Every year, when the calendar inevitably and indiscriminately reaches its final page, people everywhere take stock of the year that was - the things they did well and the things they would like to improve on in the new year. When looking to the year ahead, many accountants ask themselves, “how can I go beyond accounting next year?”

We’re at an inflection point here in the industry where cloud technology, and in particular cloud accounting software, is providing us with the opportunity to be more than just the number cruncher for our clients. With key business performance data feeds displayed on elegant dashboards and the ability to extract insights from financial reports that are generated with the click of a button - a lot of us are asking what further steps we can take to become the trusted advisor in our clients’ businesses. Here’s how you can do so and go beyond accounting in 2017.

1. Stay Ahead Of The Technology Curve
A huge part of becoming the trusted advisor in the modern accounting landscape is not only leveraging cloud technology in your firm, but keeping up with the evolution of technology. There is no endpoint to learning, so it’s important to maintain your knowledge constantly by attending industry conferences locally and abroad. Online learning is another great way to stay in the know. With an AICPA membership you’ll have access to many resources including webinars and online libraries. Through the AICPA, you can gain access to the IMTA training center and even achieve new technology-related accreditations like the CITP designation. Join a local accountant meet-up or social group to stay in the know about what accountants are doing. It’s about keeping up-to-date with industry best practices in order to stay ahead.

2. Let The Servers Do The Work For You
Cloud accounting software and applications have helped automate many of the aspects of our roles that were taking up time better used elsewhere. Before the year is out, identify the biggest inefficiencies in your practice and look for software solutions that will automate these timesucks - putting in a plan to implement them gradually in the new year. For example, I have found that a lot of firms struggle figuring out which client work needs to be actioned and when. Digging deep into client files on a regular basis is time-consuming and planning work shouldn’t necessitate reviewing client needs manually.

In this instance, you can cake advantage of an open practice platform like the new Xero HQ, which will help you streamline practice work. The Xero HQ activity feed, which is easily tailored to suit your practice, solves the pain point of prioritizing client work. With a simple glance at the feed you’ll know which of your clients, for example, have bank transactions to be coded or have accounts that haven’t been fully reconciled for a number of days. The time spent here can be reallocated to those higher level advisory services that our clients need in order for their businesses to thrive.

3. Make It Personal
For a profession whose currency is numbers, accounting is a remarkably personal business - and it should be. The firms I work with that are the most successful are those that care about their clients on a human level and partner with them to help them succeed. In today’s accounting environment, where personal relationships with clients are increasingly valued, understanding this will help you do exceptionally well. It is refreshing to see more firms developing these sorts of relationships with their clients, for the simple reason that they now have time to do it thanks to the efficiency of technology. There is finally breathing space to engage in deeper client relationships, analyze the data in a business and take proactive steps to help.

We’re well past the days of driving from client to client to use their desktop accounting software, which is where a lot of our close personal relationships with clients were once developed. Due to the now global nature of accounting, where our clients are no longer necessarily the small business next door, it’s important to maintain that bond with our clients. Regardless of client locality, maintain that personal relationship with them by using video conferencing tools like Google Hangouts in order to have that face-to-face interaction.

4. Hone In On Your Niche
If you haven’t already, carving out a niche or niches should be one of your top priorities in 2017. The more you work with the same kind of industry or client, the more it will help you as far as becoming the expert and gathering knowledge around best practices for that vertical. In order to find your niche or niches, think about the types of clients that are naturally attracted to you and whether you are enjoying the work you do with them. Do the same with your staff, questioning them about their passions and the types of industries they enjoy working with and narrow down a list of everyone's preferences.

For example, I am a Yoga instructor and health and wellness is a huge passion of mine. Servicing clients in this industry never feels like work for me because I love this field so much. Match your list of prospective industries against industries that are profitable. A market assessment is also necessary in order to determine whether there are enough clients out there in this vertical. If you feel comfortable with the industry or industries you’ve chosen, then you’re on the right track.

Cloud technology will be our greatest ally in achieving the status of the trusted advisor in our clients’ businesses. By bringing the the human element to our client relationships, along with our niche expertise, we can go beyond accounting in 2017.

Amy Vetter is the global vice president of education and head of accounting, USA, for Xero.