Amid the questions surrounding accounting firms on how to be more than they’ve traditionally been to meet both client demand and increasing competition, industry experts such as Doug Sleeter are lending an ear and offering advice.
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Sleeter, long an advocate for Intuit QuickBooks through he and his wife Sherrill’s eponymous group, has undergone an evolution as well by choosing to enlighten small business consultants and their respective clients on the changing technological landscape; which for the most part involves products and services outside of those offered by Intuit.
In this one-on-one interview, we discuss the paradigm shift that has been occurring in business technology -- mainly from on-premises solutions to those more cloud-based and mobile -- and how accounting professionals can best take advantage of the current environment and not, as he states “get left behind.”
AT: Why should accounting firms be more concerned about the changes in business technologies, and technology in general?
Sleeter: As this new world takes hold, it allows small businesses to collaboratively work with their accounting firms. The cloud-based, centralized data concepts, allow accountants to do more of what they do well, while simultaneously allowing business owners and bookkeepers to focus less on accounting and more on running the business.
If we go back, the last 20 years [of consulting] have been about helping accountants how to deal with QuickBooks; cleaning up client files, etc. Now it’s a whole new world of talking collaboration and the ability to touch their data anytime throughout the year. There are new skills we need to develop as accountants, they can now look at how business processes work and think about the clients’ business rather than just financial statements and tax. Technology is available today to help them do that, but lots of firms will be left behind if they don’t start thinking this way.
AT: Why do you feel accountants are well positioned to be more of a business consultant than just focusing on tax and compliance?
Sleeter: There is no better prepared professional than the accountant to help the small business identify their business processes that need to be made more efficient. IT pros and technology consultants typically go in and set things up and while they are still important, they tend to run out of gas when they are asked to set up an integrated accounting system. They can do bits and bytes, not debits and credits and this is where an accountant can come in. The depth of the relationship between firm and client can grow by 1,000 percent. I’m not saying stop doing compliance work, but the firm or department of a firm that can do all of the above will grow exponentially. The time is right to do that now.
AT: How does an accounting firm help lead change inside the firm and with clients?
Sleeter: You identify the early adopters[in your firm],find out who they are. They are willing to put up with the issues, bugs, etc. on products and they can help get a firm started on newer technologies that can help the firm. As for your clients, you need to lead them, tell them this is how we will do business together rather than asking what they want you to do. As accountants, we serve, we are analytical and we’re not salespeople so we need to get comfortable leading clients to where they ought to go.
Also, if you are not willing to fire all clients that won’t come with you as you change, you will find that there’s nothing harder than going to that small business that has been doing things the same way for 30 years and I say “we need to change how you do purchasing, inventory control, etc.” There’s people [in the accounting profession] who had certain jobs for years of pushing paper and have gone paperless. Those are skills we all need to develop. We do it step by step. I would advise, for your clients, that you find one thing they are in pain about and all agree on and change that. We assume we will be embraced as we give that talk, but it doesn’t always happen.
Know who in your client base are laggards and don’t go there first, go with an early adopter or one that may be more receptive to change.
AT: What is it going to take for firms to evolve from a service perspective?
Sleeter: It’s about improving profits to an accounting firm’s bottom line and I will even say that the accounting firm that will stay in the compliance world will not exist in the future. Too many things are being automated on the compliance front so they have to be more than that.
As I said, you need to start by identifying who you will work with first. Which clients, which members of the firm will help you make the transition and lead it rather than resist it. If you can get to the people who will be the allies -- the early adopters – and separate them from the laggards and later majority-adopter people, then you have a chance.
You will find that some newer clients and businesses are more willing to embrace new technologies and ways of working together. The firm has to learn and the client has to learn. Find your first five collaborative clients and firm members. Also, measure the pain we currently have, such as how much time, paper, cost it will take to process certain things like AP or other back office functions and go from there.
I am excited for the future, I feel like I was there at dawn of the QuickBooks revolution when all we needed to see was a checkbook on a screen to get excited. Now I’ve never been more concerned nor as euphoric about the future, there’s such disruption and every one of our clients and firms are looking up again rather than just doing work, like when we did back in ‘94. There’s a better way; it’s going to hurt, but it’s going to be much better than it ever was.