A recent study from the job site Indeed found that “business analyst” was the most in-demand financial profession among small business hirers, followed by “business development manager” and “data analyst,” but “accountant” didn’t even make it to the top 10 list.

The research indicates that small and midsized businesses are less interested in hiring accountants, suggesting that accountants may need to do a better job of branding themselves to small business owners.

“I saw the Indeed study, and I actually thought this was consistent with an ongoing trend, which is a branding issue that exists for accountants,” said Div Bhansali, vice president of marketing at AccountantsWorld, a provider of cloud-based accounting software. “I saw another study probably about a year ago which asked small business owners who were the people you need to bring into the fold to help you with things. They mentioned having a lawyer. They mentioned working with their local startup bureau or Better Business Bureau, and yet again accountants didn’t make the list there.”

Most in demand finance jobs for SMBs

He believes many accountants need to do a better job of presenting themselves to small business owners as analysts and development experts who can help them achieve their goals.

“From the perspective of job seekers, we’re seeing a similar thing, which is this perception that whether as a job seeker or as a small business, if I’m looking for someone who is forward thinking and is committed to growth, that accountant is not necessarily what comes to their minds,” said Bhansali. “I thought the emphasis on business analyst and other related positions as being very in demand was particularly stark because accountants, especially with modern cloud technology, can absolutely serve the role of business analysts for their small business clients, but the opposite does not hold true. Business analysts cannot serve the role of an accountant, particularly when it comes to regulatory demands.”

However, accountants are fighting against age-old stereotypes that no longer hold true.

“The notion of an accountant as being a reactionary backwards-looking bean counter, which has always been somewhat outdated, is actually much more outdated right now, but is held just as solidly in the minds of both job seekers and clients, so I think it’s become more of a problem than ever before,” said Bhansali.

Accountants continue to face this perception despite hiring shortages nationwide, with accountants finding themselves very much in demand by employers, albeit for traditional roles.

“There is such a hiring shortage in many parts of the country in terms of being able to find accounting staff, and if people aren’t searching for accounting positions, I think that’s a problem right there,” said Bhansali. “But it’s also a problem for the clients of accountants because they don’t necessarily realize that they may be settling for less assistance with their business than they could get and that it deserves. From both a supply perspective and a demand perspective there’s an invisibility issue as it comes to the branding of accountants.”

For many years accountants have been considered the most trusted advisor for many businesses, but they may need to fight harder to retain that title.

“Part of it has to do with the proliferation of different roles you see within the financial space now,” said Bhansali. “Someone who is looking for job opportunities coming out with a degree in accounting and/or finance sees a range of different job titles available to them, and different paths that they can do go down, either on the corporate side or in terms of practice, so accountant is no longer the default answer if I want to become an advisor to small businesses and help them grow. It’s no longer thought of as clearly the path that you have to go down. You see other jobs that describe themselves as also helping businesses grow.”

He believes accountants need to do a better job of explaining the wide range of services they’re qualified to provide when interacting with small business clients. “I think accountants are concerned about overpromising to their clients, and they’re not necessarily thinking from the perspective of what they’re able to offer to clients is obviously much broader than meeting regulatory requirements,” said Bhansali.

Many accountants, he believes, are just as able to provide strategic advice and accurate projections of where clients are headed from a fiscal perspective as anybody calling themselves a business analyst. “They’re able to identify new revenue opportunities and even serve as a hub to connect small business clients with other advisory partners, whether that’s an insurance firm or legal assistance or whatever else it might be,” said Bhansali. “But many clients aren’t aware that, number 1, their accountants can offer that breadth of services, and number 2, are actually eager to do so. Many accountants have said they want to be seen as a trusted business advisor, but their actions and communications to their clients haven’t necessarily been consistent with that.”

To improve their brand, accountants can advertise their services more widely, emphasize their array of services on their websites, market better that they provide these kinds of services, and introduce their clients to these services during tax season or quarterly closes.

“Make sure you’re having strategic conversations outside of tax time,” Bhansali suggested. “For many small businesses, they get into a rhythm with their accountants of thinking, ‘Well, I go to my accountant on a quarterly basis, I close out the quarter, I’m providing them with data from whatever software I’m using, and then obviously the peak is during tax season and making sure that my accountant has everything that they need from me to do their work during that time.’ I think that if the accountant reclaims that frequency and says, ‘In addition to talking to you during tax season and talking to you on a quarterly basis, we’re also going to set up two times a year a more strategic conversation where we talk about where your business is headed and what the trends are that I’m seeing. We’re not going to talk about taxes during that time, or at least that won’t be the primary focus. The focus is really going to be on where you’re trying to go with your business and what I’m seeing from a fiscal perspective that either aligns with that or perhaps doesn’t align with that as well and that we need to think about and talk about.’”

Bhansali also believes accountants need to be able to redefine their firms in the minds of clients. He recently attended a Florida CPA trade show, where he spoke about building sustainable value, and talked afterwards with a sole practitioner who recently hosted a group of small business clients for an informal party in his offices.

“He just did something a few months ago that I thought was such a great idea,” said Bhansali. “He held an open house party for all of his clients. He invited his clients to come into his office in a much more informal, friendly, fun setting than they’re typically coming in for. They did it during a time of year when their firm was not as busy, and it was a chance to meet their small business clients in a social setting, and really get to know them as people better and then very informally be able to say, ‘Oh, by the way, here are some things that we’re doing for other clients that are having a tangible impact. Would you like to have a conversation about doing that as well?’”

He noted that professionals in some other industries hold similar events regularly.

“These are the sorts of things that I think other verticals such as, for example, real estate professionals have always been very good at doing, at sort of selling their personal brand, and saying, ‘Feel free to contact me outside of the regimented schedules when we interact with each other.’ I think most accountants shy away from doing that and don’t want to overstep their bounds in terms of their relationship with their clients,” he said. “It’s important to push that envelope a little bit and try to find time to prove the overall value that you’re capable of providing.”

Accountants also need to have the technology to be able to demonstrate to clients that they can offer them real-time analytics.

“I think part of this is also a technology problem,” said Bhansali. “If you cannot demonstrate to your clients that you’re using the latest cloud technology that allows for better collaboration and allows you to have access to accurate real-time data on your clients’ fiscal picture, when they come to you and say, ‘Well, tell me what’s happening?’ If you’re using a client-centric solution and they’ve put in that information on their side, or their bookkeeping staff has, it’s going to be a case of garbage in, garbage out. You’re going to have unreliable or outdated information. Then trying to provide projections or advice to your clients based on that obviously isn’t going to work well, and it’s not going to reflect well on your brand. I think using and upgrading to the latest cloud technology is a really essential part of making sure that you’re providing your clients with the value that they deserve.”

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn, editor-in-chief of AccountingToday.com, has been covering business and technology for a variety of publications since 1985.