Accountants are at risk of not keeping up with the new breed of more digital, demanding and design-conscious consumers, warned technology leader Jon Baron of Thomson Reuters.

Speaking in his opening keynote address at Synergy 2014, the company’s 34th annual user conference, Baron explained how the “New Consumer” has a particular set of expectations from the businesses they deal with -- expectations that are often driven by their social and mobile experiences on the Internet, and which are growing all the time.

“To remain relevant, we need to keep up with these changes,” said Baron, who is managing director of the Professional segment of the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters.

In describing the “New Consumer,” Baron noted the enormous changes of just the past four year, during which Internet penetration in North America has soared from 77 percent to near-universal levels, the cost of bandwidth has dropped to 20 percent of what it was in 2010, and the use of mobile devices has skyrocketed -- there are now 106 million tablet in use in the U.S., against none before 2010.

“We are much more mobile and social than we were,” Baron said, to the point that mental health professionals are trying to get “nomophobia” (for “no-mobile phobia”) qualified as a legitimate issue, and over 50 percent of adults sleep with their smartphones.

That intense use of social, mobile and Internet tools has made the New Consumer sensitive to high-quality design of the sort championed by Apple, the ease of use of the best apps and online services, and the immediacy of Internet transactions.

“They want immediate service, good design, and convenience,” Baron said, and warned that they expect similar qualities in their professional service providers.


Falling behind?

“The New Consumer is digital -- always clicking,” Baron said. “Are accountants keeping page, or are we operating with the same methods we’ve always used?”

He cited a number of statistics from surveys by Thomson Reuters and other organizations that suggested otherwise. Only 16 percent of accounting firms use the cloud, for instance -- as opposed to 30 percent of small businesses. “There are may be a bit of disconnect there,” Baron said.

Similarly, 75 percent of firms still deliver a paper copy of tax returns their clients, and 39 percent of firms don’t have a Web site. As much as 64 percent of firms now have a document management system in place, but that’s up only 11 percentage points since 2010.

“There have been breathtaking changes, but SALY may still haunt us,” Baron said, noting that a “Same As Last Year” mentality in the profession may keep it from meeting customer expectations. “We need to be aligned with today’s consumer, so they’ll know we’re there for them all the time.”

He also pointed out that accountants needn’t look too far to find New Consumers: “The New Consumer is not restricted by age group. They are your clients and your prospective clients, your employees and prospective employees -- they are you.”


New tools
As part of the keynote, Baron demonstrated a trio of new tools that Thomson Reuters is developing, and will roll out in pilot or full programs shortly.

First, he announced the company’s new Legal and Business Forms Powered by legalstreet service, which lets accountants give clients quick and easy access to frequently needed legal forms through the company’s NetClient CS portal.

Then, to audience applause, he described the new IRS-approved e-Signature solution for 8879 e-file authorization, Section 7216 consent forms, and engagement letters, which will be live for 1040s on UltraTax CS for the upcoming tax season.

He also debuted the company’s myTax Center, where clients will be able to access and store documents all year round, from on any device.

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