Accounting firms need to dive into the digital future right now, according to Intuit's David Bergstein, because their clients and their competitors already are.

“Firms that are embracing technology are really growing by leaps and bounds,” explained Bergstein, a CPA, CITP, CGMA, and regional strategic account manager in the Accountant & Advisor Group at Intuit Inc. in a session at the 20th Annual Rainmaker Superconference, held here. “This is driven by clients and by younger people. When do they want their answer? Yesterday. And the only way to deliver it yesterday is through digital.”

It’s not just clients who are forcing firms to make this change – it’s also the staff they’re losing: “Younger people leaving firms are not starting a brick-and-mortar office and bringing in servers -- they start in the cloud.”

And even though 62 percent of companies reported having remote workers on staff last year, many firms still have work to do on the digital frontier, Bergstein warned. “Everyone thinks they’re totally digital -- but they’re not,” he said, offering a simple test: In a truly digital firm, as soon as a piece of paper comes in, it is scanned.

The benefits of being digital are manifold, according to Bergstein, from saving money on servers and possibly office space, to being able to hire talented people from across the country.

In addition, as more and more small business systems move to the cloud, labor-intensive accounting services like write-up and payroll become easier, allowing digital firms to become more efficient and develop new value-added services based on analyzing client data.

“Remember -- clients are getting younger, they’re in their 30s and 40s, and want something they can relate to” in terms of digital presence and expertise, Bergstein said. “There’s a mass of things out there where, if you’re over 45 years old, you probably haven’t heard of.”

 

Caveats and recommendations

With all that said, Bergstein – who works remotely himself – pointed out that there are issues to be aware of when it comes to virtual firms and remote staff, as well as several new trends to keep up with:

  • “The No. 1 trait that’s missing in remote workers is that ability to build relationships in person,” he explained. Careful training and video-conferencing tools like Skype can go a long way toward remedying that. “Most of the firms that have been successful in working remotely use video-conferencing,” he said, “and many firms hiring remote workers want to do a Skype interview, so you can judge their work environment” -- for instance, if prospective employee is working in their kitchen or some other unsuitable location.
  • All staff, whether remote or not, should use equipment that doesn’t allow them to download client data to unprotected devices like their home computer or an unapproved thumb drive, Bergstein said, both to protect the data and to limit e-discovery in the event of a lawsuit.
  • Some firms with document management systems set their Outlook systems to wipe once a month, in order to drive use of the DMS: “If you want to save it, it should be in the document management system.”
  • Three or four is the new two when it comes to computer monitors, and Bergstein knows people who productively use as many as eight. In addition, more and more people are buying mobile monitors or tablets to replicate the dual-monitor experience while they’re away from their desk. “You can’t go backwards,” he warned.
  • Having a single phone number that follows you and rings wherever you are is becoming a hallmark of the tech-forward CPA.