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.

6 Responses to “Expectations Gap: What Small Business Owners Really Want From Their Accountants”

  1. John Power

    Joanie, Bob, we’d certainly agree with both of you at BizTools. Here’s a post I wrote a while ago for Michelle Long’s – Long for Success Blog. To learn a little more about our multi-dimensional analytics solutions for CPAs working with QuickBooks , visit here http://www.sleeter.com/awesomeaddons/vote?13 then follow the links.

  2. Frank Stitely

    I love this survey because it highlights some real shortcomings in our profession’s view of what clients want. However, I can’t help wondering if there is a gap between what clients say they want and what they’ll pay for.

    • Joanie Mann

      Frank, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There is a GAaP(sorry about the pun!) between what clients want and what they’ll pay for… often because they don’t know what to call it. Data entry and bookkeeping doesn’t sound exciting, and it has a low “perceived value”. It’s the result of the data, and the picture it paints about the business that matters, and that’s what clients want to know and will pay for. They just don’t know how to ask. They don’t necessarily know what they need to know, and telling them about faw numbers doesn’t cut it.

  3. William B McAllister, CPA

    I am a sole practitioner who is and always has been way ahead of the profession regarding technology and the desire to provide better service to the mom and pop business. We need to serve clients by teaching them how to use the technology in the most effective manner while integrating the operations and monitoring of the benefits and costs of the technology in a manner that will allow the business to grow one job at a time.

  4. joanie mann

    Accounting Professionals, You’re right – your clients don’t care about the numbers.

    What your clients care about is how they’re doing, and if they’re on the right path. Are you helping them understand that, or are you just the guy who works with the numbers to make sure they’re accurate?

    Accounting professionals are having a hard time of it right now, with clients demanding more insight and assistance in helping to build value and profitability in their businesses, yet accounting professionals continue to be mired in the details of the numbers. It’s like the old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees.


    • Bob Woosley

      Joanie…..you are so right!! As CPAs we are in a unique position to add value to the entrepreneurial decision making process of our clients. It’s crazy for accountants to not provide insights on the financial trends of a business. Clients believe we should provide perspective, but as a profession we stay stuck in preparing information and verifying accuracy. There is technology that can easily trend and analyze client financial information so an accountant can finally get in the game of really being a trusted advisor. Check out http://www.ilumen.com