Accountant to client: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated".
Getting on for 30 years ago, my brother married an American girl and our family made the journey from the UK over to Texas for the celebrations.
As father of the groom, my father gave a speech and he talked about how and when his parents met. They had lived in neighbouring towns in Yorkshire; in those days marrying someone not from your own town was considered adventurous.
When he and my mother married, some 30 years later, he was a Yorkshire man living in Plymouth, she was a Cornish girl who’d crossed the Tamar – very exotic in those days – but the Yorkshire family made the long trip to the south-west of England two days after Christmas for the wedding.
Roll it forward another 30 years then, to our trek across the Atlantic. My father’s point was that times had changed; the world had shrunk and what was unimaginable to his parents’ generation was now an accepted part of our lives.
Now – well, we no longer have to use expensive transatlantic telephone calls to keep up with the US family – we video call, have family group chats. Keeping in touch with younger family members as they explore the world is no longer via sporadic e-mails or snatched calls.
And of course the reason behind this – quite simply – is technology. And the reducing costs of these technological advances.
At a personal level, technology enables us to be in touch, keep up to date, share information, ideas, make plans – and it no longer costs an arm and a leg to do so.
But what we, as accountants, are seeing now is those changes impacting on how businesses operate.
Moving to the cloud
I find the shift in perception of cloud-based solutions really interesting. Until relatively recently, cloud accounting solutions, such as Xero and QuickBooks Online, were dismissed as ‘too small’, and not something to be considered by anything other than maybe a small owner-managed business.
But over the years these and other solutions have developed to be so much more than ‘just’ an accounting tool; the developers understood that by adding more complex functionality they would increase the likely uptake of their solution.
Cloud accounting is no longer the new kid on the block – what started as a solution for smaller and start-up businesses is now becoming an accepted cost-effective way of operating for many businesses that until now would have an expensive, maybe even bespoke, enterprise resource planning system. Quite simply, larger firms have realised that they are missing out on the benefits of cloud-based solutions.
There are two functions in every business which have often historically worked separately from each other – operational and financial. The disconnect between these two processes may typically have been bridged by the use of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and manual processes. And where there are Excel spreadsheets and manual processes there is an increased risk of error, inefficiency and a dependency on maybe one or two key individuals whose absence can cause problems – let alone the potential for disaster if they leave.
If you look at an archetypal piece of accounting software, there would typically have been three problems: functionality which was there – and paid for – but not needed; functionality which was needed but not there, and a cumbersome restrictive reporting suite which did not deliver the reports needed.
How many finance professionals have developed their own Excel reporting pack which they have taken from job to job, I wonder?
And, of course, all of this ignores the heart of any business – the people working in it. With any change comes the need to address resistance to change. But the impact does not only have to be negative. Within any business you will find a mix of people, and enthusiasm for technology is not just a generational thing.
Yes, the so-called Millennials may have grown up with technology but there are plenty of more experienced – shall we say – finance professionals who understand and embrace what can be achieved by adopting new technology and the associated new methods of working. Through their experience they can fully understand the challenges faced, and – dare I say – enjoy the satisfaction, maybe even excitement of finding solutions to age-old problems.
Technology plus the human touch
There has been much talk about the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence and yes, accountancy is one of the professions earmarked to be the dinosaur of the 21st century, heading for extinction.
But technology does not deliver the full picture on its own; it enables different working practices – more efficient and cost-effective – but is that everything?
When businesses are asked what they look for in an accountant, various surveys have shown that there is a desire for the accountant to be proactive, to have the client company’s best interests at heart and to give general business advice.
In the past, there has been a disconnect between many accountants and clients; the relationship built on once-a-year contact for accounts and tax – but technology can transform that relationship into something which delivers real value to a business, and – importantly – at a price it can afford.
How does this work? Well, for a start, as accountants, we can have conversations with our clients to establish exactly what is of value to them – whether it is regular accounts, cashflow forecasting, business modelling, a sounding board for future plans, a virtual finance officer.
No two clients are the same and needs can vary hugely, but one thing is consistent and that is the wealth of experience and knowledge an accountant can bring from working across different sectors and with multiple multi-faceted clients.
Adopting technology, which a tech-savvy accountant can help you with, can be the business equivalent of a family linked on social media – informed, up to date and responsive. Decisions can be made based on sound and timely information. Even better, meetings no longer need to involve time-consuming journeys or faceless phone calls –
online meetings can mean more regular but shorter encounters, with real pro-active involvement from all parties.
So, ask yourself two questions. Firstly, what would you like to get from your accountant? And secondly, what do you actually get? If the second answer is not the same as the first, now is the time to consider an alternative.
Hilary Dyson is Head of Cloud Accounting at Anderson Anderson & Brown