Re-defining the role of the accountant, or going back to the good old days?
I grew up in a small town in Oregon where my parents ran a “business accounting office”. Many of the businesses in and around town were my dad’s clients, and we all got to know each other pretty well. Dad, you see, wasn’t simply the accountant, and the people working for him weren’t just bookkeepers. Dad was the business advisor, purchasing negotiator, collections agent, and anything else the client needed that he could provide. He fought for lower worker’s compensation insurance rates, got better prices on truck tires, and in general helped his clients with just about every aspect of running their businesses, including getting more customers and managing growth.
I had always believed that this approach, a consultative approach where the professional was intimately familiar with the business and proactively worked from inside the organization, was what all accounting professionals did. This proved to not necessarily be the case. Over the years, I have found that many accounting professionals focus primarily on the historic reporting of activities in the business, rather than actively helping to improve client business operations and performance on a daily basis.
According to one source, describing the differences between a CFO and an accountant: “CFOs are focused on working inside the business helping it generate wealth – ensuring proper capitalization, fostering the right banking relationships, addressing compliance issues – focusing on the company as a whole. Often CPAs tend to be more focused on specific tasks. Is the year-end audit done? Is the tax return done? …While both are vital to a business, a distinction we see is that the CPA’s dominant focus is historical – looking back to prepare tax returns and financial statements. The CFO, though, needs to be a forward-looking, integral part of the management team”.
It has become a reality that many accounting professionals are somewhat disconnected from their clients, a result perhaps of removing themselves from daily bookkeeping and other tasks. Recognizing the disconnect, many firms are now taking steps towards rebuilding those intimate client relationships by offering services which address more operational and strategic aspects of the business. These firms are offering “CFO Services” to their clients in addition to the standard offerings of financial statement and tax preparation. They have recognized the need become closer to the client business, delving deeper into the intricacies of the operation in order to find areas where improvements may be made and necessary controls instituted.
Accounting professionals seeking to increase the value of the services offered to clients should give strong consideration to what the client recognizes as valuable. Historic reporting is necessary, but finding ways to fund budgets, controlling expenses, helping to guide cash investments and taking steps to improve profitability are how a consultative accounting professional delivers real value to the client, building up the basis for long-lived and mutually beneficial business relationships like the ones my father once built.