By Keir Thomas-Bryant
There’s little doubt that, as the coronavirus disruption of 2020 continues, many accountants have been walking alongside their clients for every step of the journey.
Suddenly, accountants have found themselves superheroes of the economy because the help from governments and other bodies has been primarily financial in nature. They’ve both provided and explained the data needed to get the help, and helped complete the forms.
A positive disruption
We’re talking here about making the most of opportunities to help businesses capitalise on the new normal. The good news is that this year’s Practice of Now survey and report identified an accounting industry more than ready for this challenge. Although the survey was completed just before the coronavirus disruption occurred, the picture it paints – from the results of speaking to more than 3,000 accountants in Australia and worldwide – is positive.
The key theme is that the accounting profession is on the brink of positive disruption. The survey shows not only do clients increasingly expect business and strategy advice that is far beyond the usual, core remit of accountancy and bookkeeping services, but that accountants are responding to the need for a diversified service menu.
Here are some key findings from the report:
- Flexibility: 87% of respondents agree that clients expect more flexibility and better service levels from accountants, without an increase in their rates.
- Compliance: 79% of respondents agree that regulations from government, industry, and international bodies are forcing changes to working practices.
- Wider service offering: 82% of respondents agree clients are demanding a wider service offering, regardless of any technological or societal factors.
- Digitisation: 54% of respondents say they provide clients with faster service thanks to technology, while 43% say they believe it means their client service and satisfaction has improved.
It’s logical to suggest that the prominent trend of client needs and expectations driving innovation will, arguably, only be accelerated by coronavirus.
We know that accountants are best placed to address these new urgent needs, an assumption based on the fact that accountants were already pivoting from traditional service models at the beginning of 2020, and utilising new technologies, prior to coronavirus.
Creating service offerings for the new normal
There are consistent themes around which accounting professionals can focus their attention to create new service offerings, or simply to be of use to their clients during this difficult time and beyond. Some involve core competencies, while others are outside traditional comfort zones. But all must be considered moving forward if a practice is to thrive.
Offer clarity around government support
It’s vital to help your clients understand what support is available to them. After all, their continued success enables your own success – and it might even be suggested that, following the events of 2020, helping clients succeed has become an existential question for accountants.
Many governments worldwide have been offering support schemes, whether that’s grants or loans, or deferred payment dates for taxes. Some governments have set up dedicated advice sources.
For accounting professionals moving forward, it’s vital to be fully aware of all these schemes and to connect clients to them. This can obviously be challenging because many of them evolve rapidly. But, more than the above requirement, accounting professionals need to understand the full details of these schemes so that relevant knowledge can be shared with clients easily. This must be matched by a knowledge of the client’s situation and their industry, without which it will be impossible to know if the scheme applies.
Never assume that your clients know about these support offerings, no matter how well-established or well-used the scheme may be.
A constant line of client communication may be required to keep them abreast of any developments and this can be achieved through regular email newsletters, blog posts, personal calls, or even town hall meetings (provided local restrictions on gatherings permit it, of course, although these can be done online via group video conferencing calls).
It’s a good idea to segment your clients based on who is likely to require more help, or who may need certain kinds of funding or support from the emergency legislation. You might even create specific group video meetings with these clients, or webinars, to discuss what they can do.
Support clients with applications
Once education is taken care of, you should be prepared to support your clients to submit grant, loan or other applications for the government’s ongoing emergency measures. You may need to provide key financial reports for them, for example. Whether you charge for this or not is a difficult decision and in some ways may be dictated by the client’s circumstances. You might perhaps focus instead on lasting goodwill from the client, or collateral benefits such as increased referrals or positive reviews online.
There’s a reason that clients turn to accounting professionals for help at times such as these, and it’s because they realise that accounting professionals have the expertise and experience to make sense of things.
Provide technical support
Nobody likes being the tech support guy or gal, but there are few accountants recently who haven’t been asked for some advice of this nature. That might be basics on how to video conference, all the way through to the core task of being able to access accounting data while outside the four walls of the office.
You may be having less in-person client meetings now, instead working remotely with your clients to go over their financials. If they need support with their cloud accounting software to do this, you’ll be in a good position to help them.
By providing support around this area of remote working, you could offer a valuable service to your clients. Any help you can offer will be undoubtedly warmly received – even if it’s outside your practice’s typical comfort zone.
Switch to subscription models
With clients having so many touchpoints with their accountants, this is a perfect time to discuss switching them from a fee-based service, to a retainer/subscription-based package.
There’s surely no need to explain the logic of such a move from the perspective of your practice – recurring revenue via automated bank or credit card transfer is clearly better than billing a client for one-off services. Aside from continual revenue, it also removes the need for accounts receivable chasing.
But the benefits for clients right now are also clear. And today is simply the best time to introduce such a scheme. If you’ve been charging clients for each point of contact while helping them get through the coronavirus difficulties, a subscription-based service should save them money right now. In the short term you might be providing more services for less money, but over the long term this will average out and eventually work in your favour.
If nothing else, a subscription model creates a closer relationship with the client because they feel unrestrained in asking their accountant for help, and this in turn can put the accountant in a better position to avoid problems with the client’s finances and avoid tricky work in the future, such as overcoming cash flow crises.
These are challenging times for everybody. But times of great challenge also present opportunities. Aiming to be of service to businesses really can deliver great results for both accountants and their clients. If nothing else, the coronavirus disruption has shown how accountants and similar finance professionals are simply invaluable to the people they serve. The switch to a more advisory role has never been more relevant – or easily facilitated.
Now more than ever in a world shaped by COVID-19, it’s clear accountants need to embrace technology. It can help them save time, adapt to the new ways they now need to interact with clients, and provide faster, more value-added services.
To do this, they need to reconsider the way they currently use technology and explore solutions that can help them automate processes and generate the insights clients need. Above all, the goal should be to keep an open mind and adopt technology earlier, rather than later.
This article is originally posted in Sage.