Accountancy at a crossroads: Reclaim relationships or surrender clients to softwareby
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.
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.
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.
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