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Accounting: Is Our Client Experience Future-Ready?

horne joey havens

Earlier this year I read an article in CFO that brought pause. Actually, it brought a lot of pause and for two distinct reasons. Not because I didn’t agree, but because I so definitively did agree.

First, what struck me was that this major influencer, among our profession’s key stakeholders (CFOs and Controllers), was telling them it was time to reevaluate their professional services firms. Yes, accounting firms, too. Second, it was more evidence that the disruptive future we have heard about is here, now. We are no longer talking about the future.

It’s a great article. I applaud the vision of CFO to see the great need for businesses to partner with anticipatory service providers.

So what? Great question. “So what” is this—I think we are showing up to our client’s offices with an outdated client experience. We are serving as technical advisors and continuing to have discussions with clients on matters with little focus on their future. Our client service has become focused inward over time; starting with our focus on time spent, costs incurred, the historical perspective of our work; rather than the outcomes and impact of our services for our client. Do our clients think our services are dated? Are we not addressing the disruption that our clients see and feel? Isn’t the majority of our professional accounting services advice today absent of relevant data, too slow and generic? Do our proposals lay out the processes, quality, staffing and time for a project or the result?

So what? Can our present mindset for client service that is centered on time, compliance, processes and historical transactions, keep us relevant in the future? The book Microslices discusses the death of consulting as we know it today and tells businesses to seek firms that work on the expected value of the result. Another sign, like CFO, that the disruptive future is here now.

How can we move to a future-ready client experience? How can we capture the abundance of opportunity for those who become the guides that CFO challenged our clients to find or the firm focused on the value of results as outlined in Microslices? These three tips might help us in delivering a future-ready client experience.

1. Embrace Learning

Research shows over and over that clients are demanding and searching for proactive advisors to provide insights for today’s fast-moving business environment. Rain Group recently published research that concluded the number one reason clients were not engaging CPAs and advisors more was that we were not having the right conversations with them. We are not providing them with relevant insights, talking about future challenges and opportunities. Why do clients leave accounting firms today or give the new project to outside competition? The number one reason is that we are not proactive.

Why should I learn something new? It’s simple. Just go back to that CFO article, clients are demanding we serve them in ways we’ve never done as an accounting profession. So where do we start? With transformation, our clients are facing rapid change and disruption. Our challenge is to stay abreast of the changes and how they impact our clients. As new technologies flood the market, how do we become competent in these new capabilities? As more wisdom and knowledge is shared, how do we tap-in to understand and share these experiences? With things moving so quickly, our mindset moves to learn, unlearn and relearn the accounting profession.

Learning includes a mindset where we know we will make mistakes, learn from them and move forward. Transformation does not wait for us to be competent or “right” because the path forward changes so quickly. This requires constant learning to be relevant and impactful.

As we learn, the accounting industry and business specific knowledge evolves from transactional to operational and strategic. Learning what the hard trends mean for our client’s business models. What are the new challenges and opportunities from these trends? Isn’t the key to success to learn faster than the rate of change and faster than our clients so we can guide and advise them?

Let’s embrace what we don’t know now, become constant learners, to be competent and relevant in the future of accounting. It’s a key to our client experience being future ready.

2. Embrace Incompetence

Yesterday’s skills will not be sufficient for tomorrow. Closely tied to constant learning, is that we must also become comfortable not having all the answers. This is a hard one for the accounting industry, as our profession was built on assurance, competence, and risk avoidance. Those days are gone.

As we move from a technical advisor role to a future-ready role, we have new skills, that when mastered, help us deliver a better client experience, a future-ready accounting experience. These skills can be learned and mastered by focusing on them then practicing them. They include:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Anticipatory skills
  • Pricing skills
  • Collaboration skills
  • Critical thinking skills

My experience in discussing these necessary skills with anyone in our profession, the general reaction is, we are already doing this or we are good at those. We are already “trusted advisors” but in the client surveys I have seen at Horne, and in our profession, clients tell another story. Overall, our clients’ feedback has been, we are not proactive, anticipatory or collaborative. We are known for giving fee ranges and billing more due to “unexpected time incurred.” I love to call this “bill and duck.” We are known for being compliance focused and have demonstrated little real collaboration and critical thinking. We rarely discuss results or the value of those results.

Certainly there are exceptions either in clients or individuals, however, as a profession we are in the swamp of dated client service.

Let’s admit that we need to master a lot of new skills, that we have not practiced them enough to be effective in discussions about the future. Let’s embrace not having all the answers, and begin to move anyway—move away from transactional/technical/compliance accounting work to serving as an advisor. We need to help clients redefine reality and discover what’s possible in their future. The transactional, technical, and compliance work had its place and will continue to have some apron strings. However, we won’t be future ready if this is the focus of our professional services.

3. Embrace Collaboration

It feels good to be the person in the room with the answers. It doesn’t feel good to talk about things when we do not have the answers. Yet, our wisdom, analytical abilities, and critical thinking make us the right solution for collaboration with clients on the key question. What’s possible?

Clients want us to have a point of view. They want to co-create a future vision. They want help in redefining reality as it is changing daily. Until we sit beside the client, not across the table, roll up our sleeves to collaborate around the future facts and trends that are affecting their business and ours, we won’t be irreplaceable.

True collaboration is the willingness to express our opinions even when we disagree with our client. Collaboration takes time; it is an investment. Collaboration is beyond mailing in that tax return or providing a verbal audit report. As they say in my neck of the woods, “It’s when you turn Momma’s picture to the wall” and get real with the conversation. Collaboration can be hard discussions; however, they always help our clients find a true north.

It’s past time to change our client experience if we are going to be future-ready in the accounting profession. Embracing constant learning, embracing incompetence until we are comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” Embracing collaboration where we initiate conversations that help solve problems and redefine reality. Leading our clients to see a bright future and opportunities that are in front of them. Our bright future begins with moving outdated client experience to a future-ready experience.  Remember the words of Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point, “Change is gradual, until it isn’t.” We are very close to that tipping point.

About HORNE: Clients turn to HORNE for the foresight, straight talk, and collaboration needed to navigate the challenges of growth, regulatory compliance and risk mitigation. HORNE is a decidedly different CPA and advisory firm who goes beyond traditional accounting services by steering clients through the uncertainties and opportunities ahead.

HORNE is currently looking for accounting professionals all over the country. You can review their open positions here.