The Great Knowledge Giveaway: everyone's getting the information they used to come to you for - for FREE and you can't do anything about it. Really? Here's a couple of ideas for what you might do.
The defining characteristic of the Facebook generation is the expectation to be able to access information....and to be able to get this information quickly in a format that is easy to digest and perhaps most importantly....for FREE.
Earlier this week I had a conference call with the Thriveal community of accountants and the hot topic was the sharing of knowledge. This might not seem like the most 'killer' of subjects until you really think about how we share information is changing and the challenges this poses. For example, 20 years ago if you wanted to find out who to blame for the creation of the double-entry accounting system, you would probably have had to go to the local library and trawl through an Encyclopaedia to find the answer. Today, in an instantaneous Google search and a short trip through Wikipedia, you will find the culprit - quite literally in a matter of seconds.
The challenge for the accountant in practice (most especially those with an SME client base) is what to do with this information phenomenon. There are 2 main issues:
1. There is 'work' that 20 years ago the accountant would have charged for, that the client can now do for themselves via a Google search; and
2. Clients are becoming accustomed to getting the answers they need, quickly or actually NOW (as opposed to when their Accountant can get round to it)
To demonstrate the potential chasm here, think about the process of finding what you want, buying and delivery from Amazon - versus the level of service slopped-out by your 'traditional' accountant. On one hand you get the information you need when you need it, you can make a buying decision and execute that within a few clicks - you then get e-mail updates and online order tracking. On the other hand, you invariably get zero communication, work done when it suits the accountant, leaving the client with no idea of what is going on with any correspondence sent via snail mail. [I know I'm not comparing like with like exactly, but you get the point].
So what can the 'Accountant for the Facebook Generation' do? Taking some inspiration from the Amazon concept, I think there are 4 key areas:
1. Only charge clients for stuff they really value. Find ways not to do the work clients don't really value and begrudgingly pay for
2. Give your knowledge away for FREE by creating a knowledge base for clients to access. Collate, update and maintain an online bank of information of the most frequently asked questions and most relevant documents for your clients. (Note, this will only ever be generic information - clients will still need advice on their individual circumstances and I'm not proposing giving this away for free).
3. Let clients know what's going on. Give clients online access to progress updates on their work in progress and on any other queries they have raised.
4. Share knowledge internally. Spread knowledge - both of technical matters and of individual clients. Empower everyone in your team to be able to react quickly. Don't restrict knowledge to a select few or you 'choke' the process.
My ideas here will sound ludicrous to some practitioners (I await their comments!) but there are products that you can access online right now, that are free or as good as, with no contract that can be set up in a matter of minutes. For example, check out Yammer for sharing information internally and products like Zendesk for support ticketing and knowledge banks. Also look at what businesses in other industries are doing - conveyancing solicitors have long offered the facility to track your property purchase/sale online - have a look at the online accounting software company FreeAgent, who share their development pipeline for all to see at their 'Depot' and give you a peak "behind the curtain" on their blog.
One of my favourite business authors, Stephen Covey (7 Habits, etc) lists 'Creating Transparency' as one of the 13 traits of great leaders, he says: "Tell the truth in a way people can verify. Get real and genuine. Be open and authentic. Err on the side of disclosure. Operate on the premise of, What you see is what you get. Don’t have hidden agendas. Don’t hide information." Like it or not, The Great Knowledge Giveaway is well underway and nothing is going to stop it. What people like FreeAgent have grasped is that actively pushing information and creating a culture of transparency puts you back in control and opens up a mass of opportunities.
About Paul Bulpitt
Co-founder of The Wow Company. Head of Accounting at Xero.