The changes of previous decades have left accountants acting more like their clients’ “most trusted servants” than their most trusted advisors, according to IT expert and thought leader Doug Sleeter.

Speaking in the opening keynote of his 10th Annual Sleeter Group Accounting Solutions Conference, Sleeter explained that while the accounting profession and its small-business clients can often feel overwhelmed by the tremendously accelerated pace of change in technology, this isn’t the first time that change has seriously impacted the way accountants practice.

“It feels like the pace of change is increasing, and you don’t know what boat to be on, but we have been here before,” Sleeter said, citing a long history from the introduction of mainframe computers that centralized data in the 1960s to the development of DOS and PCs in the 1980s that allowed clients to take possession of their own data, and up through the Web in the 1990s and mobility and the cloud in this century. “We’ve all been through these changes.”

And it’s some of those developments, Sleeter said, that have led accountants to being viewed as trusted servants, instead of advisors. “Since the PC revolution, we’ve been used to not having access to data. We’ve been building models based on no access to data,” like compliance functions, where the clients bring the data and the accountants clean it up. “Is that the most trusted advisor, or the most trusted servant?”
“What do you want your role to be with your clients?” Sleeter asked rhetorically.

A New Model
Accountants should seek a new paradigm, Sleeter suggested, where they get even closer to their clients, and even more knowledgeable about a broad range of products, so they can recommend what works best for their clients.

He cited a recent survey that reported that 68 percent of small-business owners would like to receive technology advice from a trusted advisor -- but only 38 percent actually get it.

The key is creating trust with clients, Sleeter maintained. “Develop trust, so that you’ll be treated like a partner, not a servant.” (He noted that clients will also be more willing to forgive the mistakes of a trusted partner.)

“The trusted advisor is vendor-neutral,” he said. “How can the client trust me when I’m selling them something?”

That said, accountants can definitely recommend products -- provided that they really know they work. They should “do a deep dive” on any product they’re likely to recommend, and use it before they expect clients to. “Clients come first, last and always. Vendors will come and go, but good clients are forever. So know what you’re recommending, because you’re lending your credibility to the vendor.”

He also emphasized the importance of testing products personally: “You need to resist the temptation to be intoxicated by a great demo.” He recommended stress-testing products, and in particular using your own data or a client’s to do so, rather than the vendor’s sample data.

One positive aspect of the accelerated pace of software development is that it makes it easier to serve clients better. “There are now so many great new solutions available that you don’t have to force-fit solutions to clients,” Sleeter said. “Each client is unique, and each solutions is unique -- think about seeking to match which solutions will work for which clients.”

Overall, he recommended that accountants and consultants in the field avoid trying to ignore change, or thinking that, because nothing “feels broken” with their clients, they don’t need make any changes. Instead, he counseled them that they need to, “Rethink your business now,” and “think big! This is a huge market, and there are significant opportunities in the SMB space.”