CEO Repstor
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Location independence ushers in national growth

The new order of remote working has expanded the geographical potential for new business, but practices must now work harder to differentiate their services as competition intensifies. Repstor CEO Alan McMillen assesses what that means for accounting firms.

28th Sep 2020
CEO Repstor
Columnist
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The peak of the pandemic lockdown showed all businesses how much can be achieved at distance. As a result, this digital age has presented new regional and national growth potentials for firms, meaning firms are no longer restricted to local clients. 

However,  accounting firms will need to differentiate themselves in new ways – with more practices potentially vying for the same clients. To rise to this challenge, firms must be more discerning about their service focus, and smarter in their use of technology. 

In many respects, the return to work and easing of lockdown offers a chance for reappraisal and reinvention. It is an opportunity to review the value accounting firms add for clients, where profitable and sustainable services are likely to be longer-term, and new and better ways of delivering and managing those propositions.

Digital service differentiation

Technology has a big part of play in all of this – both in enabling effective service delivery across distance, and in helping firms to monitor engagements for efficiency and profitability, so that teams can hone their productivity and make more informed choices when taking on or costing work.

The good news is that most of the tools that can help with all of this are available in the mainstream – with many already at firms’ disposal. This is important because, increasingly, accounting firms do not have a choice about upping their game technologically now. 

Expectations around remote service delivery have risen during the pandemic and, the longer social distancing conditions persist, the less likely it is that old business norms will return.

Differentiation for clients

For clients, it has been a relief not to have to keep track of paperwork where it has been possible to exchange and collaborate using digital records. 

Where clients have had the option to submit documents online at their own convenience, knowing the details can be retrieved and reviewed at any point (via a client portal, for instance), they have gained new efficiency and peace of mind. No one likes meetings, especially if they are paying for the time involved. 

The upshot is that advanced, digitally-enabled services have proved so beneficial and desirable that many clients are now demanding them as standard. These include greater service status reporting and billing transparency where available: options which all firms should aspire to now.

For their part, as the new normal puts pressure on the economy, accounting firms need to be sharper than ever in managing their client engagements, to protect margins. During lockdown teams were able to recoup time ordinarily spent attending client meetings or chasing paperwork, as long as they had invested in document and process digitisation. 

Now, firms need to build on those advantages, streamlining more routine admin and distilling new insights into profitability, performance and potential inhibitors to both.

Crisis-inspired innovation

The need to improvise in recent months has shown firms exactly how far they can transform the way they work without the disruption or expense of a major technology project.

The widespread adoption of Microsoft Teams for ad-hoc collaboration during lockdown has prompted more routine use of the Microsoft 365 platform to manage and monitor client engagements. Because the platform is already a business standard, used every day by almost everyone (including clients), its navigation and features are already familiar. 

Rather than spend a fortune on niche software to support digital reinvention, accounting firms are discovering that they can deliver a step-change in service experience simply by meeting clients where they already are. 

What’s more, with its vast R&D budget, Microsoft is at the forefront of software innovation and is adding to Microsoft 365 all the time. Beyond Outlook, SharePoint and Teams, tools such as PowerBI, Power Automate and now Cortex make it possible to streamline and optimise workloads in ever smarter ways. 

For an accounting team, the time-saving potential of being able to instantly call up the details of any clients advised on previous HMRC updates could prompt professionals to proactively target these accounts next time there’s an update to tax requirements, for instance.

The key to exploiting all of these capabilities fully is to integrate the Microsoft 365 platform with existing business systems, providing vital links with existing document and information sources so that these are readily discoverable from within Microsoft 365 applications. 

This creates the potential for accounting firms to embrace the latest, smartest technology aids to transform the way they work, compete and win, without having to turn the company upside down or retrain whole teams to use a system they have never seen before.

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