Expectations Gap: What Small Business Owners Really Want From Their Accountants

sleeter logo v2Clients find accountants' tech skills lacking.
By Rick Telberg
CPA Trendlines

As small and medium-sized businesses move increasingly online and adopt technologically integrated accounting systems, many tax and accounting firms will need to evolve or face extinction, according to a Sleeter Group survey.

To be sure, business clients are mostly happy with their accountants. But when they need help integrating their accounting and business information systems, most don't even think of asking their accountant for help. And when they do, many say their accountants just give them the brush-off.

Is your accountant ahead of the curve on technology, or behind?

Source: Sleeter Group

In fact, only 15% of clients even think that their accountants are tech-savvy enough to ask for advice. The rest say their accountants are keeping current, falling behind, or don't know.

"The profession needs to hear what clients are saying," says Doug Sleeter, founder and CEO of The Sleeter Group, best-known for its QuickBooks training, and the author of the study with the involvement of CPA2Biz, the American Institute of CPAs marketing unit, and Emergent Research, which maintains a long relationship with Intuit. Clients "don’t think their accountant can or wants to provide technology planning advice."

The study is based on a survey of 160 small and mid-sized business owners with outside accountants, averaging about 50 employees each and revenues up to $1 million.

It argues for a five-point action plan for accounting firms:

  1. If you’re mainly in the compliance services business, move towards higher value added services such as strategic business, tax, and financial planning.
  2.  Educate your staff on new technologies and adopt a set of recommended products for your clients.
  3. Develop skills to connect systems together from multiple vendors.
  4. Use and recommend collaborative accounting technologies to broaden and deepen your client engagements.
  5. Be proactive with engaging your clients in strategic technology planning.

"The new world creates new business process complexities for SMBs that they are not equipped to handle alone," according to Sleeter. "When an SMB starts selling online, taking credit cards, or streamlining their paperless workflows, they often don’t have the expertise needed to evaluate options and integrate the chunks to create an efficient business system."

"For accountants who stick to financial statement and tax preparation services, the dramatic improvements in technology will continue to commoditize those services," Sleeter says, citing payroll and sales tax service, which "have become not much more than pressing the submit button on the software product."

There are lessons, too, for technology vendors. First, they should give up on trying to turn CPAs into resellers. That's not what small businesses want from their accountants. Instead, they should:

  1. Understand that the fastest road to success is to partner with CPAs who provide the “last mile” of customer service.
  2. Provide education and tools for accountants.
  3. Engage accountants as partners who are critical to driving ultimate client success.
  4. Make their products “play well with others” so that accountants and clients can connect one application to other applications and services.

Most clients do, indeed, want their accountant's help in planning and implementing technology changes. But just as many also say their accountant doesn't even want to talk about it.

In fact, 51% of clients would "never" ask their accountant for technology planning services. Only 18% answered "usually" or "always."

The gaps between what clients need and what accountants are delivering are huge. But then, so are the opportunities for the accounting firms that can separate themselves from the pack.