Accounting in practice: adapting to the new normal

October 2020

Chris Downing explains how in a period of constant change,
technology is becoming an accountant’s best friend.

An accountant’s new normal is a state of constant, rapid change. The rules are shifting all the time as government loan programmes pitch up or down. In this swiftly evolving environment, a whole host of challenges emerge.

For example, to provide a cash flow projection tomorrow, accountants need access to a year’s worth of bookkeeping data today. They also need the time and resource to work through that data quickly and efficiently.

Fortunately, technology is helping accountants automate business functions and collaborate to provide a faster, more agile and varied consultative service. Sage’s annual Practice of Now report shows the profession is evolving, as 93% of practicing UK accountants claim new technology is helping meet demands and drive new value for their business. Those that fail to embrace technology run the risk of falling behind.

Learning from the disruptors

You don’t need to be disruptive to be the disruptor. Across many different industries, disruption tends to follow a familiar pattern. Incumbent players are shown to be insufficiently agile – resistant to change and failing to adopt new capabilities. In short, they gradually stop delivering the value clients seek and are usurped by more innovative competitors or new market entrants.

Accountants aren’t experiencing the same competition from technologically agile start-ups as some other industries. Yet there is still plenty of client-driven disruption.

As clients struggle to adapt and maintain continuity post-covid, they’re increasingly turning to accountants for advice, from government grants to how to generate new sources of revenue.

To rebuild your practice in this new environment, accountants should learn the disruptor’s lesson: it’s not just about delivering a better service than competitors but also providing new offerings that others aren’t. This can be achieved by assessing market conditions, altering business practices and, most importantly, understanding your client and what will really help them.

To give clients targeted, expert advice, accountants should understand every aspect of their business. This level of understanding can only come from strong visibility and accessibility to client data. For many, however, that just isn’t feasible. The data is often spread across different parts of the client’s businesses, and complex calculations and data entry can sap valuable time.

The first step to disruption, is to embrace the cloud. Moving client data to the cloud makes it far more accessible and easier to analyse. Accountants can review the data in real-time, improving client service and the speed of delivery.

Cloud accounting tools also make it easier to swiftly create reports, view business finances, and model business plans and outcomes for clients.

With the right technology, accountants are empowered to master their clients’ data. Armed with fresh insight, they can provide targeted advice to fill the vacuum, and provide novel services like consultancy on business transformation.

The first to finish

However, client understanding is only half the battle. In the new normal, the pace of change is accelerating rapidly. Decisions made under pressure can have major repercussions on a business for years to come. So, accountants must invest seriously in process efficiency to deliver at the speed required and minimize human error or inefficiencies created through manual processing.

In the current environment, accountants don’t have the time for staff to spend on repetitive, time-consuming data management tasks. Yet, many accountants continue to expend precious resource on classification and cleansing.

Instead, they should look to robotic process automation (RPA), using software and AI or machine-learning capabilities to handle highvolume repeatable tasks. RPA is already one of fastest-growing segments of enterprise software, with spending expected to reach $2.4 billion in 2022. It can free up time for account teams by automating tasks like data input and output, reconciliation, and data quality management.

AI can review millions of transactions that would have traditionally taken hours to do manually – spotting anomalies and making recommendations. Automated solutions never tire and are immune to human error, all the while improving accuracy and delivery time. The best thing is that AI embedded in solutions will only get better with time. Gradually, less intervention will be needed by staff. The AI can also become more proactive in assigning resources because it adapts to the flow of client data in the business.

Technology is the enabler – helping accountants seize the opportunity to be change makers rather than spectators. Adopting cloud technology gives accountants the ability to remotely manage their client data, accounts, and people all in one place. AI completes the circle, helping to streamline data entry and admin through automated invoicing systems. As further processes are automated, accountants will have more time for what’s most important – building relationships with clients and meeting their needs.

• Chris Downing, Director for Accountants & Bookkeepers at Sage.