Faster, simpler, still human – why accountants should go digital

Accountants with a human-centric service mindset have nothing to fear from accelerating their digital capabilities. They may even find it brings them closer to their clients.

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In the past, some accountants were reluctant to increase their digital capabilities, doubting the benefits were worth the effort – or even fearing it would make them appear more distant to their clients.

But after the dramatic changes 2020 brought to the business world, turning a blind eye to digital transformation is no longer an option. COVID-19 forced rapid adoption of digital channels and drove the workforce into the virtual space almost overnight, with most accountants relying heavily on the likes of Zoom and other cloud-based services to connect with clients and get the work done.

Even as we move into ‘COVID normal’, it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to business as usual. Consumers now expect the businesses they deal with to be digitally adept and that includes their accounting firms.

Going digital one step at a time

Of course, ‘digital transformation’ by its nature is extremely broad and how you approach it can vary considerably.

It may be that your website needs to be overhauled – from a day-to-day business or marketing perspective. Does it support your clients adequately? How does it appear to new prospects? If you’re starting from scratch, does it make more sense to pursue a mobile-first strategy, optimising your mobile presence before you turn to desktop? You might also consider a digital strategy that improves the organisation and accessibility of your document archives or reduces mundane paperwork.

But above all, you need to avoid feeling overwhelmed. For accountants looking to increase their digital capability, Andrew Loveridge, Executive, Professional Services at NAB, advises starting with problems that need to be solved, rather than with a broad notion of becoming more digital.

“Ask yourself what problems or pain points you want to solve,” Loveridge suggests. “Chances are, digitisation and automation will offer solutions that save time and money for both you and your clients.”

Paperless pay-off

Certainly, this was the case for Gold Coast-based IQ Accountants. The firm underwent a digital transformation almost 10 years ago, making the momentous decision to go “genuinely paperless”, including no longer accepting paper from clients.

The process was far from straightforward. It took around seven years and was done in stages. Paper records were back-scanned, allowing the office to cease using paper. The firm then informed clients about its no-paper requirement, which required setting up a client portal and facilitating electronic signatures.

Kyelie Baxter, managing partner of IQ Accountants and a board member of the CPA Digital Transformation Centre of Excellence, expected to lose some clients with this take-it-or-leave-it decision. To her surprise, everyone decided to go on the journey with her.

Educating clients – and staff – along the way was crucial, Baxter says. The firm not only needed to explain any operational aspects, but also why it was important and how everyone could benefit.

Everyone’s a winner

In fact, the advantages became quickly apparent, to clients and staff but also to the business. “Traditionally, what people do is save their documents up and they bring them to you at the appointment or at the end of the year,” Baxter says. “Now we are given all of this knowledge in real time, which means the quality of advice we can give them is so much higher and the relationships we have with them are stronger.”

Dealing with clients in real time makes the firm’s service proactive rather than reactive, Baxter says, and this can save clients money. There are significant tax savings that can be made in large transactions, but they are only available when structured correctly before the fact. Staff are now able to get on the front foot as soon as they receive, for example, a contract for the sale of a house.

The firm’s bookkeeping services are also light years ahead; it no longer faces the headache of missing data or information lost in multiple email conversations. Now a digital checklist of required data is marked as complete once everything is received. Turnaround time on queries from bookkeeping clients has shrunk from a week to less than two days, Baxter says. “That has been an absolute game changer for us. It saves us so much time.”

Staff are also happier, Baxter notes. They can focus on jobs that genuinely add value to their clients, rather than spending the bulk of their time trawling through mundane and repetitive paperwork. “We have got more time to do that higher-end advisory work, which is where clients see value,” she explains.

New jobs have also been created. The firm has employed a ‘document coordinator’, a necessary addition now clients upload their documents to IQ’s portal as soon as they have them.

Prepared for a pandemic

Fundamentally reshaping how the firm operated not only improved IQ’s client and staff experience, it allowed the firm to scale its business.

Today, only 30 per cent of IQ’s clients are in South-East Queensland, with the rest scattered around Australia, Baxter says. This digital-inspired growth was a key factor in Baxter’s back-to-back wins at the Australian Accounting Awards in 2020 and 2019, as Partner of the Year (Boutique Firm).

Most important, however, was the fact that the firm was well prepared when the pandemic hit. In 2020 it saw the uptake of online appointments surge, supported by collaborative tools such as sharing screens and digital whiteboards plus videos allowing clients to better prepare for meetings.

“We were COVID-proof and we didn’t even realise it,” Baxter says. “People just took their computers and worked from home, and clients couldn’t even tell we weren’t in the office.” For clients, it meant an entirely seamless experience. Above all, it allowed them to get on with the serious business of managing the impacts of the crisis.

Opening digital doors

But what of the perception that digitisation and automation can make firms seem distant and uncaring? Loveridge believes the opposite can be true – it can allow accountants to be more responsive to their clients, making clients feel more connected.

“Digital-friendly businesses are able to deepen their relationships by being more responsive and multi-faceted in their dealings with clients,” he says. “As accountants evolve into broad-based business advisers, those that are across the digital transformation game are well-placed to take their clients on the same journey, and this is more important than ever as the way we do business continues to evolve.”