[IMGCAP(1)]If you’ve ever listened to or watched “The Dave Ramsey Show” or another financial advice program that features people who have turned around their finances, you’ll frequently hear the host ask what prompted the people to make a change. Often, it was a crisis—a lost job or a major health problem, for example.

It is human nature that many of us don’t get a handle on our finances until it is absolutely necessary. Time constraints, unresolved emotional issues or plain financial ignorance are among the issues that can leave people living with their financial problems while wishing they could do better.

Some of your business clients experience a similar tension, finding it difficult to understand what’s actually going on with their businesses’ finances but wanting to do so. In addition to the issues individuals face when it comes to managing finances, business owners must also balance the need to:

• keep the business running;
• assess how the business is performing; and
• make changes to improve performance.

Waiting until a crisis occurs—such as losing a major customer or having a critical piece of equipment break down—to learn more about cash flow and profitability is not a good option. Business owners need the proactive advice that a trusted professional like their accountant can give, and they need it year round. Now that accounting firms have wrapped up tax season and are looking to other engagements in the year, it’s the ideal time to redouble efforts to be the trusted advisor your business clients want.

Using technology in your accounting practice can help you more easily provide this advice. Specifically, there are two key ways that your firm can benefit from the use of technology.

First, technology can streamline processes and save time so that you have more capacity to plan and provide advisory services. For example, using an electronic tax return reader to upload client financial information rather than entering data manually frees up as much as 30 minutes per client, not counting the time saved by eliminating the risk of data entry errors. Additionally, using technology that is integrated with accounting software such as QuickBooks or Xero helps reduce time spent on manual data entry. This capacity can be used in other client-facing ways, such as phone calls or meetings, in order to deepen the client relationship.

Second, technology can help make the numbers more meaningful to your clients. As Sageworks chairman and co-founder Brian Hamilton has said, financial numbers tell a story about almost all areas of a business, but clients often need their accountants to translate those numbers into actionable insights. “Your job is to tell the story of a business by helping your customers understand the financial picture of the business,” he said. 

An automated solution that provides financial analysis or projections is one example of how technology makes it easier for you to share with clients how certain changes can impact their cash flow or business.

Clients who are receiving valued insight and guidance on an ongoing basis will be more loyal and less likely to focus on the price of services when your competitors call on them or when your firm needs to adjust pricing or shift from hourly to value billing. Giving reactive advice only, rather than proactive guidance, is the top reason small- and medium-sized businesses leave their accountant—outranking poor responsiveness and fees that were too high, according to a survey by technology consulting firm The Sleeter Group.

“Technology has allowed us to change our conversations with business owners,” said Kirk McLaren, CPA, CEO of Foresight CFO in the Washington, D.C., area. He uses Sageworks’ ProfitCents to provide clients with business analysis that includes industry comparisons. “Instead of just discussing numbers, we discuss with them their business trends, profitability, and cash flow in a way that they’ll easily understand. We then also share their industry benchmarks to inform the discussion about where they have opportunities to thrive and, finally, show them how competitive changes impact their valuation into the millions.”

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at the financial information company Sageworks

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