There are new standards in client service today, thanks to companies like Amazon and Apple. Clients are just like consumers; they now expect products and services to be delivered quickly, with a seamless user experience. If your firm isn’t digitizing your processes, it should be.

Clients expect real-time reporting from their mobile devices immediately out of the box. All they need to do is add their favorite applications to connect with their bank, broker and other financial services. What about their CPA?

If CPAs want to use the title “Trusted Business Advisor,” they must get in the game or risk losing relationships and future-readiness (relevance).

Today, many firms can’t deliver on these expectations. They are vulnerable to competition born in the digital age and ready to disrupt the market with the rapid delivery of digital products and services combined with algorithms, workflow, project management and access to digitized information. Your clients are starting to demand a radical overhaul and digitization of your business processes.

Let’s identify a few core processes in most CPA firms:

  • Business tax returns;
  • Personal tax returns;
  • Auditing;
  • Advisory services; and,
  • Billing and collections.

To meet client expectations, firms must not only accelerate the digitization of their processes, but reinvent the processes by reducing the number of steps, eliminating manual steps, reducing the number of documents, automating decision-making, and dealing with regulatory and security/privacy issues. These are not easy tasks. They require new skills that many firms currently do not employ or may not even be able to access.

The new models call for enhanced decision-making and even artificial intelligence, all of which companies like Amazon and Apple are utilizing in their business processes. Think of Siri and Alexa as just the tip of the iceberg. They have evolved over the past year from limited to more than 7,000 skills.

The benefits are enormous, but how do firms get started to ensure their continued success and future-readiness?

The answer may be as simple as identifying your priority processes and conducting a Lean Six Sigma project to define, measure, analyze, improve and control the processes, and then utilize commercial applications to digitize the processes.

The question often becomes, “What should we do first?” Most firms know they are not as efficient as they should be and their cycle (turnaround) times need improvement. Most firms are struggling to find and retain quality talent. The cost of labor continues to rise. The typical reaction is to look for the tool (software), and then try to implement the application using old processes with loops and manual steps that slow down the process.

Some firms are even trying the old approach of hiring more labor and continuing to utilize manual processes. The more successful approach is to use the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-and-Control (DMAIC) model first and then implement the digital solution.

Successful digitization efforts begin with designing the future state for each process without constraints (e.g., shortening the turnaround time from weeks to days or even hours). Once you have defined a compelling state, you can introduce constraints such as regulations. Often the constraints are personal preferences and can be overcome through discussion.

This can even be the case with regulations that were designed for manual rather than digital processes. All of this is part of the DMAIC model. A good example is electronic signatures and filing, where many governmental entities have been slow to react. The efficiencies in time and dollars ultimately forced them to approve and change their outdated processes.

Too often, firms do not consider the end-to-end process from the client’s perspective. Individuals view the process from the inside and focus on streamlining their portion of the process, rather than the entire process. Streamlining a truly seamless client experience must involve the client.

Typically, this requires a cross-functional team, including IT. These skills are in short supply, so consider building in-house capabilities. Choosing the right champion or project manager is critical in starting to build your center for excellence. Don’t be afraid to bring in outside consultants or talent to get you started.

NO R WITHOUT I

CPA firms traditionally expect the return on their IT investment before they make the investment. Digitizing processes is different, as you don’t have to wait a long time to realize a return and the return will grow as you continuously improve.

Plan to move quickly and expect benefits to occur within one to three months. This is about progress and not perfection. Once you complete a stream map, you will identify redundancies and loops that you can immediately eliminate.

Make sure your team includes younger members of your workforce who haven’t always done it this way, as well as those with good technology skills. Leadership and communication will determine success. Those who resist change deserve to be educated and made aware of expectations. They do not retain the right to delay the project based on personal preference.

The reason for digitizing your processes is to improve the bottom line (continued success) and delight clients (future ready). This is a difficult challenge for those firms focused only on compliance services. Firms focused on playing above the line and packaging compliance, performance and strategic services will get the largest returns in the shortest amount of time.

Start with a pilot, build capabilities and momentum, and then scale. By digitizing your processes, you will be able to scale and grow your firm.

Yes, there are tools to assist and more coming into the market daily, yet digitizing processes is more about mind-sets and skillsets than it is about the tool set.