The future of accounting – expert insights

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Change is on the horizon for the accounting profession, but what will it mean for individual careers and how should professionals respond now?

Following up on the Future Accountant research, AAT invited a panel of experts together at the annual conference to discuss how accounting roles will evolve.

It was clear that our experts don’t believe machines are ready to take over the future. In fact our panel maintains accounting professionals are well placed to deal with change – provided they start taking small positive steps now.

‘The biggest thing in our business is still people, not AI. The things machines can’t do are build trust, create empathy or show humility – all the things that make you want to buy from somebody, work with somebody, have a relationship with them,’ said Glen Foster of Xero.

Expert Panel

Facilitator: Brian Palmer, AAT Tax Policy advisor

  • Andi Lonnen, The Finance Training Academy.
  • Abul Nurujjaman, AAT Licensed Member of the Year 2017, Taj Accountants.
  • Christopher Argent, Group Finance Systems and Process, BI and Analytics, Vodafone.
  • Glen Foster, Director, Partner Sales, Xero.

Soft skills upgrade

Less time spent on data processing will mean more time is available for advising and consulting with clients.

This kind of discussion needs the right approach: so developing skills, such as rapport-building, mirroring, presentation and great all-round communication are a priority.

Technology will see accountants move from being accountants to advisors, leaving them to “do what they were born to do”, says training professional Andi Lonnen. “It’s that intelligent interpretation of the numbers. Helping people understand what the numbers mean for them. And how to run their departments or businesses better.

“We forget some people don’t like numbers, and they don’t understand them like we do. So breaking it down, having those clear communication skills is what it will be about,” she adds.

Trusted advisors

We assume CEOs are in control. But they could use a listening ear. If you provide it, it will lead to a deeper relationship.

What does it look like to become an advisor to a business? Well, the challenge is to help your clients or non-financial colleagues see life through the windscreen, not the rear view mirror. That means having bigger and more courageous conversations.

“Sometimes you might be asked to project manage something the CEO can’t deal with. Have you ever asked, what is your biggest risk in your business?,” says Christopher Argent, Group Finance Systems and Process, BI and Analytics, Vodafone and a member of AAT.

“We assume that CEOs  are 100% in control and in charge, but they could use a listening ear. If you provide it, it will lead to a much deeper and longer relationship with the business.”

A whole new you?

The future challenge starts with developing soft skills. But it goes further. Accountants need to be more proactive and more outgoing. Christopher Argent says the typical Myers Briggs personality analysis would probably label accountants introverts. But instead they need to be willing to open discussions and seek interaction with clients.

It may be a bit of a shock for some. But the overwhelming advice from this year’s conference (including the likes of HMRC and Accountants) is to jump in and have a go.

Andi Lonnen advises individuals to start learning – and practicing these skills now, making the most of the free help available from sources like AAT Comment and the trade press. “Don’t just read about it. Practice it. That can be really tough for some people. But get out there and try – it will help you stay relevant.”

Transitioning clients

For those working in practice or running their own businesses, there is the added challenge of transitioning the business. The process starts with making time to think, and then moves how to get clients in tune with moving to digital services.

Christopher Argent says: “In the immediate future, you need to think of yourself as an information data broker to your client, to get them over this hump. Show them how to automate their operations. This frees you up to add value, which will lead to a longer term relationship.”

The challenge is that some fee-earning opportunities will be lost through automation, and new services will be an “upsell”.

Freemium to premium services

At the beginning we have to somehow absorb the cost while teaching clients to use these add-ons.

Abul Nurujjaman, AAT Licensed Accountant, says accounting professionals can convince their clients if they tackle the process in the right way.

“We will spend less time on data processing. We will spend more time talking with clients. Then… we have the opportunity to sell them more strategic products. If clients have the [need] to understand the business and the [opportunity] to do so, they will definitely come to us.

“At the beginning we have to somehow absorb the cost while teaching clients to use these add-ons. The first time they will get the report for free. The next time you can charge them. You have to teach them with a free sample.”

Many other topics came up during the panel debate. You can watch the full discussion using this link.

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

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