Practice Management

The Importance of Redefining Bookkeeper

Written by Ingrid Edstrom

Today, if you Google “bookkeeper definition,” this is what you will find:

A bookkeeper (or book-keeper) is a person who records the day-to-day financial transactions of a business. He or she is usually responsible for writing the daybooks, which contain records of purchases, sales, receipts, and payments. That definition is no longer correct.

Ingrid Edstrom will be presenting the session, Redefining Bookkeeper for Today and Tomorrow, at Accountex 2016.

Words change over time in any language based upon the use and understanding of the population using them. Take the word “nice,” for example. Long ago this word was synonymous with “silly” or “stupid,” as it comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant.

The New Bookkeeper Reality

The very definition of the term “bookkeeper” has changed dramatically in the last decade, due to the influence of new technologies and the shift toward cloud solutions. We are now experiencing some of the biggest changes in the accounting profession since Luca Pacioli, a colleague of Leonardo da Vinci, invented double entry bookkeeping over 500 years ago.

For as long as we can remember, bookkeepers have been the “bean counters.” Whether on paper or in software, we make sure that every transaction is recorded in the books, and then we verify through reconciliation that everything is correct. If something is off, we go back into the detail and find the issue.

Now… we have an app for that. Many of them, in fact.

We have a handful of colleagues in denial about these changes. They seem to think that if they continue to work harder doing the same routines they’ve been doing, things are bound to improve. More clients and more hours mean more money, right? For me this brings to mind Daniel Quinn’s analogy, from his book Ishmael, about the aeronaut in the early airplane prototype: “We must have faith in our craft. After all, it has brought us this far in safety. What’s ahead isn’t doom, it’s just a little hump that we can clear if we all just pedal a little harder. Then we’ll soar into a glorious, endless future….”

If you “pedal harder” things have to improve, right? Wrong. The wind in your face is not from flying, it’s because your freefall has hit terminal velocity. Yes, you may be moving forward a little, but you’re losing altitude quickly.

Albert Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Charging an hourly rate to do things in a way that technology has rendered obsolete is a losing battle, and no amount of “pedaling harder” will gain altitude at this point. Something needs to change, and, as a result, many bookkeepers have changed.

Embracing the Transition

While a number of accounting professionals resist the adoption of new technologies and the shift to the cloud, an overwhelming number of accountants and bookkeepers are readily adopting these advances, saving themselves and their clients quite a lot of time and money, and greatly increasing the value of the services they provide to their clients. Bookkeeping is now a highly specialized profession that requires an amazing combination of tech-savvy, business acumen, and people skills. The role of bookkeeper has gone from that of recorder and “bean counter” to a role of expert and trusted advisor.

While these changes make this an exciting and lucrative time to be a bookkeeper, there are also some difficulties inherent in this transition. Apart from the obvious challenge of keeping up with a staggering wealth of technological advances, bookkeepers are experiencing a sort of identity crisis.

The term “bookkeeper” has been diminished over the years, and it’s become a title that many have difficulty being proud of, as they feel it does not do justice to their professional skill and experience, not to mention the years of work it took to get there. Many see the bookkeeper as a “data entry technician,” arguing that it is an entry-level position that anyone can do. Others feel that the bookkeeper has been completely replaced by technology, following the Wall Street Journal article, “The New Bookkeeper is a Robot.” The generic term “bookkeeper” currently has a dictionary definition that no longer fits the profession as a whole. It follows us everywhere, and it is no longer working in our best interest or the interest of our clients. In response, many bookkeeping professionals have started to claim other titles.

Am I a bookkeeper? Am I a controller? A CFO? A consultant or coach? The lines between many of these roles have started to blur, especially as entrepreneurs of smaller and smaller businesses have started to recognize the value of having a solid advisory team in their court, bringing on management accounting professionals that can help them with their business strategy, rather than just financial compliance. Many accounting professionals have started to coin and use new terms for their services in an effort to differentiate and specialize, following the idea that the “riches are in the niches.”

How Do We Market Ourselves Now?

The problem we are now encountering is one of language in marketing. A change in terms is very confusing to our audience. I have a lot of friends who have chosen new names for themselves over the years, reinventing themselves each time they have a personal breakthrough. If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, you can look it up in the Jaded Review‘s “Guide to Hippie Watching in North America.” While they put an amusing and satirical spin on the concept, it is a very real thing. I have a heck of a time remembering the new chosen name of an acquaintance, as that person’s identity and the label that goes with them gets ingrained in my patterns. As a result, we can lose some of the connection we had in the transition.

Marketing is all about communication, and communication is about connecting with others, particularly our colleagues and our clients. While I love some of the wonderful new titles being bandied about, when it comes to our marketing, we have a bit of an issue adopting new language. I hate to break it to you, but the owners of the SMBs that are looking for us aren’t searching on Google for “freelance CFO” or “cloud accountant.” They’re searching for “Bookkeeper.” If we leave “bookkeeper” behind, we also leave behind any potential client who didn’t get the Facebook update about our name change, and we risk alienating them.

The truth is we need both, at least for the time being. We need the generic term that can be accepted and understood across our profession as a whole, as well as specialist terms that differentiate each of our professional niches. Without generally accepted terms across our profession, people have a difficult time understanding what we do and why.

Those of us who have chosen to keep up with the technology and lead the revolution know that the bookkeeper is not going extinct. Quite the opposite: We are evolving.

Adapt and Evolve

Now a quick tangent; I have a confession to make. I don’t have a degree in accounting or business. My college degree is in biology, more specifically vertebrate zoology and animal behavior. Nonetheless, I have one of those brains that eats double-entry bookkeeping for breakfast. QuickBooks is my favorite video game, and I’m a bookkeeping nerd through and through. It is not, however, my only love. I really enjoy putting my cognitive paramours together in a room in my brain to see what discussions arise. This is where it gets really cool.

In Charles Darwin’s research on evolution, he discovered how the beak of Galapagos finches would change dramatically over just a couple of generations based upon the environmental conditions on the islands. As the finch changes and adapts to be able to crack nuts and seeds of different size and hardness, does that make it no longer a finch? No. It is the same animal, evolved and specialized into new species or sub-species.

In biology we call this Adaptive Radiation. Organisms can diversify from an ancestral species very rapidly when the environment changes. These changes create new niches based upon the resources and challenges now present.

About the author

Ingrid Edstrom

Ingrid Edstrom is a self-described bookkeeping nerd, and CEO of Polymath LLC in Ashland, Oregon. Polymath's vision is to make the world a better place, built on a foundation of thriving small businesses. Ingrid loves doing this by taking topics that most business owners put on a scale from boring to terrifying and turning them into a fun and rewarding part of entrepreneurship. One of her favorite ways to do this is through the AskABookkeeper.com puppet show and other videos at Polymath.com.

10 Comments

  • Ingrid,

    Great article with some very valid points. I can’t agree with you more that the bookkeeper has been redefined. Many old school accountants feel threatened by technology because they fear it will replace them. So rather than adopting new technologies to add value to their clients they fight it, and as you say try and pedal harder. Those accountants will become extinct and go the way of the dinosaur. Harness technology, add value to your clients, and thrive.
    I wrote a similar article to this titled “Will Accountants Be Needed In The Future?” I linked it to my name so you can read it if you like. Clearly the answer to my question is yes, but accountants will have to make some crucial pivots to stay relevant.

  • Hi Ingrid, I agree with your points here that bookkeepers are evolving. I’ve even tried to think of more appropriate words, terms, and phrases to replace “bookkeeper” (see the linked article for some), but your idea to replace the definition might be simpler!

  • I can’t stand to be called a “bookkeeper”
    I’m a degreed accountant. In my mind when I hear “bookkeeper” I think of high school education or possibly an associates.
    Better than the time I was at a clients offices and had to go into a meeting he was having with some investors and as I walked away one of them asked the client if his “secretary” could bring in some coffee. My client VERY quickly corrected the guy that I was his accountant….. might have had something to do with the fact that my head swiveled around like Linda Blair and the filthy look the investor got.

  • A bookkeeper’s responsibilities as getting the business transactions into the company’s general ledger. This involves a tremendous amount of accuracy and persistence in first getting the information and then getting it entered.

  • I love this article and am excited about the changes in the bookkeeping profession. I feel confident that as more and more people become aware of the professional certifications available, that clients will be looking for accredited bookkeepers instead of the “craigslist ad” types.

  • Ingrid, great article with some very effective facts. I can’t agree with you more that the bookkeeping has completely change. The future seems to be pointing to outsourcing all your financial responsibilities for example bookkeeping, payroll and human resources. In the end of the day it’s cheaper then hiring a full time accountant.

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