HOW TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP MAKE ACCOUNTANTS INDISPENSABLE

If you are like most accountants, you will spend February recovering from the busiest time of the year.

The period from November to January is that fitful season when accountants pore over the annual shoebox of receipts dumped on them by clients, trying to make sense of a year’s worth of poorly-organised expenses in time for the January 31 tax return deadline.

The problem with this way of working – besides giving accountants high blood pressure – is, it is retrospective. This most intensive relationship between a client and his or her advisor comes in one quick annual rush – but the output produces a snapshot of the health of a business a year in the past.

What if the relationship could change? What if accountants and their clients were able to bring more value and forward-planning to bear on their business, at the start of the year and right throughout?

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Micro businesses are already using cloud accounting software like FreeAgent, Xero and Quickbooks to reconcile their finances throughout the year, even filing their own tax returns at year’s end. Most accountants already know this is changing the game. But new imminent changes are going to speed up cloud accounting adoption, meaning accountants’ jobs are about to be shaken up even more.

From 2018, HMRC wants to receive updates from most self-employed people at least quarterly. That is going to compel more businesses to keep figures more regularly and more accurately more often.

Cloud accounting software that links to businesses’ bank accounts will be the solution, automatically ingesting and reconciling clients’ expense spending every day. Whilst this functionality is in the market today, it is not always standard practice for all banks’ business accounts, and the mechanism can be clunky, relying on a third-party intermediary to log in to clients’ accounts and scrape back transactions. It works, although we have to put in a lot of effort to eliminate the friction.

But two new sets of banking regulation are going to wipe out that disconnect altogether, bringing real-time expense reconciliation to business bank customers everywhere.

First, the European Directive of Payment Services (PSD 2) is going to require that all banks let third-party apps and digital services legitimately connect to customers’ accounts and access data within. By 2018, digital services like cloud accounting software will, with customers’ permission, tap into account details in a uniform fashion.

Second, and if you don’t believe European directives will get transposed to UK law anymore, a report by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has effectively ordered the same, mandating that banks should open up customer accounts to approved integrations.

The net effect will be that many more small business owners will plug their business bank accounts into cloud accounting software, hugely growing the proportion of businesses that will have real-time, up-to-date books – monthly, quarterly, and certainly annually.

Now, many accountants may be reading this with alarm – one of the core functions of accountancy, expense management and bookkeeping, is about to be disintermediated, taken over by newly-empowered consumers. It is a story of digital disruption familiar to workers in many other business sectors.

True, the role of accountants is going to change. When clients are able to keep their books and file their returns themselves, what is left for you to do?

Well, the changes can actually mean good news for accountants, as well as clients. What accountant enjoys a life filled with fixing spreadsheet errors and chasing old bits of paper? The coming era will allow accountants to help their clients with contextual decision-making, like tricky allowance questions, in real-time.

Continuous, self-directed bookkeeping will absolve accountants of this unhealthy concentration of labour in the weeks before January 31, instead spreading effort throughout the year in a way that is far more manageable.

Most of all, accountants’ role will shift up the value chain, providing clients with higher-value services. If bookkeeping becomes commoditised, accountants can become trusted advisors to their loyal businesses – taking a closer, more proactive stance to examine underlying business goals and helping clients realise them.

By January 31, it is too late to play this transformative role that can really help customers. But a real-time relationship allows both sides to talk about solutions to clients’ own challenges. The accountant becomes a higher-value, more trusted advisor, financial coach  and tax planner, on the front foot and witnessing the real impact of his or her advice.

This is a new era of accounting, but one which can be more satisfying, less stressful and can command a higher price.

For accountants facing retirement after years of doing it the traditional way, this may all sound rather threatening.

But these changes are showing the way to a better profession. And maybe even a proper Christmas holiday next year.

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