Several separate elements are dovetailing to change the classic client/accountant relationship.
Firstly, automation has shifted how accountants work and communicate. While traditionally, accountants’ jobs had been about trial balance and data entry, automation has moved many accountants’ jobs into an advisory position.
Secondly, the events of the past year have accelerated the move to cloud-based and digital accounting.
And thirdly, the pandemic and corresponding recession have changed the face of economics; with governments, business owners and entire industries scrambling to negotiate new circumstances.
The conversation has changed. Here’s how you can help your clients in new ways. Because they might need it.
1) Swap Manual Data Entry for Analysis
There’s no shortage of scary statistics on this subject: a PWC survey last year predicted that one in three British jobs might be made obsolete by automation. And traditional accounting roles were among the most at risk.
But automation doesn’t have to mean obsolescence. Accountants have insights and perspectives that AI can’t achieve. An accountant should be there to support and advise, not just achieve trial balance. A whopping 82% of businesses fail due to cashflow mismanagement (according to a survey by Insights West).
Make those billable hours count. This is a time when automation can truly transform the conversation. Automate data entry, receipts processing and bank statements and invoices.
Instead of investing your billable hours into manual data entry, focus on digging deeper: Just about every company this year will be undergoing some change, and some long-term habits that were effective could now be detrimental (and vice versa).
Monthly outgoings and revenue reflect ongoing habits that might no longer be optimal. How much is being spent on premises rent? Are they getting the best value from utility providers? Could money spent on premises be better spent on cloud computing or automation?
A study by Wasp Barcode Technologies found that 60% of small business owners feel they are not very knowledgeable about accounting and finance.
Every accountant knows that a narrative forms in spreadsheets and accounting software. Embracing automation will allow you to make educated forecasts, looking at future cash flow and potential problems. Moving some tasks to automation will give you the time to share these insights.
2) Offer tailored grant and loan applications advice
Another sector that’s frequently changing is that of grants. In the UK this year, several grants schemes were launched to help keep vulnerable businesses afloat. At time of writing, some of them are being phased out and revised (including one of the highest profile ones - the government’s furlough scheme).
But there are several sources of finance under the radar. Additionally, businesses are often allowed to apply for several grants simultaneously.
In the US there have been coronavirus stimulus packages, along with the usual resources and government loans.
Free money, naturally, comes with strings attached. Accountants can help with grants, which typically depend on financial projections and reports. You might have other clients who’ve successfully received government backing or you could advise on the best grants for a client’s specific clients.
The specificity of these grants means that your client might not be aware of what they are entitled to: some grants are region-specific, some are for precise business needs (R&D, for instance) and some are a combination of regions and sectors (such as rural broadband grants). Finding the grant that’s right for your client and helping them with applications would be a tangible, welcome added value.
Accountants can also advise on “blended” financial flexibility: the solution might be to apply for a loan, aim for a grant and restructure the shares of the business. SMEs this year are often faced with tough decisions - to scale back or maintain its current size? To dilute shares or not? To buy time with loans or avoid the inevitable repayments?
Nobody is better equipped to advise on this than a company’s accountant.
A good approach to sharing this advice would be in group webinars or video meetings. You can share the options available and address any questions or concerns clients might have (either subsequently in private emails or during the webinar or meeting). Panic emerges when people think they don’t have options, so it’s reassuring to let them know that they are not alone and there are resources available. A webinar also makes information digestible and accessible - more so than a document or report that might not be read!
Read our Beginner’s guide on UK grants on the AutoEntry website.
You can also help draft a business plan or other literature that might help a client in a grant or loan application. Again, this might be a field where you’d have more experience than the client.
3) Reexamine the questions you ask clients
Going back to the theme of communication, accountants are more frequently moving into the sphere of advising (especially in the wake of automation). One of the keys to transforming your client relationship is to do what many accountants don’t relish - ask questions. \You might be reticent to show gaps in their knowledge or to overstep your boundaries, but asking relevant queries can illuminate problems or bad habits a client might have. A survey by ICAS found that
You might be reticent to show gaps in their knowledge or to overstep your boundaries, but asking relevant queries can illuminate problems or bad habits a client might have. A survey by ICAS found that 30% of small businesses place accountants at the top of their list of trusted advisors.]What are the client’s strategic goals? Why and how did they choose this vendor? What are their biggest long, medium and short-term concerns about their business?
What are the client’s strategic goals? Why and how did they choose this vendor? What are their biggest long, medium and short-term concerns about their business?
Talking about subjects beyond taxes and balances will give a clearer picture of what you’re working with, helping you to build a better plan for your client. It should also enhance the client/accountant relationship, making for a potentially stickier, longer term working relationship.
Some accountants are uncomfortable with changing their dynamic with clients, and that’s understandable. You can get the ball rolling with some of the following questions (or variations on the below):
- What are you doing now?
You can expand on this to be more specific; are you paying for insurance? Are you spending on client retention or client acquisition? Has your approach to business changed in recent months post-covid?
- Are your goals being met?
This will help shape the conversation: if the client believes they are not achieving what they set out to do, they’ll be open to advice on how to change things. If they think they are on track, they might need reassurance or warnings of potential bad habits or pitfalls they’re unaware of.
2020 has moved the goalposts for all of us, so has the client pivoted sufficiently to adapt to new circumstances? Does the company still maintain the same values as it did before covid, or have priorities shifted as the company just wants to stay afloat?
- What are your most pressing concerns?
Immediate concerns could be addressed relatively quickly - by changing to a cheaper supplier, for instance. And a client’s concerns may act as a guide to what to look out for when examining their books.
This is also the time to revise medium to long term, as those plans might not be relevant or up to date in the new environment.
Help with technical issues
2020 has not just created new trends, it has accelerated existing ones. Remote working, for example, was gaining ground before this year, but it became widespread and (for many) mandatory in 2020, long after the technology became available.
As your client’s accountant, you should be in a position to help with the cloud, automation and the move towards a paperless office. 58% of small businesses don’t expect to meet with their accountants face-to-face.
On the paper side, your client should be using a receipt app at the very least; snapping and sending receipts to you instead of stockpiling reams of potentially contaminated paper. (Receipt capture, incidentally, is one of AutoEntry’s most popular features for SMEs.)
Data entry, as mentioned earlier, is another task that could be largely carried out by automation, changing the accountant’s role to a more analytical and advisory one
Cloud-based work slashes costs, is more secure and more collaborative. If you have a client who’s reticent about using new tech, this is the time to address it. As well as being safer for workers in general, cloud computing can reduce labor costs by 50%.
You should also be on hand to help with the transition to making tax digital - another development that has dragged some SMEs into the 21st Century.
AutoEntry - changing the conversation
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