Accounting Professional Value is Insight and Advice, Not Just a Hosted Server
Back in the late 90’s, when the application service provider model was first established, a number of providers recognized how beneficial it would be for public accountants to use hosted applications to work more closely with their accounting and bookkeeping clients. Seeking markets which would rapidly adopt a hosted application model, these providers focused on hosting small business accounting solutions such as Intuit QuickBooks desktop products, and then sought participation by the largest addressable communities of users working with those products – QuickBooks ProAdvisors, bookkeepers and accountants. The idea was that the community of QuickBooks professionals would benefit by bringing their clients onto the hosting platform, and service providers could sell to one professional and gain a bunch of small business users. It made sense, too, as it allowed the professional to have a single service and login that allowed them to access all their client QuickBooks company files. The client could log in to the system, too, delivering remote access and managed service benefits to the client, as well. But there was a catch, and it didn’t fully reveal itself until recently as cloud-based applications and true SaaS applications began to gain market adoption.
The problem actually started to reveal itself as more businesses elected to adopt hosting services. There’s a saying amongst the QuickBooks hosting providers that “nobody uses just QuickBooks”. Saying “nobody” uses just QuickBooks is a bit of a stretch, but the reality is that numerous businesses use other applications and software solutions in addition to their QuickBooks product. Sometimes these products integrate with QuickBooks and sometimes they don’t, but it is not often that a business utilizes just the one software solution. At minimum, there are likely email or productivity tools in use, too. The point is that the QuickBooks hosting providers – those hosts focusing on providing service to QuickBooks accountants and small business clients – realized that the number and variety of applications desired by their customers would grow very quickly, as would the variety of needed implementation models. The unfortunate solution of the time was to just put it all on the same environment.
The original selling message to the QuickBooks consultant and accountant markets was that they should get all their clients on to the hosting service, and then the accountant could benefit from an “economy of scale”, making the cost of the overall delivery lower. Further, by grouping the firm and the clients into a single hosting environment, it would make application and data sharing easier. Both of these messages are true, but putting the firm and its clients into a single environment – with the firm as the “sponsor” and front line promoter of the service – began to have impacts which were not clearly foreseen.
- Accounting professionals and consultants changed the nature of their relationship with the client, going from trusted advisors to technology and solution vendors.
- Client business technology needs were placed as secondary to “enabling” the working relationship between the accountant and the small business client.
- Attempts to fully satisfy client technology requirements overburdened and impacted the environment, reducing overall service quality and satisfaction and diminishing the value of the scale economy (as well as the clients’ perception of their accounting professional).
- Firms structured their processes to support a single technology and operating model, and found difficulties in adopting new strategies or solutions.
In concept, having accounting professionals and their clients all working seamlessly together in the same systems sounds great. For some firms, a cloud server packed with all the firm and client applications and data enables an entirely new business and service model, which is very cool and it actually works (for some firms and their clients). But the problem – a problem which may not be fully revealed in the short term – is that the various businesses involved, from the accounting practice to each and every client, has different business needs and operates as a unique organization. While there may be fundamental similarities, “the devil is in the details” as they say, and a single platform or hosting solution is unlikely to really work well for all. Even more potentially damaging, the perception of the trusted advisor who is now viewed as a vendor of IT services or software erodes the value of the client engagement and the potential for the firm to deliver greater benefit through their core offerings. A business owner is more likely to change vendors of IT service than they are their trusted accounting or finance professional. And they’re also more likely to change IT service providers if the provider cannot deliver exactly the application or service desired. When the accounting professional is perceived to be the IT service provider, the lines are blurred and the client ends up attaching their loyalty to a software product or business solution instead of the accountant advisor OR the IT provider.
With SaaS and native web-based applications being broadly adopted by small businesses, the opportunity for firms to engage with clients in different ways and with different solutions started to break the one-size-fits-all hosting approach. Professionals found that empowering their clients by supporting properly fitted solutions which work for the client business delivered the opportunity to become more operationally and strategically involved with the client business. Deeper operational and strategic involvement with the client became the means to drive increased value in the engagement and services offered and delivered. The client business was able to benefit from the involvement of their trusted advisor, regardless of what platforms or systems might be in place.
Accountants and bookkeepers are recognizing that the previous model of aligning the practice with a particular software product or delivery system may not be the best approach to building and retaining the customer base. With new business accounting and bookkeeping solutions emerging regularly – and gaining broad market adoption – and as more and more varied cloud based services and solutions are applied to various business problems – professionals will further recognize that their value is not tied to a cloud server, a single small business accounting solution, or to any particular technology. The value of the accounting professional is not in the software they support or the server it runs on. The value of the accounting professional is in the insight gathered and advice provided – services offered which help support better business management, growth and profitability.