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Your job is changing — and that’s a good thing

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Ten years ago, clients really needed their CPAs to run the numbers, fill in boxes and create financial reports. Not anymore. Now we have computers that can do tax returns faster and more efficiently than humans can. What clients need CPAs for is relevant, personalized advice. Machines can’t ask a client how their family is doing or when they want to sell their business or what they’d like to do in retirement (at least for now).

As is the case for so many workers, your job is changing, but that’s OK. More on that in a minute.

Look at the Career Opportunities website section of the largest accounting firms in your area. You don’t see as many openings for Auditor or Tax Specialist as you used to. Instead you’ll see listings for “Salesforce Implementation Specialist” or “Systems Engineer.” The top firms you compete with are hiring specialists to help clients with a whole new set of problems.

Digital tools are largely taking care of taxes, bookkeeping and prepping financial statements. Now, the CPA’s job is to manage the relationship and help clients move forward with confidence. To me, our job is to be a client’s Advocate, Catalyst and Integrator. In other words, we need to be their Personal CFO. That’s our real job.

  • An Advocate works on their client’s behalf, and always keeps their best interests in mind.
  • The Catalyst brings the right action items to a client’s attention and helps them get across the finish line.
  • An Integrator pulls together the professionals needed to make big picture decisions.

Most of the other things you used to charge clients for will be automated eventually.

But there’s good news if you’re a CPA. All this automation doesn’t mean you’ll be out of a job. It just means you’re out of your old job. You didn’t like that old job, anyway, did you? I know I heard you complain about it all the time. Now you have a new, better job — managing client expectations and helping them make good decisions. It’s about solving problems for them and looking into the future, not recording the past.

Your typical workday is going from plugging away at accounting tools to spending time talking with clients about how you’re going to solve their financial problems. Computers can’t do that — and that’s what clients are willing to pay for.

CPAs remain the client’s most trusted advisor. You’re the point of contact for the decision maker — the one cutting the checks. You have the relationship and the unique responsibility for helping clients succeed and adapt. So, you have to adapt, too.

What’s happened to knitters and locksmiths?

You can’t stop the wheels of change from turning, and that’s OK. I know “creative destruction” is painful and scary, but if you go back over the past several hundred years, creative destruction has always led to a higher standard of living and a more productive society.

CNN recently did a story comparing the return-to-school debate during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and the COVID pandemic of today. The photo in the story really caught my attention. It was a class full of fifth graders at their desks knitting. Everyone was sewing — the boys and the girls. At the time, sewing was considered an essential workplace survival skill. No longer.

Fast forward a few decades and most human knitters were displaced by automated looms. They lost their jobs, but eventually found better ones that were safer and provided a higher standard of living. Without automation, knitters would still be working in lousy conditions, and sweaters would be costing us $600.

I was at Home Depot the other day to make two copies of my porch key. The locksmith I always used was no longer at his station. He was replaced by a vending machine. I just inserted my key into the slot and two precision duplicates came out a few seconds later. It only cost me three dollars and the keys were perfect.

Fortunately for the locksmith, Home Depot has a reputation for taking care of employees. Hopefully I’ll see the locksmith in a new role helping customers find what they want on the crowded retail floor. Not only will he have a better job, but by helping customers find what they’re looking for, Home Depot will sell more products.

Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffet is arguably one of the world’s most successful investors. When so many others are focused on finding the next big thing, he’s renowned for keeping things simple. He doesn’t try to figure out what’s going to change; he thinks about things that won't change.

As a CPA, what’s your Warren Buffet strategy? What parts of our profession are not likely to change? Clients are always going to want your advice. They’re always going to want you to help them make good decisions. That’s never going to change. Sure, the tools and the format for getting your work will keep changing — and by keeping up, you become ever more valuable.

While job descriptions keep changing all around you, one thing remains constant in our profession: the role of the trusted advisor. What a great anchor that is! Clients are never going to stop needing someone whom they can trust to help them solve their most challenging financial problems.

If you’re a regular reader of my columns, you know I like to break things down into three key areas: (1) The What, (2) The So What, and (3) The Now What.

1. The What = A tax return. For CPAs, doing tax returns is a commodity business. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of price. Machines can do them better than humans.

2. The So What = What does it mean for you?

3. The Now What? = What are you going to do about it?

Focus your efforts on (2) The So What, and (3) The Now What. That’s increasingly valuable. In other words, explain to your client what the results of that tax return really means and what you’re going to do about it to create a better financial outcome.

Over 30 years ago, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff declared, “Everything that can be automated [eventually] will be automated.” That doesn’t mean robots are taking over the world, but they are taking over repetitive low-margin tasks that humans used to do. Like a skilled carpenter or surgeon, you use tools to get your job done — you don’t report to those tools and you don’t compete with them.

Your job is never going to stop changing. But what you do — building trusted client relationships — will remain a constant. That’s never going to be automated.

What’s been your experience with hiring and recruiting since the pandemic began? I’d love to hear from you.

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