Client Solutions, not just Professional Services
Accounting Professionals serving a small business client base are struggling to find ways to demonstrate the value of the services they provide, yet many firms remain focused exclusively on their own processes and improving profitability therein rather than looking “outside the box” to see how they might involve the client in the discovery. The obvious element which these firms are not addressing is the client user, and how a direct participation by the client becomes the foundation for internal process improvement. After all, a lot of what accounting professionals are battling against is perceived value. If the client were to be a more direct participant, the value of the work and the tools which support getting it done could provide a more tangible or visible aspect and increase the overall value perception of the client.
It is easy to say “get the client more involved”, but actually doing it can be the real challenge. Professionals are recognizing this reality as they attempt to engage client users in online portals for document exchange and by providing application functionality which is supportive of the accountants’ processes. While some professional firms are experiencing success with this approach, many other firms are not. There are likely a variety of reasons why some firms have more success than others in getting clients to work with their online tools, but I believe there are two key elements which impact success: accountant-centric focus, and provider lock-in. Whether these elements work to the firms’ advantage or not depends solely upon the specifics of the service model and client market being served.
Most accounting professionals recognize that paperless approaches to working with client information and documents makes a lot more sense than working with the actual paper. Particularly with the innovations in image capture, OCR and zero-entry solutions, it is logical to try to get as much of the required information transformed into useful digital data as possible. Data entry time is reduced, accuracy is improved, and the resultant information is better and more useful and may be processed more efficiently… for the accounting professional. For the client, on the other hand, it’s just another way to get information to the accountant (who is always wanting more information). The value of the deliverable – the reconciled bank account, financial report, tax return or whatever – isn’t increased. The solution often offered to the client is a solution intended to solve not the client problems, but the accountant’s. For the client, it is difficult to see this as a “solution” to any evident problem they face.
Business software customers are often commenting about how the solutions they use don’t allow easy transition to alternative products, or add-ons are only available from developer-prescribed sources. Vendor lock-in is a consideration and may be a barrier to doing business, because business owners want to know that they have the ability to change as business requirements change… whether it means changing software and systems, or whether it means changing professional service providers. As more professional service providers attempt to engage their clients in technology-based approaches to doing business, clients are recognizing that these approaches may come with “strings attached”, limiting their future choices. While it is important for the professional services firm to protect its work product, it is also important to consider the client’s position. Part of every business relationship is trust, and that trust should not be one-sided. Just as the professional trusts that the client will work with them in a legitimate manner, so does the client trust that their professional will not hold their information hostage if they elect to make a change or engage with other providers in the future. Additionally, does the system provided by the accounting firm allow the client to collaborate with their own team members or other service providers, or does it address only the interactions between the accounting pro and the client? This also represents a barrier to participation, as any given client business likely interacts with a variety of providers – many of whom are also asking that owner to implement solutions which improve their ability to do a form of e-business together.
As accounting service providers look to technology to facilitate closer and more efficient working arrangements with clients, they would do well to also consider how that technology is positioned to benefit the client as well as the professional practice. Delivering a solution which provides clients with the capability to control information access, which allows collaboration with their various service providers, and which facilitates a lean process approach for all involved could be the right answer to the problem. Perhaps this becomes the most important factor – client enablement – and focusing on solutions which address the clients’ information management and processing requirements as well as those of the firm.
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