Accounting Professionals: Is Your Value Tied Up in The Accounting Software?
Subtitle: when all you have is a hammer…
There was a time, not so many years ago, when it made sense for an accounting firm to take the position that all clients must use the firm’s preferred accounting software product or they would not be clients. For these firms, the concept of standardizing transaction entry and data processing across the client base made sense, and provided a means to create maximum efficiency in handling the bookkeeping and accounting processes. Typically, firms handling small business clients would select Intuit QuickBooks for client use, and offered QuickBooks training, QuickBooks transaction processing, and use of QuickBooks add-ons to support the model. With Intuit QuickBooks “owning” the small business market for accounting software, it made sense for accounting professionals to leverage the popularity of the solution to the benefit of the practice.
As cloud-based solutions and online application services have emerged (including QuickBooks Online Edition and Intuit Partner Platform – IPP – integrations), many accounting professionals have simply continued with the philosophy of applying QuickBooks (the hammer) to every client engagement. These firms focus on the software as a basis for delivering what they believe is value in the engagement. In short, these professionals focus their value in the use of the product (licensing, installation, training and support), and in their data entry skills (efficiency in entering and reviewing transactions in the product), rather than in the greater value of business intelligence, insight and actionable advice.
The new challenge facing many professionals – the reality of the current market – is that there are myriad solutions and approaches available to address client bookkeeping and process needs which work really well, and it is not always a good idea to try to turn a client using one of them into a “nail” just so you can hit it with your favorite hammer – QuickBooks. With Freshbooks, Wave Accounting, Xero and other solutions which handle various business accounting or bookkeeping requirements quite well and for an attractive price, small business owners are more frequently electing to implement applications outside of the QuickBooks product line even as their accounting professionals are continuing to promote QuickBooks for everyone. The reason business owners are electing to use these other tools is simple: they work for them.
In reality, this issue has existed in some form for a very long time, and was perceived to be primarily in markets where technology adoption and use is low for various reasons. The truth is that a lot of small business owners find ways to accommodate their information management and record keeping needs, and they use whatever approach works for them and what they want to accomplish. Sometimes the approach involves Internet solutions and online applications, and sometimes it does not (Excel spreadsheets with stapled piles of receipts are still quite popular and in widespread use by SMBs and Entrepreneurs). When that small business elects to engage the help of an accounting professional, the last thing they want to be told is that they have to make a big change to how they get things done. It’s fine for the accountant to provide guidelines for when information will be made available to support getting the accounting work processed, but it is not necessarily okay to dictate immediate changes in software and systems supporting the business daily operations. In a lot of cases, the accounting professional simply has no real basis for the requirement to change, other than to support their own efficiency (which is the wrong basis for making a client change their systems). It’s that silly cost-benefit thing. If it costs the client a lot (change always = cost), and the client does not perceive or experience an expected benefit, then it makes no sense for them to make the change.
Consider a professional accounting firm in Los Angeles, California. This firm serves small businesses, and has a pretty significant market available to sell to. LA is a market where technology adoption is high and broadband Internet is cheap and reliable, so this firm has elected to use a product-based focus (e.g., the QuickBooks approach) in qualifying clients and crafting engagements. Clients must conform to the solution set and the workflow in order to participate with the firm.
Now, consider a professional accounting firm in Elkton, Oregon. This firm serves just about every business in town (population 195) as well as businesses from a few nearby towns. Broadband Internet service is sketchy at times, and provider options are few. This rural area of Oregon is not known for being particularly “high tech”, and computers and software and online application services are not among the things many of these business owners focus on or even care about. The accounting firm serving this market is not focused on what accounting solution the client uses (or not), and they aren’t pushing to have all their clients purchase and install the same accounting software so that the firm’s processes can be more efficient. Interestingly enough, this firm is likely doing better work and probably developed a closer and more intimate relationship with their client than those who have fully “standardized” the client base. The reason is that the firm, whether out of necessity or out of desire, recognizes that each of their clients may have unique needs, and it is up to the firm alone to create maximum efficiency in meeting them. Further, delivering personal service and useful insight instead of simply providing the work product has allowed the professional to more fully reveal their value to the client.
The truth of the small business accounting market is that there are more businesses like those in Elkton than in LA. Accounting professionals should consider whether they are in a position to “filter” their client opportunities based on use of certain software products and online solutions, or if they will accept that business clients come in all sizes and shapes – with various needs and wants and self-developed methods of getting things done – and that the firm is willing to embrace them as they are and work with them.