A focus on advisory services gave firms a leg up during pandemic

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Accountants and tax professionals have played a critical role in keeping the economy going since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Thomson Reuters’ Charlotte Rushton, and those who were focused primarily on advisory services were in a better position that most.

“The last eight months have shown that the shift to advisory in the profession is more important than ever,” Rushton, president of the Tax and Accounting Professionals segment at Thomson Reuters, told attendees of the company’s annual Synergy Conference. “With so many needing help with the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program, the way the profession reacted was remarkable. You all stepped up. When small businesses needed help navigating the stimulus and the PPP, you were there to guide them.”

“You literally helped small businesses survive,” she said.

With small companies employing 50 percent of the workforce, and over 100,000 of them having closed so far due to the pandemic, she stressed the importance of giving them the help they need: “We could be facing a catastrophe if more of those fail. Your role advising them could be critical in preventing that.”

The accounting and tax profession has been eyeing the move to focusing on advisory services for a few years, but the sudden and overwhelming need on the part of clients sped up the transition.

“The need to change to advisory services was significantly accelerated by COVID,” Rushton told attendees — and then explained the benefits. “Instead of having a business based around the seasonality of tax filing, you could have a year-round business with a steady revenue stream. Most important, engaging in this relationship with your clients, you’re simply doing the right thing. By being there for your clients, you’re enabling them not just to strive, you’re helping to put them in position of strength in the future.”

What’s more, firms that had started the move to advisory services before the pandemic struck found themselves in a stronger position.

“Our customers who had already made the shift to the advisory model, when they were working with customers through PPP applications and general business advice, that all fit into their contracted relationship with their client, and they were getting paid for that work,” Rushton told Accounting Today in a separate interview. “Our customers who hadn’t made the shift were doing a lot of that support without getting paid for it.”

“I think it really highlighted things for customers that were on the edge of moving to advisory -- they spent three months working with clients and not getting paid,” she added.

She noted that Thomson Reuters has seen heightened interest in Practice Forward, its training and consulting program to help firms advance to the new advisory-focused model.

Helping with the move

“We’re focused on helping tax and accounting professionals into a mutually beneficial advisory relationship with your clients,” Rushton told Synergy attendees.

Besides Practice Forward, she cited the company’s significant investments in artificial intelligence for its CheckPoint Edge research platform, and in its Onvio platform, to help practitioners collaborate more efficiently and meaningfully with both clients and staff.

In particular, she highlighted the ongoing beta testing of Onvio Tax, which is aiming to have a hundred firms sign up to use the product through next tax season, and already has closed to 90. “Really the only way to test it is to go all the way through the season, all the way through efiling,” she said.

Once the results of the beta tests are in, she’s hoping to take Onvio Tax to the market for the 2021 filing season. “It still won’t be a full product -- really complex returns will be at the end of the roadmap,” she told Accounting Today. “We’re targeting to be at about 80 percent functionality for 2021, but we’ll learn a lot from the beta, and then be clear with clients about the kinds of clients they can use Onvio Tax for.”

While Rushton stressed the value and importance of accountants and tax pros focusing more on advisory services, she was quick to note that that doesn’t mean they won’t still be doing compliance work – they’ll just need to do it more quickly so they can bring insights from it to their higher-value-added advisory work.

“That’s why our singular focus with all our technology development is how to make our customers as efficient as possible at the compliance work, so they spend the least amount of time has possible, and more time to spend on the value add,” she told Accounting Today. “You need both.”

Whether as compliance professionals or advisors, however, she reiterated how impressive a job they’ve done so far in the pandemic.

“The main thing is I’m just in awe of our customers,” she said. “They’ve done a Herculean effort getting their clients through this crisis, and we’re grateful to be a little part of this.”

Even late-night talk show host and comedian James Corden, who served as emcee for Synergy, which was held digitally this year, recognized the contributions of the profession: “There’s never been a more critical time to be a tax and accounting professional,” he said in his kickoff address. “You are society’s last line of defense.”

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Accounting firm services Coronavirus Thomson Reuters