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Time to take a modern approach to business acceptance

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Like many elements of running a successful accounting firm today, the process for evaluating and onboarding new clients can be improved by an order of magnitude with modern technology. Specifically, the solution set a firm uses to manage data has an outsized impact on the speed and effectiveness of its business acceptance process. And improving that process, in turn, has a net-positive effect on the bottom line. After all, the faster and “cleaner” a firm brings on a new client, the sooner it starts realizing revenue.

While this scenario seems like common sense, it’s not the reality for most firms in my experience as someone who oversees the accounting and risk practice area for a professional services technology provider. This is especially true for firms outside of the Big Four and what I call the “Next Four” (though some of them qualify as well) that bring in millions — or even billions — of dollars in revenue yet still rely on legacy technology stacks and manual, inefficient processes to onboard new clients. Taken together, these factors can put a significant drag on firm profitability.

The accounting profession’s compliance and regulatory requirements are deservedly known for being among the most stringent when it comes to onboarding new clients. In general, every accounting network must comply with well-established policies to ensure auditor — and global, for firms doing business internationally — independence.

Adding to the complexity are financial and reputational risks. If a firm takes on a client that later proves to be a conflict, that is a serious hit to the firm’s brand and puts the firm at risk for regulatory fines and other punitive financial measures. Getting the process right at the very beginning means a firm is less likely to court write-downs if it’s adjusting for and understanding potential new client risk before it onboards them.

So, what’s an accounting firm to do?

The power of three

The answer has a lot to do with the aforementioned “modern” technology, but it’s not a solution for everything. Technology is a tool, not a panacea for the business acceptance process. That being said, this process is practically tailor-made for the powerful combination of artificial intelligence, automation and predictive analytics.

The root of the problems that prevent a fast and efficient business acceptance process is data. It’s not that accounting firms don’t have the data they need — the Big Four, Next Four and most other firms certainly do — or many technology solutions to deal with it. Rather, the ways in which the data is stored, managed, extracted and analyzed at many firms are behind the technology curve. At a high level, I’m referring to data silos, different data formats, multiple data workflows, and the lack of a single, searchable set of data.

That’s where the AI/automation/predictive analytics trio comes in. When these three elements are seamlessly integrated, they can streamline management of the entire business acceptance lifecycle. With AI as the foundation, most of the time-consuming, data-related “work” can be automated. This includes the gathering, intake, processing, classification, storage and analysis of data from multiple sources in multiple formats.

If you think about it, why would a firm ask its highest-paid professionals to do manual, time-consuming data management work when the technology exists to automate the bulk of it?

Smart strategies – and people – for the win

It’s not all about the technology. Smart strategies for managing and leveraging existing client and firm data to reduce complexity and accelerate the business acceptance process are also required.

According to Sebastian Hartmann, global head of technology strategy at Big Four firm KPMG, “Systematically designing and shaping your digital business architecture for data sources, collection and usage across the firm is becoming a key capability in professional services like accounting and consulting. And it’s necessary in order to unlock the promises of artificial intelligence.”

Modern technology and smart strategies are still not enough, however. The other critical piece is talent.

Unlike technology, the best possible talent is not just a vendor away. In fact, while the demand for talent with the skills and experience to work with modern technology within the strictures specific to the accounting industry is high, the supply is not.

Hartmann’s industry experience confirms this: “The talent firms need to manage and understand modern technology like AI and extract insights from the analytics — such as data scientists, business analysts and information architects — is still scarce.”

To Hartmann’s point, the accounting profession is among many where the experience and skill sets are changing to keep pace with modern technology and client expectations, and the available talent pool is still catching up (witness the rise of data science programs and boot camps). Yet, concurrently, the business intelligence and analytics tools have become more powerful and user-friendly, which benefits not only the marketing and business development staff, but also partners and other firm decision-makers. The deeper and wider the analytics, the clearer the view into the full client lifecycle.

The time to get business acceptance right is now

If you’re one of the many accounting firms that hasn’t overhauled its business acceptance process to include AI-powered automation and predictive analytics, then you may want to investigate how your firm could benefit from these newer technologies. Everything that I mentioned here is doable today. The modern technology, the strategies, the talent — they are out there.

Overall, I am bullish on accounting firms keeping up with modern technology and, as a result, providing their clients with the level of service they demand, even as technology continues to move the goalposts for expectations. Frankly, they have to. From what I’ve seen, accountants and auditors are highly aware of AI’s potential impact on their livelihoods and understand that they are much more likely to be “replaced” than their professional services brethren in the legal and financial spaces. And not only have they seen it coming, they have taken action by being among the most prolific adopters of AI, blockchain, robotic process automation and other cutting-edge technology. That bodes well for the profession and all the companies that depend on it.

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