The recent Adapting to Cloud articles series for AccountingWEB, has given even more insight into how different types of accounting firm are adapting and incorporating cloud applications into their services, and what the impact of this has been so far.
As I was working through the interviews it struck me that there were 5 themes that persisted and while ringing true, are also somewhat contrary to a lot of the talk out there.
Are accountants picking the right apps for clients?
I wrote about this in more detail here – Are accountants picking the right cloud apps for clients? – but the more conversations I have the more it seems to ring true. Many firms are choosing to adopt a certain technology strategy that may not be appropriate for all their clients.
In fact several that were ‘on the bus’ early are starting to review this situation and exploring their options accordingly. 2016 I think we will see more of this correction going on, as experience of using applications matures, and firms have more confidence in their selection processes.
Practice Management still an issue
The efficiency gains experienced in client data collection, are not being replicated in terms of internal client management. Many firms are describing the systems they can offer clients as being better than those that have to run their own businesses. In particular the finger is pointed at practice management – citing a lack of adaptability, and a lack of connectivity to other applications. The use of practice management alongside separate CRM is common, as is a persistent use of complex spreadsheets.
While an issue now, it could become even more so as the government’s Making Tax Digital programme and in particular quarterly reporting are rolled out.
Making Tax Digital is a big opportunity
The highly contentious movement towards ever increased digitalised services is certainly one that has provoked significant reaction from practitioners. Many are rightly concerned with the impact on their very small or “non digital” clients. Others have sought to see vendors and HMRC as the only beneficiaries. However from this group of interviewees there was a more optimistic view.
The range of opportunities spanned from taking on more basic compliance and reporting from existing clients and new businesses to ensuring extra regular client contact (stickiness of relationship), new ‘continuous planning’ services, as well as ensuring more up to date compliance data was held in order to offer better general advisory services.
The need for good internal controls becomes clear in this scenario, and also reinforces the value of bedrock compliance and bookkeeping services.
A shift to cloud needs a change in your proposition or… brand
Accountants have been resellers of software (mainly Sage and Quickbooks) for years, and often play a vital role in helping clients set up or evaluate their financial systems.
Cloud has however provided something of a challenge. While wanting to present the benefits of moving to cloud apps (and continue to present themselves as forward thinking) many will be choosing to do so on an ad hoc basis or as the opportunity presents itself. The perceived shine of progressive technology is balanced with a highly reserved and pragmatic approach to roll out.
However those that take an increasingly cloud-first approach are adapting their core service offerings (either as firm, or along departmental/niche lines), and working on an assumption that this is the way that they now do business.
Interestingly many firms that take this approach view that working through their existing client base with the same zeal is probably not appropriate and may not be in their clients best interests.
One step further is the creation of entirely separate brands designed to deliver fixed fee services, remotely, and at scale. Creating a new brand to attract an identifiably different client type is fascinating, and so far proving fairly successful. Not only does it keep the cash flowing but is also proving easy to scale.
All this seems to underline the old truism that firms attract clients like themselves. If you want to attract a different kind of client (either by type,or by attitude) then adapting the proposition is the best way to go about it.
There is life in compliance yet, and it’s essential to advisory services
The final observation is that the story that compliance is dead (or dying) may actually be only partially true. Helping more newer, and inevitably smaller, clients with the security and insurance policy of basic compliance and on tap advice is seen as a real opportunity.
Further, many of the advisory services that are enabled by cloud apps – either through insight or via an identifiable planning structure – is only possible if the books are up to date and accurate. Ensuring the latter means that the higher level conversations can actually take place.
Also, it’s felt that most accountants are already providing advisory services to clients, it’s just that it is not recognised or packaged up as such.
The advantage of cloud to make effective financial administration easier, is having the effect of engaging clients more with their affairs and opening the door to better and more interesting conversations.
What does this tell us
More research would need to be carried out to uncover exactly how typical these views are, but it would be wrong to assume that the visible debate represents the broader market view.
Regardless, the challenges and opportunities for both accountants and vendors is considerable over the next few years. If anything the challenge lies with the software suppliers taking an increasingly broader view of how they are meeting the challenges faced by firms, and by continuing in the spirit of SaaS to generate and promote ever increasing flexibility and interconnectivity.