Cloud Accounting Practice Management Small Business

Becoming the Most Trusted Advisor – Part 2: Making It Happen

Written by Doug Sleeter

Take a leadership roleIn Part 1 of the “Becoming the Most Trusted Advisor” series, I discussed the paradigm shift – the move toward giving your clients what they want as opposed to just what they need. Now that you can collaborate with clients and access their data in real time, you have opportunities that allow you to:

  • Move from being isolated from client-run accounting systems to having 24/7 access to every client’s accounting and documents.
  • Move from once-per-year meetings to being deeply involved with each client’s business, acting as a strategic advisor.
  • Take a leadership role with clients, where you help them find the individual solutions that fit their needs.
  • Turn your relationship from serving to partnering for success.

In this article, I’ll explain how accountants can go from being the most trusted servant to becoming their clients’ most trusted advisor.

Letting Go of Your Doubts – Opt In

Before you can really make the leap to become a cloud-based firm that focuses more on advisory services, you need to fully opt in taking your firm in that direction. Commit yourself, your staff, and your firm to make some fundamental shifts in your business model. Most likely, you, your staff, and your clients will need to overcome the inevitable fear that comes with making such a big change. Even if you’re willing, you may have lingering doubts about whether cloud-based, accountant-centric tools are more than just a passing fad.

Perhaps more importantly, you might ask yourself the following question: “What happens if I don’t adopt these new business models?” A recent study by the Oxford Martin School on job losses due to computerization and automation addresses this question in an alarming way. It suggests there’s a 94% probability automation will result in job loses for accountants and auditors in the next two decades. The study is summarized in The Economist in “The Onrushing Wave.” Roger Gregg, CEO of Invitco, recently wrote an entertaining post that puts this study into context for the accounting profession.

Some History in Context

If you look at history, you’ll see many patterns that repeat. It’s as though we’ve been here before. As new innovations come along, there are many doubters. So many people focus on why new products won’t work, and many struggle to comprehend why the new “thing” is relevant. Do you remember when you first heard about TiVo? Was it difficult to comprehend what “pausing live TV” even meant? I guess I should only ask that question to people over 40, but you get the point. You can see why people didn’t just rush out and get one. They first had to figure out what the thing did and why they would pay money for it.

Some of the doubters have great reasons to adopt slowly. We’ve all been burned by one technology or another that showed such promise when we watched the demo, but then didn’t work out too well. These experiences make us take a more conservative, wait-and-see approach to new innovation. And perhaps more so than other businesses, accountants cannot afford for their systems to fail in the middle of busy season. This makes sense on many levels, and it’s why accountants have historically been on the “slow side” of adopting new technologies.

Ever since Luca Pacioli published his book Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalità on double-entry accounting in 1494 in which he defined the fundamentals of accounting, there have been no changes to the essential processes of recording transactions into journals and ledgers. Now I might be going out on a limb here, but I doubt those fundamentals will change anytime soon.

However, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, and it’s affecting more business models than ever before. So it’s worth pausing to consider whether the current technology trends warrant a dramatic shift in your thinking as to what business you’re really in.

If today’s changes seem scary, keep in mind that we’ve already been through several foundational shifts like this before. Each shift has created both pain and new opportunities. But for sure, these changes could never have been stopped by simply ignoring them or opting out.

For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, we had card readers, dumb terminals, and centralized data. Clients recorded transactions in manual journals, and accountants owned the general ledger. Then there was a big shift in the 1980s, with the advent of “personal computers” and accounting programs clients could use in their own offices. Clients got control over the general ledger, and accountants became isolated from client records. In the 2000s, we started to see integration – connected services, desktop integration, web connectors – with data still primarily on the desktop, but moving to “servers.”

Personal computer

Today, the big shift is the move to cloud-based software, mobile devices, and remote access to all information. While these trends are not that new, the adoption tipping point has finally happened.

In today’s business world, the reality for business owners is that to thrive they must serve customers online. Customers expect to interact with every business directly on their website and through a variety of electronic communication methods. Today’s small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) must embrace such technologies as ecommerce, web-based customer support, web meetings, web marketing, and collaborative relationships with their customers and suppliers (including their accountant).

All of these require centralization of data and the cloud is the best option, whether it’s a private cloud, a public cloud, or a hybrid.

The Internet Is the Ultimate Mainframe

A good way to think about the latest trends toward cloud-based, centralized data, accessed via mobile and remote devices, is to imagine a pendulum.

In the mainframe era, the pendulum swung heavily toward centralized data, hardware, and applications. The benefits of mainframes were that we could always rely on a “single source of the truth” for data, applications, and even the hardware and system software.

But when the PC revolution came along, it meant “freedom for users,” where everyone could have his or her own data, hardware, and software. This was so attractive because it meant we didn’t have to “go to the computer”; instead, we had one of our own. So you can see why PCs took off so successfully.

But the Internet has changed everything. It has caused the pendulum to shift back to centralized data and applications, but it keeps the freedom for users because it allows them to access this centralized data from anywhere, on any device. I like to think of the Internet as the ultimate mainframe.

From “Client-Centric” to “Accountant-Centric”

With the PC revolution came software solutions that were “client-centric.” These systems put the client in control all of the technology and data they use to run their business. I call this the “me generation.”

The problem this caused the accounting profession was that it put distance between the accountant and the data the accountants need to perform their services. The shoe box lived on during the PC revolution, even if the contents of the shoe box often contained digital data. And of course, most of that client-entered data needed extensive cleanup before accountants could produce financial statements or tax returns. So the client-centric systems have caused just as many problems for accountants as they have solved for clients.

Perhaps even more importantly, these client-centric, desktop software products haven’t been able to provide businesses with an easy way to do business on the Internet with ecommerce, mobile access, and anytime/anywhere access.

The bottom line is that client-centric, desktop accounting systems just cannot deliver.

Today, virtually all innovation in the accounting and small business process area can be categorized as being collaborative, or even accountant-centric; that is, accountants want to take advantage of these new innovations. I call this the “us generation.”

“Productizing” Your Services

The most trusted advisor uses accountant-centric tools and “productizes his or her services using those tools.

What do I mean by “productizing” your services? Instead of just recommending products clients will purchase and use themselves, in the new paradigm, accountants will purchase and use software solutions that help them deliver their services to clients. When you think of providing accounting services to clients, think “outservice” as opposed to “outsource.”

By reimagining your business model and reengineering your business practices to leverage new technologies and tools, you can create not only a great business today, but a sustainable business for the future. The fact is, after 30 years of client-centric systems, a majority of businesses still want their accountant to “just handle” the accounting. That was really difficult before the Internet, because accountants couldn’t reach the data without “asking” the client for access. In addition, having 24/7 access finally allows us to provide advisory services as well as outservicing the bookkeeping and accounting. Advisory services are the Holy Grail for accountants. The compliance is necessary, but the advisory services are what clients really want from their accountant.

Specialize for Success

When thinking about the types of businesses you’ll serve, there is no doubt that specialization is becoming highly desirable by clients, if not required. The reason this makes sense is that if you’re to provide deeper levels of services, and become more involved in each client’s business processes, you’ll need to understand the unique issues for their industry in general, and the unique issues that are specific to the client’s business.Specialize for success

In our “What SMBs Want in 2014 Survey,” we asked business owners if they want their accountant to be a specialist in the SMB’s industry. In 2013, 53% said they require or prefer this, but that number increased to 62% in 2014.

Agility Trumps Ability

Although specialization allows accountants to focus in on fewer tools and processes, success in the new world will demand that you’re flexible and agile with regard to learning and using new tools. There’s almost no way to legislate the same tools for all of your clients. You’ll need to work with many tools and be willing to learn and use new ones as they’re developed. More than ever, the most successful accountants will invest heavily in continuing education on technology.

Commit and Act

Commit and actFinally, the key to making it happen for you is to simply start down the path toward becoming your clients’ most trusted advisor – the one they seek out for advice, not only for the debits, credits, and taxes, but for the strategic planning advice they desperately need. You won’t get there overnight, but real change starts with commitment, followed by action.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how to dive deep with your clients, as well as the importance of building trust and leading your clients to success.


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About the author

Doug Sleeter

DougSleeter (@dougsleeter) is the founder and former CEO of The Sleeter Group, an international network of accounting software consultants, and the former producer of SleeterCon, an annual conference and tradeshow for accounting professionals.

In 2015, he sold The Sleeter Group to Diversified Communications (www.divcom.com) and the company has since become The Accountex Network.

He is a passionate leader of innovation and change in the small business accounting technology world. As a CPA firm veteran and former Apple Computer Evangelist, he melded his two great passions (accounting and technology) to guide developers in the innovation of new products and to educate and lead accounting professionals who serve small businesses.

Always in search of the next big thing, he is currently focusing on digital currencies and blockchain technology. He believes these technologies will change virtually everything in global commerce.

The CPA Practice Advisor recognized Doug as one of the "Top 25 Thought Leaders" in the accounting profession and he has been named to Accounting Today's "Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting" each year 2008 through 2015. In 2013, he was recognized by Small Business Trends with the Small Business Influence Champion award.

In the early 1990s, Doug was a pioneer in developing the first QuickBooks seminars in the country and has since built the largest group of accounting software consultants in the small business accounting profession. Doug serves on several advisory boards for technology companies and has consulted with numerous industry leaders including Intuit, Sage, Apple, and Adobe Systems. 

Doug is the author of numerous books and courseware materials including The QuickBooks Consultant’s Reference Guide, and QuickBooks Complete, a college textbook.
 
Doug attended both the University of California Santa Cruz and Santa Clara University and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Information Systems. Doug and his family live in Pleasanton, CA. Doug's hobbies include woodworking, golf, and lifelong learning.

11 Comments

  • The above content sounds very “Tony Robbins” centered on generalized language and simply ‘missing the mark’ on the keys and or approaches to become the “the most trusted advisor” to SMBs today. The context that matters is today anyone can go on Elance, Odesk or lots of places and secure a bonafied Intuit QB Pro Advisor for less than the minimum wage today in Connecticut and Illinois, $8/hour – the entire world understands “the internet is the ultimate mainframe” too – it cuts both ways for the American accountant. A few years ago the AICPA started administering certification exams in foreign countries, certifying and awarding American CPA credentials and all the authority & empowerment they come with (signing off on audits, corporate returns, etc) to foreigners. The result? An AICPA credentialed CPA can be had @ $15/hour. The point is there are no more ‘barriers to entry’ for the credentials that distinguished the American accountant to secure and live off the fat of the land.

    There are versions of Sleeter & Root emerging in Pakistan and India and they’re bidding and competing to be your American SMBs “most trusted advisor” too and offering your American SMB expertise in the Australian Biztools Analytics that’s been repeatedly heralded here at Sleeter.

    The glaring omission above is the word “education”. That’s the path to becoming “most trusted advisor” to a SMB today…continued education. That stakes have been raised, the technology driving the decisions is big data and the accountant today has to be a data analyst/scientist or a CFA to be “most trusted advisor”. You know this is consistent with the entire future of business as Brad Smith and Inuit see it. Intuit is “all in” with declaring big data and the ability to analyze, and formulate decisions from it will drive small business going forward. This is not accounting work or CPA work. This is the stuff of data scientist & CFAs who can work with the tools from Level Up, Bison Analytics, InsightSquared, Biztools etc.

    “Most Trusted Advisor” going forward to the SMB is an analytical tool and the ability to work with it. That’s not necessarily at all an accountant. Historically this was the exclusive domain of large corporations, Wall St, etc. But now – these tools are within reach of the SMB and they will serve the SMB as they have Large Corps and Wall St – that’s what Intuit saying and acting on.

    Brad Smith was asked “What keeps you up at night”? It’s not Xero, or any company or product in the market, he said “it’s not what I can see….it’s what I can’t see….it’s the kid thinking outside the box in a garage or dorm room somewhere” (paraphrasing). It’s the situation for the aspiring “Most Trusted Advisor”. You may not see it Mr. Sleeter but there are kids in dorms all over the world mastering analytical tools preparing to team up with credentialed CPAs and Certified Xero/QB etc people and planning on becoming the most trusted advisor to the American SMB, all from Banglore.

  • “Advisory services are the Holy Grail for accountants. The compliance is necessary, but the advisory services are what clients really want from their accountant.”
    and
    “You won’t get there overnight, but real change starts with commitment, followed by action.”
    – pretty much says it all I think.

  • Thomas,
    I don’t understand the context or reference here to our company or our products.
    “… too and offering your American SMB expertise in the Australian BizTools Analytics…”

    Can you clarify?

    John Power
    CEO
    BizTools

    • The context is credentialed QB-focused BPO abounds the globe & can serve American SMBs as their Most Trusted Advisor – due to Most Trusted Advisor being the analytical tool.

      I referenced BizTools because it was featured on Sleeter days earlier thus readers would have familiarity and understand my point, conceptually. I could have just as easily referenced Bison Analytics or Insightsquared, it would have been just as fitting of the point, but not as familiar. Not everyone knows these companies also have financial analytical tools for the Quickbooks user.

      Mentioning your Australian further demonstrates SMBs should not be deterred that their BPO provider, their Most Trusted Advisor, too could be foreign to them.

      When Mr. Sleeter says, “The most trusted advisor uses accountant-centric tools and “productizes” his or her services using those tools”, he’s right. But what he’s not speaking to is this can be accomplished by a company in Pakistan or anywhere (using BizTools or Insightquared to deliver the product) and though he characterizes them as “accountant-centric”, these are tools for data scientist and CFAs that in many cases marginalize the accountant in whole. I’ve previously illustrated on Sleeter where Insightsquared promotes as a value point that the accountant and their traditional work can be bypassed entirely in getting your financial reports (with their QB-F/A software).

      The next wave in QB BPO is F/A & reporting for QB users. An example would be a BPO company called InteleANTS.
      http://www.inteleants.com/data-analysis-reporting.html
      I’ve heard in 2014 they’ll be offering a BPO F/A & Reporting service to QB users. A lot of these BPO are gearing up for this service. I have no idea who’s tools they’re using but note how they also provide the full range of SMB management of Amazon Stores and all that it encompasses on a F/A & Reporting level. This is what the American accountant aspiring to be “most trusted advisor” is competing with.

      • Hi Thomas, I’m the CEO of Bison Analytics. We do not advertise that accountants are no longer needed. Analytics and real business intelligence is difficult. It is not served well by cookie-cutter widgets and reports that don’t answer the specific questions executives are asking. Normally when a company needs a real business intelligence solution, they need assistance with it. It’s not so much the tool they need help with. Creating useful analytic reports and “entry-points” requires a lot of knowledge about business and accounting that only comes from real experience. It doesn’t come from cramming for an exam. The company’s accountant is the obvious person to assist them with analytics if the accountant understands business intelligence and analytics. We love to work with accountants and believe that without an engaged and intelligent analyst, whether internal or external to the organization, any business intelligence initiative will fail. Analytics is the perfect place for accountants to become the “trusted advisor”. Take heart. The technically savvy accountant has a bright future in analytics with a little bit of elbow-grease. I’m committed to that future.

  • Thanks for the clarification Thomas.

    I had taken it to mean that you were saying that people or organizations in India or Pakistan were providing services using our software or that we have some commercial relationships with resources from that region. That is not the case.

    On other points, at least in the general sense or on the balance of probabilities, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think I understand your perspective but mine differs significantly.

    Doug and other industry thought leaders often refer to accountants as being “the most trusted advisor”. It is axiomatic that accountants are highly trusted by their SMB clients as demonstrated by the fact that business owners routinely hand over their confidential personal and financial information. As to what extent their “Advisor” tag is justified, this varies greatly. There is a generally accepted gap between the range of services most accountants offer and the needs & wants of their SMB clients. To put that in “mathematical” terms, “Trusted” is a necessary but insufficient condition to being a “Trusted Advisor”.

    I question whether the average, typical SMB (US based or otherwise) would knowingly and routinely entrust their most confidential information to advisors located outside their home country despite being aware of a trend by some accounting firms to offshore basic compliance related tasks such as simple tax returns.

    So the opportunity for both vendors like BizTools and accountants (or ProAdvisors in many cases) as I see it is to close the gap and serve SMBs better. How we (as a software vendor) seek to participate is by equipping accountants and the like with SOLUTIONS that enable them to cost effectively deliver data driven advisory services directly to their SMB clients that would otherwise be impractical for reasons of time, cost and complexity. To be clear, at BizTools, we do not think it is viable or indeed appropriate that we should ever directly offer services of this nature.

    In our case (I cannot comment as to the other vendors you mention) our solutions are just that – Solutions – not raw technologies or tool kits intended for use by the top (very few) percent of business analysts that can legitimately lay claim to being a Data Scientist or Chartered Financial Analyst. Our solutions are designed for “non-technical users” meaning accountants, CFOs, SMB owners, ProAdvisors whose skills do not extend to SQL or MDX query development, ETL methodologies, meta-data modelling, data-mining, statistical analysis or technologies normally associated with “Big Data” such as Hadoop. The point being that much of our significant R&D efforts over the last few years have focused on making sure that to be a “trusted advisor” does not require that one needs to be a Data Scientist, CFA, Quant or a developer to get the job done and be able to deliver valuable, real world business advice to SMB clients. That’s the thing we solve for – in almost all cases, Accountants have already met the “Trusted” criterion…they don’t need our help with that.

    Regards
    John

    • >I question whether the average, typical SMB (US based or otherwise) would knowingly and routinely entrust their most confidential information to advisors located outside their home country– in almost all cases, Accountants have already met the “Trusted” criterion…they don’t need our help with that.<

      True, they just need your help getting your software installed on their desktop computer, so we read on Sleeter. But it sounds like you have it all figured out, bravo!

      • Thanks Thomas, yes we’ve figured out & automated all the hard/important stuff regarding installation (to be supplemented by 24/7 online resources) but as Charlie says, some customers will prefer to take up the nominal fixed fee service and we’ll do it all for them along with a little head-start training.

        John

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