As the accounting profession enters a period of rapid technological change, a new survey reveals that South African accountants are preparing for change. And that is exactly what their clients in the SME sector wants.

In a new survey of over 600 South African accountants and SME owners conducted by World Wide Worx in partnership with Xero, 87% of SMEs indicated that they prefer to work with accountants who understand technology.

Colin Timmis, Xero’s SA Head of Accounting, says accounting are having to upskill and evolve their offering – from automation to artificial intelligence. “The report has shown that South African accountants are preparing for change, but they need to ensure they’re clued up on the next big tech innovations and affirm their status as the SME owner’s most trusted advisor,” he says.

According to the survey, most accountants (88%) think that in-depth knowledge of technology and automation will be crucial to the success of the profession within the next three years. Professionals will need to upskill, and 80% of accountants acknowledge that they’ll need some kind of training in the next five years to adapt.

Respondents identified mobile technologies (59%), automation (29%) and AI (22%) as some of the most exciting new innovations, although a worrying 15% did not know enough about any to be intrigued.

Technology has enabled SMEs to automate many of the tasks traditionally performed by accountants, such as data entry and bank statement processing, and as a result 31% of SMEs surveyed do not think they will need an accountant in 10 years’ time.

However, the research identified an opportunity for accountants to remain relevant through offering value-add services such as business consultancy: 23% of SMEs report frequently asking their accountant for non-financial advice, and 27% report doing it more than once. The potential for added value is considered ‘very important’ by 62% when choosing an accountant. As a result, accountants are the most trusted advisor for 65% of SME owners.

Technology will help enable this by increasing flexibility: 59% consider technology to be highly important in terms of freeing up time for consultancy beyond day-to-day numerical work.

The State of Accounts report suggests an environment where clients are more receptive to the evolving accountant: where their businesses can do more in-house, using accountants as corporate advisors rather than bean counters.

“In an age and a nation where the barriers to starting a company are lower than they’ve ever been, accountants with the will and the determination can establish themselves as key consultants. They’ll still make sure an entrepreneur’s tax returns are in order – but they’ll also help their business grow,” the report states.

To read Xero’s full SA State of Accounts report, go to www.xero.com/za/state-of-accounts.