By Pieter Bensch, Executive Vice-President, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Australia at Sage
Over the last two years, accounting professionals have helped businesses steer through the COVID outbreak, the unrest in July 2021, and recent KZN floods, supporting SMB resilience in difficult times. Now, they are challenged to help companies navigate rising inflation and interest rates. Throughout these challenges, accountants in practice are also coming to grips with disruption in their profession.
Disruption comes from multiple directions. As our Practice of Now research shows, it’s partly about heightened expectations from customers. Accounting practices in the survey reported that their customers expected improved service levels and more flexibility with no fee increases. They also demanded a broader offering of advisory services, expecting accountants to take the lead in championing the needs of SMBs.
New technology also plays a role. Accountants that embrace digitalisation can increase their efficiency, so they can spend more time providing strategic counsel to the business. Furthermore, adopting modern, cloud-based business solutions enables them to improve collaboration, work remotely and gain better business insights.
We recommend accountants prepare for disruption in the following ways:
1. Get set for always-on, anywhere operations
Hybrid working is now a way of life for many accountants and SMBs. Though many accounting practices have put the basics in place to support a blend of working at home and at the office, now is the time to ensure they can really deliver anywhere, at any time. This includes making it easier for SMBs to gain access to accurate, timely reporting, and streamlining the sharing of documents and information.
Most accounting practices have basic remote collaboration tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams in place to enable their team and customers to work together remotely. But solutions, like document management software to safely store and manage electronic documents and project management tools that help manage complex deliverables across a growing customer base, can also be invaluable.
2. Sharpen compliance capabilities
It goes without saying that accountants are expected to help customers comply with tax regulations, statutory reporting requirements and auditing obligations. However, in a world of spiralling compliance complexity, business stakeholders and clients are looking to accountants for wider support in meeting their legal and regulatory compliance commitments.
Accountants increasingly need to be on top of legislation, not just tax legislation, but also employment laws and data protection regulations. For SMB customers, boundaries between these areas don’t exist, and they expect the people who manage their financial data to be able to offer counsel. This creates the opportunity for practices to add new services to their portfolio, helping SMBs navigate complexity.
3. Automate everything you can
Automating repetitive, low-value activities such as data entry and number-crunching, invoicing, workflows, and accounts payable processes enables accountants and their customers to save time and money. Cloud-based technology that provides SMBs with the visibility, flexibility, and efficiency to manage finances, operations, and people is the cornerstone of a modern accounting practice.
A good software-as-a-service (SaaS) product will feature powerful automation features that reduce time spent on admin, data entry and compliance tasks like VAT submissions. It should make it painless to manage customer workflow end-to-end, with seamless integrations that sync data automatically between bookkeeping, VAT, payroll, and compliance software.
With the basics in place, accountants can explore the opportunities of using tools like artificial intelligence (AI) to further boost automation. They can also consider implementing a cloud-based practice management solution. This will help them track interactions with customers, communicate with them more efficiently, and manage their workflow.
4. Add more value for customers
An accountant practice that meets customer needs in a changing world will add value beyond compliance. Among SMB customers, there is growing resistance to hourly billing, and a desire for outcome-based pricing. With easy-to-use accounting solutions enabling them to manage many tasks, for which they would once have need an accountant’s help, they expect accountants to be strategic partners.
Forward-thinking practices can offer a richer proposition to their customers by offering advice on technology, digital transformation, growth and compliance. Adding more consulting and advisory services to the mix can seem daunting, but it offers the opportunity to cement better customer relationships and increase earning power.
Disruption can be positive
Changing customer expectations, new technology, and a new generation are impacting how accountants work. For those that understand their customer needs and keep abreast of technologies like automation, this is an opportunity for positive change. Not only can they run more efficient businesses, but they can also transform their relationships with their customers and uncover opportunities to accelerate their growth in years to come.