As compliance services have become commoditised and cloud-based, bookkeeping and accounting technology have led to margins becoming squeezed. Accountancy firms have had to start to consider how they will build more sustainable and profitable businesses in the future.
Many accountants have been providing advisory services for years, just not in a way that has enabled them to become embedded in the client relationship and generate revenue streams for this type of work. In fact, many will have been providing consultancy support to their clients for free, alongside their compliance services.
It’s time for change. It’s time for accountancy firms to start delivering real value at a realistic price point and making sure their clients are able to realise the benefits of this advice. To do this requires a combination of two things: building the right tools and capabilities within the firm; and changing the mindset of clients, by engaging with them in the right way, as Mike Dean, Managing Director, WhisperClaims, and Richard Brewin, Joint Managing Director, ProgressBB, outline.
Why advisory? Why now?
Advisory is the reason why many accountants become accountants: to help, to make a difference, to change things for the better. Advisory services are the way in which they deliver expertise, advice, knowledge and support in a more structured and effective way than intermittent advice.
Today, advisory matters more than ever for two reasons. On the one hand, digitalisation is disrupting accounting’s traditional markets of compliance and bookkeeping by introducing more competition and less reliance on traditional accounting skills. Accountants need to demonstrate their value in other ways, and advisory—delivered with the human traits of trust, empathy and understanding—is the way to differentiate from the digital world.
On the other, external forces—political, economic and social—mean that business owners have to be smarter than ever in running their businesses. This is a turning point for accountants who want to deliver change through their advice and services. The message has never been clearer: clients can no longer afford to mismanage their businesses and ignore the advice of their accountant.
That said, changing behaviour is difficult for us all, especially if it is entrenched in long term relationships. To change client behaviour, firms have to recognise that this starts with them and with their teams. Where tech is being used as a driver of client change, it’s important to recognise that this first starts in-house. Partners and team members need to buy into the strategy for the business first, then the software and the use of it.
There are four key elements to embedding behavioural change:
- Ensure training for the new technology as well as clarity on its place in the business’ strategy;
- Ensure appropriate support for users by working closely with the software supplier;
- Build and stick to a systematic communication schedule, forcing interaction regardless of the preconceived need by the client. Never assume what a client is or isn’t thinking;
- Adopt new ways of communicating with clients. Short burst Zoom calls for 10-15 minutes for a catch-up, simply to find something that needs further discussion, on the back of which the team would set up a specific meeting.
This will help build much stronger working relationships with clients, with touchpoints becoming more frequent and much more purposeful. As well as significantly improving efficiency, in the specific case of R&D tax, there is the opportunity to deliver huge value to clients, with a genuine cash benefit in working together.
Timely and demonstrable
Accountants have to change the client conversation. They have to move clients away from just seeing them as compliance people offering the occasional piece of free advice. Instead, accountants need to become valued advisors, viewed as critical to the success of their clients.
Today, there is an opportunity to achieve this like never before. With access through cloud accounting to real-time information and many apps at hand, firms can analyse and demonstrate key points to the client very quickly. And, it’s these apps that are the advisory key.
Using clients’ accounting information and best-of-breed R&D tax claims apps, for example, an accountant can quickly show them the potential, viability and value for an R&D tax credit in their business and, as importantly, demonstrate a quick way to deliver it.
Accountants have always been able to give great advice, just not quick enough, tangible enough or relevant at the right time to the client. That has now changed.
R&D tax is a great example of an advisory service that has until recently been seen by many accountancy firms as a niche area, requiring specialist knowledge and as such requiring either dedicated internal resources or, more often, being outsourced to third party specialist providers. Fearing HMRC enquiries or perhaps just concerned about the amount of time it will take to get up to speed on a specific area of tax legislation, it has perhaps been easy to avoid getting into this market.
Yet, it’s a perfect example of how technology can help overcome fears and provide accountancy firms with a platform not just to explore a specific area of business advice but, once the door is open, explore many more aspects of your client’s business.
Advisory services are rapidly becoming a business imperative for accountancy firms. Moreover, with access to the right tools and capabilities, combined with the right support in helping to engage staff and clients in the right way, there is no longer a reason to hold back.
Mike Dean, managing director of WhisperClaims and Richard Brewin, joint managing director, ProgressBB