Given the increased automation of routine tax and accounting tasks, business owners are relying on accountants for mentorship, strategic planning and consulting, rather than just an occasional compliance engagement or once-a-year tax meetup. This shift in client expectations from mere calculations to business consultation means that accounting firms must evolve accordingly or lose clients to those firms that are willing to demonstrate innovation.
Despite changing perceptions of tax accountants, many firms still struggle to evolve their practices to keep up with the demands of new clients. Security concerns, lack of employee cooperation or leadership approval, and a lack of the required skills and knowledge are all challenges faced by firms seeking to provide more high-value services. In this article, we’ll discuss some key client expectations, barriers to meeting those expectations, and how to overcome these barriers to fulfill client expectations and attract more clients.
While you may be an established and respected firm, business owners are very likely to view outdated equipment or processes as indicative of outdated industry knowledge or practices. For clients who use cloud storage in their business, for example, encountering a firm that cannot securely accept file uploads will most likely result in the client’s quick exit to a more cutting-edge organization. Furthermore, initiatives such as the U.K.’s Making Tax Digital are pushing businesses into digitizing their taxes. As a result, clients will expect you to be informed and capable of helping them transition their business.
Gone are the days when business owners simply left us alone to pore over financial reports and data. Now, owners want to collaborate with us on long-term business growth strategies that are informed by current best practices. We must prepare for deeper client involvement by expressing complex information in jargon-free, concise language. Rather than just handing clients their financial reports, we must learn to explain the stories behind the data in the report, crafting clear strategies that align with the client’s goals for their company.
In the past, accounting was reactive, looking backward to what happened and trying to find an explanation. Now, clients expect us to be prudent, charting a path forward based on the most current data. As clients grapple with new technologies and policies, we will need to be at our clients’ sides, helping them navigate the complex world of business management toward success.
With increasing expectations from clients, firms have doubtless felt the pressure to evolve and adapt. Here a few suggestions for implementing innovation and change within your firm.
Outline your long-term goals for your practice and seek input from your team. Once everyone understands how they can actively take part in shaping your firm’s future, they’ll be more inspired to put their best forward. Outlining a set of goals that everyone can rally around and support during this change will help you avoid lowering your office morale. For example, although my team has many firm-specific goals, our guiding principles are data security and transparency of our work with clients.
Take stock of your current processes and workflows. Recognizing bottlenecks and inefficiencies is an obvious precursor to improving your processes and workflows for maximum efficiency. Following our guiding principles of data security and transparency, here are some of the tools and systems we have implemented at MBS Accountancy:
- QuickBooks® Online – 85 percent of our clients converted to QuickBooks, and we should be able to convert the remaining, more difficult clients using a combination of new offerings such as QuickBooks Online Advanced and third-party apps. For clients who we offer monthly accounting services, the client can always see our work by logging into QuickBooks.
- Intuit® ProConnect™ Tax Online – With most of our clients on QuickBooks, the books to tax feature is a major time-saver. We also use the eSignature feature to have clients securely review and sign their e-file authorization forms. We only provide hard copies of the tax returns if requested. Otherwise, everything is digital.
- Intuit Link – Rather than having clients drop off, mail or email (never a good idea) tax documents, our clients use Link to upload their documents and answer our tax organizer questions. Plus, it’s more efficient to collaborate with clients on a centralized platform.
- Portals – All the work we complete is uploaded to a secure portal so our clients can have anytime access to their deliverables.
- Two-Factor Authentication – We turn on two-factor authentication for all of our web-based and desktop applications, which means we must enter a code from a hardware token or text message before opening the software. Two-factor authentication is the single most effective tool to protect your client’s data.
- Password Manager – Maintaining a strong password policy, such as requiring a minimum of 16 characters and special characters, is nearly impossible these days with so many places to log in. We chose to implement LastPass for our team. Once you log in to your “vault” using a very complex master password, you can access all other sites. With advanced security features, LastPass is an excellent way to keep your clients’ information safe.
- Third-Party Apps – There are hundreds of apps that can be used to serve your clients and make your own internal processes more efficient. Some of our favorites are Bill.com, Receipt Bank, Expensify and Intuit Payments.
Once you review your own firm’s processes and priorities, find and implement solutions that solve current issues or streamline existing bottlenecks. As you incorporate solutions, whether they are technologies, equipment or processes, remind your team of the way it supports the goals you established with them for your company. If your office doesn’t have the required skills or training for a solution, consider contracting with a service provider that will be more likely to put up with tech-related frustrations if they understand the positive effect on their daily workflow.
Addressing the need for innovation within a firm is difficult, but required for those of us who want to remain relevant in a changing landscape. Regardless of your existing position on innovation, by increasing your firm’s efficiency, communication and offering more high-value services, you can be well-prepared for the years ahead.