pension companies, doctors surgeries, HMRC, DWP, etc all expect their online systems to be used and offer fewer and fewer alternatives for those that cannot work with them digitally. The pace of change has been so fast and is so badly thought through that it is outpacing the end user and instead of having IT systems that work for the users, we now have IT systems that force users to change to work with the system. If people don't have the capabilities or the system does not work for them they are more or less excluded - the tail wags the dog.

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By NewACA
07th Dec 2023 11:57

I think its potentially a biger problem than the article suggests.

Over the last 10+ years of online accounting, the profit on work has not budged. In real terms accountants for small businesses simply make a lot less profit and it is mostly down to the software choices. If you use the same software as everyone else, and position yourself on the basis of software, you cannot afford to charge more.

Reliance on software has allowed many to enter the profession with little to no expertise as they can rely on software and others that did train find themselves asleep at the wheel as software does it all now.

I understand that not even the ICAEW requires knowledge of 'T' accounts for trainees anymore!

Some online software vendors are increasingly attempting to poach the role of accountant claiming they will do the compliance work, so accountants can take on the more valuable advisory work (which most small businesses of course are not interested in).

Accountants can combat this by not wedding themselves to particular software, but by becoming knowledgeable about software, assisting the client with the right software mix for them and providing incisive advice on a range of areas (tax, corporate finance, good business practices, fonts of knowledge in areas of industry etc) which many other accountants simply do not offer as they have gone to sleep as now software does it all.

So increased knowledge and advice, with no dependency on software is how I found as an accountant in practice I could pick up the better clients who valued what I do and were willing to pay a higher fee for, even though we generally do not offer management accounts etc, which is where the software vendors think we can add value, but most small businesses are not interested in that.

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By steve tees
07th Dec 2023 11:57

Thoroughly agree. As an independent software consultant/trainer to construction contractors using Sage and Eque2, I sometimes have difficulty persuading customers to consult with / involve their accountants during scoping, set up, training and reporting.
Yes, well-built software does provide efficiencies, particularly in reporting, and allow users to do online submissions to HMRC and us consultants do have in-depth knowledge of guiding users through the correct use of the software but accounts need to provide the overall business guidance.

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By anthonystorey
07th Dec 2023 11:58

Well I still use Excel spreadsheets and keep paper records of everything so I will be laughing my socks off when the unnamed alien state or AI bot takes down the internet and iCloud thingymabob, leaving all those who have become dependent on them floundering with nothing but empty space.

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By Jimess
07th Dec 2023 14:31

Our IT services provider has always advised us to maintain our paper files in addition to the IT backups they maintain for us and the backups we keep locally. If ever we cannot access the internet because of power cuts etc - which happen quite frequently around here, we can at least carry on working on clients who keep manual records so that the time is not wasted and we would be able to get back up to an operational level reasonably quickly should an extreme event occur in the IT system. I remember the scaremongering around the Milennium Bug and the huge heaps of paper copies of working papers, accounts and tax return workings that we were told to print prior to 31 December 1999 in preparation for the worse case scenario at the firm I worked for at that time. It was a huge relief to everyone that at one second past midnight on 1 January 2000 the computers did not explode, or reset their internal calendars back to 1 January 1900 or suddenly start printing out gibberish that the well meaning Milennium Advisers had told us to watch out for. The only explosions I saw were from the fireworks at the hotel we stayed at to celebrate the new year and the new century. However in this day and age of computer viruses and spam, it's as well to try and be as prepared as can be.

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By raybackler
07th Dec 2023 14:10

I wrote a book last year called "Molehills - Don't Make a Mountain Out of Your Accounting". It addresses exactly the issues you outline and costs a fiver. Whilst it advocates the use of cloud accounting, it emphasises the pitfalls of going it alone and advocates working in collaboration with your accountant. Every client should read it or something similar, before launching into the unknown. Most won't though, so it is up to us as accountants to do our own marketing. We accountants are essential even though our work is under-mined by the marketing campaigns of the software companies and by the hurdles placed in our way by HMRC. We do need to get that point across and your article hits the nail on the head.

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By TB93
07th Dec 2023 15:13

If we think about it, software is there to replace pen, paper and spreadsheets, which in of themselves aren't complex, so why are most software packages as complicated as a plane's cockpit?

In reality, software does not do it all, it helps to do things faster, in some cases, make a mess faster.

Give me LimeBooks over these ridiculously complicated packages any day, basic but does the job and clients seem to like it more so for that reason.

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By Jimess
07th Dec 2023 16:02

We use VT+ for the same reason - no frills, does the job and easy to use.

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By johnjenkins
07th Dec 2023 16:16

You hit the nail on the head. The powers that be expect everybody to embrace high tech or even low tech, without so much of a "can there be a replacement if we can't work it". This attitude of "take it or leave it" will need many years to work.

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Dave Sellick
By David Sellick
10th Dec 2023 14:22

Such an important message; this is a REAL threat that has already taken hold.

Tech companies have become so embedded into the conversation around Accountancy that events, media owners and 'thought leaders' are more often siding with the tech companies for their point of view, without making it very clear that they are (invariably) venture-backed companies with significant pressure from stakeholders to sell product and to sell a dream (however unrealistic that might be).

Tech companies are here to sell first and foremost (or at an absolute minimum, their investors are). This doesn't mean there aren't a fair few tech companies doing a great job at trying to be empathetic, but we have to be mindful of what their ultimate agenda is.

Let's celebrate the great products and the great work that tech companies do, but let's also be mindful to make it clear that tech is a tool and an enabler for what is still (and will be forever) an industry predicated on developing empathy-led, trusted, human relationships.

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Replying to Dave Sellick:
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By johnjenkins
11th Dec 2023 09:15

There seems to be a misguided thought process that Accountants don't embrace technology. On the contrary we do. The big HOWEVER is that we aren't stupid enough to let the technology firms pull the wool over our eyes when they say "you should use the cloud etc." MTD is a classic example (whether you believe in digitisation to the nth degree or not) of technology companies telling the Government and HMRC what he have to have.

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