1st April, 2021
Accountants are often so heavily invested in the growth of their clients’ businesses, opportunities to grow their own can get overlooked.
One of the key values of the accounting profession is as a trusted advisor, providing business leaders with external insights into their operations identifying areas for improvement. But who provides this independent feedback to accountants themselves?
Senior figures from across the industry share their thoughts on the hidden opportunities for firms to scale their own businesses and maximise their value for clients, staff, and practice owners.
Many operational challenges were thrown up the pandemic; but unexpected opportunities have emerged too.
One is the greater choice in communication methods and meeting formats clients now have, explains Andrew Graham, managing partner – Brisbane at RSM Australia.
“Some clients are OK with Zoom and Teams meetings, and may even have a preference to deal with us like that. Others still prefer a phone call or face to face so it’s about being flexible and serving clients the way they need or want to be served.
“We continue to see clients on-site at their premises rather than having them come in to see us,” he explained.
“Taking a client-centric approach enables us to develop deeper understanding of clients with a focus on being relevant and assisting and supporting them in a meaningful way.” The same applies to employees.
Further enhancing remote working capabilities may help stem the loss of people quitting the profession in search of greater flexibility and provide better opportunities for mothers to return to work.
Mazars Sydney managing partner Jim Mascitelli added that COVID saw accountants doing “a lot of hand-holding” with business clients.
Such intensive support during the crisis has further strengthened the client-advisor relationship, which can be leveraged for mutual benefit going forward.
Accounting specialisations – such as focusing on individual industries – can deliver significant growth opportunities.
“For example, not-for-profits is quite strong for us,” said HLB Mann Judd managing partner Tony Fittler.
“And there’s certainly a group of corporates that are probably not getting the service they need – they’re good clients but can never be as big as the large clients of the big four firms.
“We can provide them a level of service as medium-sized corporates and give better service than the big four: not because the big four aren’t good, but their focus has to be on their biggest clients.”
Specialisation can also assist with streamlining internal processes.
“If you’re trying to be great at one thing, you’re able to focus your systems, processes, people and training around one thing,” said Kelly+Partners chief executive Brett Kelly.
There is a caveat, however, on how specific that level of specialisation is.
“Too niche and you have a very small client base; too large and you can’t necessarily specialise,” said Fittler.
While the big four have size and brand on their side, that can be just as much of a liability as a benefit.
“Smaller firms are much more agile at using newer technology, and that technology is available with just a credit card and an internet access,” said Sholto Macpherson, editor of DigitalFirst.
“The big four are massively constrained by image and brand and legal constraints and the politics of large organisations.
“Whereas a small firm can really stamp their personality on their marketing content, which is always the best way to cut through and be noticed and create a point of difference from every other accountant.”
Accounting firms of all sizes rely on multiple technologies and software applications. Yet they tend to be technical and workflow-centric, suggests Macpherson.
“My general perception is that accountants are very enthusiastic to try new ideas that relate directly to their daily workflow; it’s really when you’re looking at technology outside of that core workflow that accountants tend to be less enthusiastic or less open to experimenting.
“There are a lot of interesting technologies out there that accountants aren’t really embracing, because they are under such intense pressure to deliver on their business as usual.”
He pointed to marketing as one such example.
“This is not something that accountants have a strong reputation for, as marketers. But there are so many good ideas out there, such as using video in educating clients,” Macpherson said.
“When you see accountants who are early adopters of technology, particularly in the marketing space, they really stand out – social media platforms aren’t flooded with accountants doing videos.”
Other applications he recommends for accounting firms include proposal automation to provide faster responses to prospective clients and expenses management software to safeguard cash flow.
“One thing that 2020 really brought into focus is the importance of having a network to lean on for support and advice when dealing with new and sometimes very challenging legislation or guidance,” said Robyn Jacobson of The Tax Institute.
“As tax advisors, we encourage clients to reach out for advice when they’re unsure. I would encourage tax practitioners to do the same.”
Jacobson cited problems with COVID-19 stimulus eligibility, for instance, but said additional capabilities from industry bodies to escalate cases with the ATO have helped deliver “wonderful outcomes” for accountants and their clients.
“So, don’t be afraid to use your professional network and seek some advice when you come across a challenge.”
Accounting professionals are renowned for working long hours to meet client needs. Many do so, however, at the expense of growing their own business.
“A bit of the instinct is that the client comes first… if you have a spare hour, you’d probably spend it on client matters, because there’s probably always something you can do.
“There is certainly a risk that you’ll fall into that category of not listening to your own advice,” admitted Fittler.
RSM’s Graham agrees.
“Out of all the professions, there’s just such a clear devotion and investment in the client from accountants.
“But sometimes you’ve got to step back and look at your own business too – not just your processes and systems, but things you could be doing differently.”
The reason, according to Macpherson, is that “accountants are trained in accounting; they’re not necessarily trained in entrepreneurship”.
“If you own and manage a firm and see your only value as the time you charge to clients, then you’re not investing your time in building the value of the firm as an asset.”
He added that firms growing sustainably alongside their clients are a win-win for everyone.
“There might be opportunities to spend some of that time investigating adjacent services you could offer, either directly or through a partnership, which would increase the lifetime value of each client without having to spend any more of your own hours managing their affairs.”
Adding more services, such as superannuation or insurance, will require investment into a firm’s workforce, systems and processes, with a view to increase efficiencies while also maintaining a clear view of critical business information.
As a result, scaling an accounting practice is as much about managing headcount as it is about go-to-market strategy and the continuous enhancement of built-for-purpose tech.