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How Small Accounting Firms Can Stay Relevant

Ed. note: We're pleased to welcome Cristina Garza, Owner and Chief Number Cruncher of Accountingprose, as a contributor to Going Concern.

As a firm owner my biggest fear is getting left behind. Well, that and running into the three worst days a business owner will face.

I’m speculating that existing firm owners appear to be at the forefront of change because they have a good web presence, use a cloud based accounting software, and employ SaaS applications in their workflow. New firm owners quickly fall into rank, following in the steps of their predecessors but do little else to push ahead.

In reality, using a cloud accounting platform and hooking up a few add-ons isn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, that's a fantastic start but as an owner of a non-traditional firm with big dreams, I have to create an environment that is ripe with innovation or we will sink to the bottom of the heap. Once at the bottom, it is hard to get back to the surface.
So, what are we doing to make sure that we aren’t left behind, while our colleagues gallop past us?

Incentivize staff to contribute ideas

Our staff is entirely remote, we connect using Slack,, and have been able to maintain a great company culture while working in our underpants. Well, it might just be me working in my underpants, I can’t be sure. I digress.

In our weekly meetings I always ask my team, “What can we be doing better?” and “What is keeping you up at night?” By asking those questions, we are able to figure out what our bottlenecks are and address them immediately. We also connected ChangeTip to Slack, and when someone has a kick ass idea, I make it rain (or at least sprinkle) and then add the suggestion to our Trello idea board. We keep a running list of ideas that will make the practice even better, and we reward our staff for contributing crazy and fresh ideas to solve everyday problems. It’s fun, cheap(ish), and makes everyone happy, which is what I am really after.

Build relationships with technology partners

If your client calls you on the phone today with a problem and asks you to help find a solution that will tie into their accounting file, how will you respond? How educated are you about the different add-ons that exist on your cloud based accounting platform’s marketplace? If the integration you chose for your client mysteriously stops working, do you know who to call?

Creating and nurturing relationships with accounting technology partners helps to keep the data flowing. These partnerships allow us to help our clients when they need it most, sometimes even before they know they need it. We also get to hear of what is coming down the product pipeline, have new features to look forward to and we get to plan around the changes that are en route.

We also get a direct link to decision makers who will listen to us gripe and take our suggestions to heart. It is in the best interest of accounting tech companies to listen to their users, or else they will end up with a product that only caters to the needs of their Sr Product Team. Super Bonus: By aligning our company with industry leaders, clients that are well suited for our service are able to find us quickly. Often times when someone has already heard of Xero, Hubdoc, Expensify, or Crunchboards, we know that we will be a good fit for one another. It is a match made in accounting heaven.

Innovate internally

I realize that using the term innovate is incredibly cliche, however, we are using this in the most literal sense. In my practice, we are really identifying how we can create change. I am finding that in order to do this, I and my team must learn to program. We can’t just talk about what tools we want to have in our practice, or what already exists in the marketplace; we must create them. If we want to stay ahead of the curve, we need to get to a point where we can build a feature internally and not have to wait for something to pop up from a third party add-on. This doesn’t replace the need for relationships with our technology partners; but will allow us to make change and apply it at the firm level.

We realized that our job as accountants has changed and continues to change. We aren’t deluding ourselves and know that our work is no longer focused on data entry and looking backwards. If we want to stay relevant, we must look forward. To do that we must learn to collect, manipulate, and analyze data that will help stoke the fires of change. We must also cut through the minutiae and automate the mundane. Internal innovation will help us to do this. I encourage my team and anyone else with a desire to guide change to learn to program. There are countless online courses, for free, that will help to set the stage for success. Also, a side benefit of learning a new language is that it forces me to use parts of my brain that were not being used or were used infrequently. This affects all parts of the business; I can develop internal processes better, solve problems more quickly, and challenge myself to do more and dream bigger.

Consider the state of accounting even 5 years ago and now start to think about the future. It is your duty as a firm owner or staff accountant to be adaptable and start to consider where this trade is going. Don’t dwell in the past, look forward and see what is on the horizon. You can either sit and wait for the phone to stop ringing and become irrelevant, or you can build innovation into your practice today. Start small, think big, and be the force of change in your practice.

Cristina Garza has built a spectacular book of business from the ground up and serves clients in a wide range of industries including technology startups, creative agencies, recreational and medical dispensaries, and professional service organizations. When she is not working alongside her super star team, she can be found backpacking in the mountains or lifting all of the weights.

Image: iStock/DragonImages