Managing Partner of the Bristol Office PKF Francis Clark
Columnist
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Why humans trump AI in client relationships

With recent negative media headlines and the rise of artificial intelligence in the industry, it’s becoming ever more important for accountancy firms to keep that human touch with clients.

4th Oct 2019
Managing Partner of the Bristol Office PKF Francis Clark
Columnist
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Of late, the accountancy industry has been the subject of a slew of negative media headlines, especially in the auditing space. Scrutiny has surrounded the administration of high-profile businesses like BHS and Patisserie Valerie at a time when the number of UK companies going into administration hit a five year high.

News of a lack of accountability has been rife: the Charity Commission recently accused auditors of ‘letting down’ their profession and clients after a study found only half of sample charity accounts met the required standards set by the watchdog. While not necessarily a fair reflection of the whole industry, trust has undoubtedly been knocked.

Not only has accountancy been battling a wider crisis in confidence, but we have been doing so during the ‘rise of robots’. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has, and will continue to, provide many benefits to the profession by providing more efficient, streamlined and accurate services.

Recent research by CABA found that one in four accountants think AI allows humans to add value elsewhere as it takes on more menial tasks. However, with new technology comes the need for new training and as an industry we will need to navigate working alongside these new systems to ensure that their impact on clients is positive.

Why is having a human touch important?

The rise in the role of technology in accountancy is indeed an exciting future venture, but there’s still a hugely valuable argument in ensuring that the human element isn’t wholly removed.

Across most industries, it’s important to be able to have access to a real person who can help guide you in decision making. Without this, a company loses an emotional component that perhaps it didn’t even realise first existed.

In this digital era, it’s not hard to find alternative providers and with a wealth of accountancy firms to choose from, companies will most likely swap for a trusted partner who better understands their business challenges.

Technology has been wonderful to connect people remotely. The likes of Skype for Business has truly revolutionised the way we work, facilitating meetings with people joining from all over the world.

However, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of having local experts on the ground. For example, a shakeup in the market could mean that a VAT team in Manchester ends up looking after clients in Devon.

Whilst this is absolutely feasible, it’s important we don’t lose sight of being available for face-to-face meetings at short notice. That’s why we recently opened a dedicated Bristol office to provide our regional clients with local experts and a wide range of specialisms on their doorstep. Centralising is not a model that pays off, in my view.

Understanding the broader needs of clients

We often find that clients come to us with one particular need like tax advice, but then end up working with us across multiple services say employee benefits or longer-term financial planning. This is a reflection of the fact that clients actually often don’t know from the outset what services they require.

Of course, some research has pointed to SMEs being cynical about the need for face time with their accountant, instead just wanting a job done well with minimal fuss – AccountingWEB’s recent podcast on the subject made that argument (Click the play button to listen below).

But I would suggest that on the advisory side, without face-to-face meetings to really understand the client’s needs and developing a rapport, it’s impossible to fully help them meet their long-term business goals.

Ultimately, accountancy is a people business, selling expertise. To grow as a firm, we need to bring our clients on a journey and to do this we need to understand their growth plans and priorities more broadly.

Whilst using and adopting AI into how we work, it should never be a replacement. It is key to use it to make our clients’ (and indeed our) lives easier, leaving us time to really understand what our clients want and how we can help them achieve their goals.

Humans unquestionably triumph over AI when it comes to client relationships, and it’s important to not lose sight of this as technology undoubtedly becomes more instrumental in our everyday jobs.

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