The future looks bright for smaller accounting practices. Automation from artificial intelligence and machine learning will eliminate the need to perform data entry and other repetitive tasks, giving accounting professionals new opportunities to provide business-advisory services and apply their specialised training and skills.
Clients, too, are hungry for these value-added services, because it can fundamentally improve their bottom line and help streamline processes. According to a 2018 survey in Accounting Today, 78 per cent of small businesses are seeking an accountant who is a trusted adviser. It ranked higher in importance than the affordability of services. Nowadays, with the wealth of data that is at our fingertips, it is the interpretation of that data that is often most valued by clients, who may otherwise feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of numbers in front of them.
Clients want insights, not numbers
Robert Half Director Nicole Gorton agrees that SMEs are looking for insights. “Automation tends to over-standardise matters, so the high-value finance professionals will be those who can leverage technology to free up their routine workload,” she says. “They will be able to use commercial insights gained from both data and management experience to anticipate unique opportunities.”
She believes many SMEs and micro-clients recognise that in today’s ever-changing business environment, resulting from COVID-19, there is a greater need for the finance function to be an insight-driven business partner. Taking the time to sit down with clients and to explain a concept such as cash flow can deepen the client-practitioner relationship. Most SMEs need no convincing that consumer trends have been rapidly evolving over the past 18 months, and business conditions were upended by pandemic lockdowns.
“Specifically, businesses recognise that to be more responsive – continually re-evaluating both short and long-term goals and strategies – finance and accounting professionals must take a business advisory role in an organisation, helping to guide business decisions with a high level of strategic acumen and commercial mindedness,” Gorton says.
Soft skills are also valuable
Gorton believes that as advisers, finance professionals now need a commercial appreciation of the business and extensive experience in project-related work and change management. Soft skills are also important, including leadership, team building, interpersonal and presentation skills. Developing confidence in these areas will heighten a practitioners’ persuasiveness when selling their knowledge.
“A successful adviser will be able to show that he or she can analyse data; can understand what both sides of a given partnership require; can identify strengths and weaknesses across a business unit or entire company; and set company and individual goals,” she says.
Connecting the dots
Smaller accountancy businesses will succeed in the new environment by prioritising analytical experience and capabilities across financial planning, modelling, and data analysis. Gorton believes that the focus should be on tech platforms that include AI, robotic process automation (RPA), business intelligence (BI) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
“The real value of accounting in the future is going to be about connecting the dots by interpreting data and overlaying this with strategic and creative insights,” she says.