Accountant to client:  ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’

08 July 2019

Getting on for 30 years ago my brother married an American girl, and we made the journey from the UK to Texas for the celebrations. As father of the groom my father made a speech where he talked about how 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 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 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 emails or snatched calls.

And of course the reason behind this – quite simply, technology. And the reducing costs of technology.

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. 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 more than ‘just’ an accounting tool; the developers understood that by adding more complex functionality they would increase the likely take up 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 who up till now would have an expensive, maybe even bespoke ERP system. Quite simply larger firms have realised 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 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 have typically 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 didn’t 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 doesn’t only have to be negative - within any business you will have a mix of people, and enthusiasm for technology isn’t just a generational thing. Yes, the so-called Millennials might 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.

There has been plenty of 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 on its own technology doesn’t deliver the full picture; it enables different working practices – more efficient, cost effective – but is that everything? When asked what businesses are looking for in their accountant various surveys have shown responses to generally include a desire for the accountant to be pro-active, to have the business’s best interests at heart and to give general business advice. I think in the past there has been a disconnect between many accountants and the clients they serve, 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, very 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, cash flow forecasting, business modelling, a sounding board for future plans, a virtual finance officer. No two clients are exactly 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.

Technology should solve problems and a tech-savvy accountant can help you with that. By adopting technology you can be the business equivalent of that family linked on social media – informed, up to date and responsive. Decisions can be made based on sound, timely, reliable information. And even better - meetings no longer need involve time-consuming journeys between offices, or be faceless phone calls; technology-led online meetings can mean maybe more regular but shorter meetings, with real pro-active involvement by 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 then now is the time to consider an alternative.

For more information please contact Hilary Dyson (hilary.dyson@aab.uk) or your usual AAB contact.

To find out more about Hilary and the Cloud Accounting team click here.

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