Practice automation blockers and how to beat themby
Traditionally, accountants have not been known for embracing change at a fast pace. To help practitioners get started, Steve Ash gets to grips with some of the practical mechanics.
Practice automation offers a huge amount of value for firms that are ready to make the switch. But it’s important to manage this change carefully and with a considered approach, so the firm isn’t making decisions that could be seen as hasty or overly reactive. This article looks at some of the biggest blockers to automation and details some of the best ways to overcome the everyday implementation issues.
The coronavirus lockdown that began in March 2020 forced many accounting firms to change at a dizzying pace, moving to remote working, holding client meetings via Zoom and relying much more heavily on cloud software. But what’s next in the digital evolution of the modern accounting firm?
For many practitioners, the answer is automation. Automation is one of the key foundations of the fourth industrial revolution by using software algorithms to carry out repetitive tasks rather than humans. Automated processes can do the work more quickly with a higher standard of accuracy.
Automating the right areas
The digital transformation of your firm isn’t something that can (or should) happen overnight. So, it’s important to sit down and consider which areas of the business are most ripe for automation, what the positive impact of automation would be, and how this could benefit the wider firm.
Where there are low-value, repetitive practice tasks within your workflows? Automating these functions with apps, artificial intelligence and machine learning functionality should deliver rapid paybacks.
Core areas where automation can play a part include:
- Bookkeeping and data entry – automated bookkeeping tools with optical character recognition (OCR) technology can quickly scan and digitise client receipts and paperwork. Scanning speeds up the data entry and accounting, enhances data quality and frees up time for your team to work on higher value tasks.
- Onboarding and client communications – getting new clients up to speed with your processes can be time-consuming. Connecting practice management systems to client relationship management (CRM) tools allows you to automate your on-boarding, your proposal process, your billing plans and even the staff assignment of specific tasks during the course of the engagement.
- Reporting and analysis – cloud accounting platforms can quickly create real-time reporting and financial analysis. By automating the production of this reporting, you and the client have access to regular, up-to-date overviews of the company’s performance, making it easier to start value-add conversations and offer advice.
- Payment and debtor chasing – raising invoices and chasing late payments eats into your available business time. By automating your monthly invoicing, you quickly get those practice bills out to clients, with automated credit control tools stepping in to chase up outstanding debts and apply the right pressure to late-paying customers.
The number of automation solutions and options continues to grow as the tech evolves. But so do the potential blockages. To overcome the challenges you’re likely to encounter, it’s important to understand the nature of the problem and how it holds back the successful streamlining of your firm processes and client interactions.
With that insight in place, the next step is to turn your automation blockers into automation drivers. Key stumbling blocks to automation may include:
- Complexity of the automation choices – the market for automation solutions is huge, making it increasingly difficult to choose the right tools. Talk to your colleagues, your business networks and accountant peers to get the best recommendations, and make sure you really do your homework before committing to any app or solution.
- Integration challenges – if you’re using a mix of legacy and cloud technologies, integrating your automation tools may be tricky. Having a flexible cloud accounting platform at the heart of the firm will help to overcome this issue, offering open APIs to connect up your selection of apps and software.
- Lack of time – researching, choosing and implementing your automation tools takes time, and many accountants are currently rushed off their feet. The key here is to focus on one practice area at a time, and to switch gradually over to automated solutions. Put time in the diary each week to step away from the everyday work and to focus on your automation project – and prioritise this digital transformation over less pressing projects.
- Lack of investment – there is a cost associated with any move to automation software. The more automation solutions you use, the greater the number of software subscriptions you’ll have to pay. If there’s a lack of budget to invest in this transformation, take the process slowly and invest in one solution at a time, paying close attention to your return on investment (ROI).
- Lack of firm and client buy-in – not all clients want to be automated. And not all the members of your team will share your enthusiasm for all things digital. If an automated future is your key strategy as a firm, this may mean outsourcing (or even losing) the non-tech-savvy clients, or parting ways with people who don’t share your vision for the next stage in the firm’s evolution.
Grasp the opportunity with both hands
Your firm may be completely new to the world of automation, or you may already have dabbled with some basic automation tools to some degree. However, to get the best possible results from your streamlining process, you’ve got to take this transformation process seriously.
Make time to work on the business, plan out your automation strategy and set aside a realistic budget for turning your automation dreams into reality. Keeping your team onside during this transformation, and keeping clients in the loop, will be key.
Make sure that staff are able to have their say and that clients are consulted and are open to the basic ideas behind using online bookkeeping and other automation tools.
With the right strategy, buy-in and planning, automation has the potential to transform the efficiency, productivity and profitability of your firm.
Sage is on a mission to automate data entry and speed up admin for every accounting and bookkeeping practice in the UK. Start streamlining workflows and spend more time helping your clients succeed. Get started today