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Automation deepens client relationships during times of crisis

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While no aspect of business has been left untouched by the coronavirus pandemic, accounting functions have felt the changes more than most. 

27th Nov 2020
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Accountants and finance teams across the world have been transformed into full-time crisis management operations, having to navigate a near-permanent state of uncertainty to ensure business continuity and survival for their clients and companies.

As government guidance can change with barely a day’s notice, businesses are on constant alert as to how cashflow will be affected, with some big companies replacing monthly or quarterly forecasts with daily finance briefings. 

“During the last financial crisis, many businesses would have had their banker on speed-dial,” said Brendan Woods, founder of AutoEntry. “But with so many changeable rules and regulations now floating around, it’s the accountant’s turn to be there 24-7. We’ve heard first-hand how the crisis is making accountants busier than ever, and it’s only going to get crazier.”

It would not be a stretch to compare accountants to NHS workers in that both have been central to helping the country through this crisis, and sadly, there simply aren’t enough to go around.

This shortage of skills and talent is a major problem at the best of times, but as the spectre of tax season, the mother of all busy periods, looms down on us while the pandemic rages on, something has to give.

Let machines do the heavy lifting

One of the few positives to come out of the present turmoil is the greater willingness for businesses to embrace intelligent solutions. Necessity has forced the adoption of video conferencing, cloud solutions and other technological tools designed to simplify processes, cut costs and stay competitive.

“Recent events, combined with automation, have changed the way accountants communicate with their clients,” said AutoEntry's Woods. “Instead of spending time chasing receipts or getting to trial balance, accountants are sharing their urgently needed expertise and advice with clients.”

Increasingly, many bookkeepers are understanding the most conducive way to get an extra 10 or 15% out of their practice is to let AI do the heavy lifting when it comes to the data entry jobs that cause a significant productivity drain.

The knock-on effect of deploying AI across data sets is an immediate productivity boost and has also helped accountants foster closer relationships with their clients, industry experts have said.

“Businesses expect finance functions to maximise the efficiency of their operations and minimise the time that they spend on non-value activities,” said ICAEW’s Kirstin Gillon. “Automation is a key tool in delivering this goal and, therefore, a high priority of many finance functions today.”

The silent killer of profitability

One of the central arguments for introducing automated technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence into practice management is the productivity gain. Most of the advances in recent years involve the elimination of repetitive manual jobs, data entry for example, and go directly to plugging the silent killer of profitability; revenue leakage. 

Manual processes such as scanning in receipts and matching purchase orders are ripe for human error and wasted time, and while 10 minutes here or there often doesn’t seem much in the grand scheme of things, these lost moments can make several percentage points of revenue over the course of a job. 

Money earned but not collected, or time spent on client work that isn’t billed for can add up to 15% of total revenue in the consultancy sector, for example, which is evident of the gains on offer for firms who make the jump.

“When humans execute a process, there is generally a trade-off between accuracy and speed, since double-checking results takes time,” said Ian McBane of BDO. “Automation can eliminate human error altogether, improving accuracy while increasing speed. That combination may be especially valuable for fast-growing organisations that need to scale up their accounting and finance controls to support expansion in their core business operations.”

Small steps, big difference

Reducing the number of hours spent on non-billable admin tasks can have a transformative effect by releasing key staff to work on high-value projects and develop stronger client relationships.

“Automating even a small number of steps in a high-impact process can result in significant efficiency gains, but the right processes to upgrade first will depend on your team’s current priorities, as well as your specific pain points,” McBane said. “For example, a large back-office finance function focused on reducing costs might prioritise tasks that entail significant numbers of man-hours, while a smaller function that struggles with accuracy may want to upgrade processes used to generate its most important financial reports.”

Overhauling internal controls and improving software can seem daunting, especially alongside the demands of the current environment, but considering how quickly and seamlessly many firms have switched to video conferencing, remote document editing and sharing, there should be confidence in the process. 

“If there was ever a time that accountants need to be free to advise, guide and help their clients rather than updating spreadsheets and scanning in receipts it is now,” said AutoEntry founder Brendan Woods.  “As we consider how to improve our client relationships, reimagining fundamental processes such as data entry should be at the forefront of our minds.”

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