I once read an article written by Doug Sleeter which describing the findings of a published report titled What SMBs Want from Their CPA. The report was a summary of results from a study conducted by The Sleeter Group, and was intended to help accounting professionals understand the factors in the market which influence business use of professional accounting services. While adoption and use of technology was not named as the top item on the list, capabilities which can be rendered only if such adoption occurs were. In short, it’s not the technology that clients demand, but the level of service that professionals can only deliver by embracing advancements in technology and applying them to the client engagement.
The report and article placed a specific focus on trends relating to technology adoption and use in the professional practice, and establishes a foundation for firms to understand why technology is and always has been a key factor in the success of the CPA-client relationship. It’s not that the accounting professional must become a skilled technologist and promote high technology to the client. Rather, the success factor rests with the firm’s motivation to implement technologies and tools which will improve their ability to deliver more (and more valuable) service to the client in a more direct and timely manner.
The survey’s two critical questions posed to small business owners who use the services of a CPA were 1. What factors played a role in your decision to leave your former CPA?, and 2. What types of services would you like to receive from your CPA? Both questions are pretty straightforward, and the top responses from surveyed SMBs were equally unambiguous.
To the first question (factors playing into a decision to leave former CPA), the top two answers indicated that reactive and/or unresponsive are the problems which ultimately cause a small business owner to change accounting professionals. The top response was “Former CPA didn’t give proactive advice, only reactive”. The close second response was “Former CPA had poor responsiveness”.
Unfortunately, these responses more than accurately describe many professional firms and their approach to client service. These firms are perfectly content with waiting for clients to deliver after-the-fact information, delivering reports long after their relevance has past, and providing no sense of urgency in helping clients address business issues facing them here and now. These firms are content to work with their write-up and trial balance solutions, depreciation and amortization and tax products – and give little consideration to how they could adjust their operation to a better, more relevant and rapid delivery of service and insight to the client.
The second question, “What services do SMBs want from their CPAs?”, was met with the same responses professionals have been hearing for years; small business owners need help with business planning and business strategy and they wish the help would come from their CPA. It is surprising how many accounting professionals list business planning and strategy among the services they promote on their websites, and then just sit back and wait for clients to ask. Communication with clients remains relegated to annual reminders for tax information, or maybe slightly more frequent notes about other tax or compliance work to be done. It may be a bit unfair to place all the blame on the professional. Regulatory and reporting impacts on business are increasing and are increasingly complicated. Many professionals find it challenging enough simply to keep up with changes relating to the services they currently and regularly provide.
This is where practitioners should seriously take notice, and accept that the ability to meet changing market and customer demands is by intelligently leveraging technology to accomplish what people and process cannot do alone.
- It takes information technology to speed up the bookkeeping, accounting and reporting processes; technology is required to help turn information into useful and relevant data;
- technology facilitates the faster collection of information from and the delivery of information to clients;
- technology is applied to reflecting numbers as pictures and helping users visualize the meaning of the data, and
- technology enables the collection and analysis of “big data”, which leads to AI advancements and greater intelligence delivered through the applications businesses use.
The Sleeter Group report clearly demonstrated that small business owners continue to need and want more than just tax returns and post-facto reports from their accounting professionals, and that the lack of attention in these areas pose a direct threat to the small business/CPA relationship. Professionals can remove the threat by working closer with their small business clients, applying technology and process controls to get better information in a more timely manner, and returning the result with greater insight. Be proactive and be responsive, and apply the necessary technologies and business philosophy to get there before the client base looks for satisfaction elsewhere.
I’ve said before that small business owners don’t care about the numbers, they care about the picture the numbers paint, and they care about getting to a place where the picture is absolutely beautiful. With the right tools in place, their CPA can help guide them there.