The 11-step plan to winning the war against accounting "bots."
By Hitendra Patil
Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the fear that automation and artificial intelligence will replace accountants with robots is rapidly gaining mass and momentum in the accounting profession.
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But accounting is one profession that has always adapted to technological and regulatory evolution over a long period. I am sure accountants will ride the new, so-called fire-spitting-jobs-guzzling automation dragon within no time.
But first, let's think about the underground shift that will happen because of the automation in accounting. Why will automation mean more business for accountants?
Technology has been capturing accounting-related knowledge in the software codes – so much so that a small business owner with no formal accounting education or training could buy off-the-shelf accounting software and (try to) do their accounting on their own.
But with the advent of automation technologies, even the largest selling accounting software companies are (now indirectly) admitting that there are "coding mistakes" that business owners make. Accountants call it "the messy books."
I speak with accountants day in, day out. When asked why small business owners do their own bookkeeping, accountants mostly tell me one common reason: "They want to avoid the cost of bookkeeping." But those small business owners, more often than not, ultimately have to pay for fixing the errors. And they don't like to pay those costs. It feels like punishment and penalty for trying to save some of their hard-earned money.
But now automation is priming to take care of most of the repetitive, data-intensive tasks – mostly related to cash management such as deposits and withdrawals input – that small business owners were doing themselves. It will soon be time that business owners will feel that they are freed up from those tasks, so much so that they will not find enough justification to use (access) the accounting software themselves. They would rather have accountants take care of the actual "accounting" while automation takes care of most of the work of "creation of books."
The accounting business will shift back to accountants – provided accountants are ahead of the automation curve.
Here's how to fly the automation dragon to your dream practice:
1. Review your clients' industries and professions.
Yes, automation will need to benefit your practice, but it is your clients who will need to benefit from it first. Hence, first summarize the mix of your clientele. You'll want to research if and how much is automation affecting them. Those are the "stealth" threats to accountants.
Why? For example, if your top clients' industries are experiencing automation and integration of their business systems and financial software, suddenly, accountants will see far fewer transactions to be entered into the accounting software. As an accountant, you should take a proactive step to make your clients aware of such automation possibilities. They will find out sooner or later. But if you tell them, they will trust you much more, as it will demonstrate that you genuinely have their interest in your mind. It also gives you the time you need to prepare for the impact of automation in your clients' industries on your practice.
2. Review your revenue mix.
Calculate how much each of your service types contributes to your revenue. You're looking for the repetitive, data-intensive processes at your firm. Big Four firms are already re-engineering their audit and assurance services for the day when blockchain technologies can automate audits. These repetitive, data-intensive processes are your top opportunities for automation – or they could be the top threat if you don't automate them. Augmented by automation, you will be able to serve more clients with your existing resources. Economies of scale will reduce costs, while you hold the line on pricing.
3. Identify "hand-offs" elements in each process.
Each of your services has a process where data, documents and information changes hands. Each of these hand-offs can potentially be affected by automation. First, examine how data flows from clients to your firm. Then, how it moves within your firm – from one staff member to another, and to partners, and finally, from your firm back to clients. Identify which of these hand-offs are technology-driven rather than by human cognition and communication.
4. Don't restrict yourself to "accounting."
Yes, accounting software automation will have an impact. But you want to ensure that automation opportunities in marketing, sales, human resources and workflow are not overlooked. Start with a list of software that you currently use, or might want to use in the future, for every touch point with your clients. See if there are automation opportunities in such interactions with your clients. Keep track of automation features in your chosen accounting software – and that used by your clients – as they roll out. Get familiar with the new automation features. Adapt your internal processes at your firm to leverage these new automation features. Analyze the impact on process steps, time
Keep track of automation features in your chosen accounting software – and that used by your clients – as they roll out. Get familiar with the new automation features. Adapt your internal processes at your firm to leverage these new automation features. Analyze the impact on process steps, time taken to complete the tasks, cost, etc. But, again, don't restrict your focus to the automation features in your accounting software. You can integrate other solutions to create even more comprehensive, more powerful automated processes at your firm.
5. Inspire your team.
Once you clearly identify the impacts of automation, you'll want to involve those whose day-to-day work will get transformed by automation. Those employees may be frightened. They could resist your automation initiatives.
So you'll need to show them how their roles and responsibilities will be enhanced and strengthened by automation. In effect, they'll get a new personal assistant. You can tell them what you will do to retrain them to be able to deliver on their new responsibilities. Identify the skill sets they will require to develop in their new roles – and start training them on those skill sets now. Their task-level proximity also gives them better insights on what is repetitive so seek input from them on process-task level automation opportunities.
6. Look for relevant technology solutions.
Do NOT start with a technology solution and then change your processes accordingly. It can cause chaos. You'd prefer to find solutions that more or less fit your current and future business processes. In other words, ride the automation dragon and drive it to the results you want.
Given the fact that most of your competitors use similar software and technology that produces similar reports, it is your proprietary processes that give you the competitive edge. Do not let technology standardize you. If that happens, you'll look and feel indistinguishable from your competition.
7. Define target outcomes and timelines.
Obviously, all of these efforts will have an impact on several key areas of your practice: Cost. Revenue per employee. The number of clients serviced per employee. Profitability.
Think of what the picture will look like once you implement automation. Write down that "future balance sheet" of your own firm. Make assumptions. You do not have to be precise or accurate. It will still give you a direction and some metrics. Also, define your timeline to achieve significant milestones in the automation journey – with quarterly milestones. Don't go too far into the future regarding that giant result because automation technologies themselves are evolving. You want to ride them at an appropriate time. But you don't want to wait until everyone else has already done it. Quarterly milestones give you opportunities for measuring, refining, re-measuring and maKING adjustments while you are on your automation journey.
Also, define your timeline to achieve significant milestones in the automation journey – with quarterly milestones. Don't go too far into the future regarding that giant result because automation technologies themselves are evolving. You want to ride them at an appropriate time. But you don't want to wait until everyone else has already done it. Quarterly milestones give you opportunities for measuring, refining, remeasuring and making adjustments while you are on your automation journey.
8. Define your new value.
Your pricing may or may not need to change, but the experience of your clients will change. They may get their deliverables much faster. They may get new insights from you. They may get new services from you.
In other words, your value – as experienced by your clients – will change. You'll want to repackage your service offerings – and, if need be, your pricing. You'll want to change your website, your marketing materials, your sales email templates, your presentations to prospects and so on. Spread the word on social media. (You can automate your social media posts too.) One of the best ways to understand and exhibit your new value is to create a "before and after" contrast document.
9. Augment your marketing and sales.
Automation does things faster and cheaper. It will free up time for your resources. You'll want to increase your revenue and profitability by increasing the number of clients and the number of client projects you work on. You'll want to do all you can to augment your marketing and sales to bring in new clients and projects. Give your marketing and sales the "new value" to message it into your target market and audience.
10. Start with priorities.
If you force too many changes at the same time, it will be overwhelming for your team, and for your clients too, not to mention the impact on costs and timelines. Pick your service types and processes to automate based on priority. Also, pick a few clients to be the first to get your new automated processes. These clients will be your progressive, ambitious, tech-savvy, truly entrepreneurial clients. You may want to give them incentives to participate wholeheartedly in your automation journey.
11. Keep everyone informed, frequently.
As you go along, keep measuring progress and refining your processes. Keep your clients, your staff and partners informed of the current status as well as the immediate next steps. You might want to automate even your communication systems – including implementation of a drip email software.
That's not the end.
On the contrary, it is the beginning. It is the beginning of your transformed practice that will create new value for clients and staff.
Every firm’s business situation, technology mix, client mix, services mix and staffing situation is different. And it will need a customized approach. But to fly a dragon, the first step is to want to fly a dragon.
Automation might feel like a dragon till you actually fly it. Once you are on top of it, it will feel like business as usual.