Should accountants become app advisers?
App advisory is certain to be one of the themes at Xerocon London if the reviews of its Brisbane event are anything to go by. It builds on messaging from QBO and Sage, and is likely to be a significant marketing area for UK accountants in the next 18 months.
“What on earth is app advisory?” In last month’s From the trenches’ podcast’ David Boyar and Paul Meissner entertainingly interrogated the trend.
And while AccountingWEB has tracked app advisory over the years, the antipodean podcast duo raised two new questions:
- Do firms have the time to devote to becoming true ‘app advisers’?
- And is it better to have really good referral relationships with the vendor sales teams and cloud integrators, rather than develop all the experience in-house?
Assessing the profession’s different opinions on this subject, app advisory is an area where pragmatism certainly rules. But the strategies behind it are not as clear-cut as the marketing would suggest.
Why should we do it?
“Why would you go into it? Is it a way to increase your awareness in this space or upskill and make this a profit-making business unit?” asked Dermot Hamblin from the consultancy firm Langdon Hamblin.
Reminding us also of the firms who rushed into creating outsource IT divisions, Hamblin added: “Many failed because it's an incredibly competitive space and the firm did not have the correct people and skills. Same conditions already apply in-app advisory.”
I’ll let the podcast explore this in more detail. However, as Xero’s Glen Foster points out, there is a more straightforward issue facing firms: “The big challenge is there are hundreds of them, so nobody can be an expert in all apps or industries.”
Becoming experts in the core
For cloud aficionados, there are a suite of apps that are now seen as standard, and the level of experience needs to be high. “There are apps that apply to nearly all businesses,” said Soaring Falcon’s Alex Falcon Huerta. “You can’t keep on top of all the new apps, but the generic ones like Receipt Bank and GoCardless, you need to be well on top of.”
Jon Toon from Beevers and Struthers concurred: “We’re good with the core generic apps, but don’t have the traction with our clients to implement the specialist things. With clients in many different sectors, you’ll be wasting your time trying to learn all the relevant specific apps they need.”
Interestingly they both refer to ‘generic’ apps, which show how ubiquitous certain applications have become.
Time to focus on specific challenges and sectors
But this is far from the complete picture. The ability to move beyond the ‘generic’ is an important part to deliver for clients, as Falcon Huerta explained: “I spend a lot of time deep diving into specific apps for clients that have identifiable challenges, but I see this as investment of time.”
Again Toon takes a similar approach. “If the client comes to us with a challenge we will investigate and help find a solution. We’re getting quite good at identifying areas for improvement, which often comes up during a conversation from a legacy system or manual process,” he said.
While Hilary Dyson, cloud accounting senior manager at Anderson, Anderson & Brown, observed there is also an opportunity to be more proactive: “We also look at our clients sectors, for example retail, ecommerce and agriculture and explore the sector specific apps available. This is about being able to be responsive to their needs.”
So to what extent do firms feel the need to have the complete range of expertise to become app advisers?
Having the expertise
Xero’s Foster sees a cross section of approaches. “I've seen some firms hire in or develop some great people to do ‘app advisory’. Equally, there are great external app advisers who do this day in, day out. So some firms have a relationship with them and it works perfectly.”
The journey for Dyson has incorporated a mixture of these. “Some areas we can't get involved with, but we know what are clients’ needs are – and there are lots of opportunities to replace legacy systems with an integrated cloud one. Some of these we have the capability to talk about and implement, others we work with the providers and specialists directly,” he said.
And not surprisingly, there is an opportunity to learn directly from clients. “When companies come to you with their stack already, they have implemented something that is working, so we can learn what works and use for others,” said Falcon Huerta.
Support from the app sales teams
Time and expertise being at a premium for firms, the role of external support from providers and integrators becomes significant. “Relationships with the sales teams and implementers are extremely important,” said Toon. “Without having them in the mix we can’t deliver the services.
“Over time and with the requirement, we could develop these skills in house. At the moment we don’t see the need.”
Echoing this Dyson sees it a way of delivering a better outcome for the client as well as building up their own experience. “We like to stay involved with the clients and the sales team of the apps. For example, as we know the clients systems, we can steer a demo to make sure it tackles the client challenges.
“Also working with specialist systems consultants like BlueHub means we can offer real expertise. This is a big step as we are recommending a third party, but we also get to expand our internal knowledge.”
Does size matter?
But is this deep dive into apps the preserve of larger firms? BD Academy’s Rob Brown seems to think so. “I deal with the top 100 firms – it's easier for them to garner this knowledge and cultivate relationships with the key software people – they have the manpower and resource. Smaller firms may struggle”.
This view is not shared by Hamblin: “The size of accountancy business has nothing to do with it. There is significant support, partner teams and resources available from the major platforms to make it a success if you want to focus on it.”
And given the range of firm sizes who responded to the research, Dyson makes a fair point that “the psyche of the firm is just as important as the resource and time you can commit”.