7 essential insights from the AAT Annual Conference

The AAT Annual Conference looked at innovation in accountancy and what members can do to keep up with the pace. Here are some of the trends and lessons that we picked up at the event.

1. The IT revolution is happening faster than any previous cultural shift

The agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years, but the current technology revolution has taken tens of years, and the rate of innovation is speeding up, says Xero’s UK MD Gary Turner. As a result, business models are changing: “Facebook is the world’s biggest media company, and yet it creates no content, Alibaba is the most valuable retailer, and owns no inventory. And of course Airbnb, the world’s largest holiday company, but doesn’t own a single hotel room.”

2. SMEs are the future (but they’re terrible at paying their bills)

There are 200m small businesses worldwide, and that number is growing, according to Turner’s presentation. In the UK, small businesses are a huge section of the UK economy, responsible for 60% of employment and 47% of turnover. But they also struggle with many of the ins and outs of running a business: 72% have no business plan, 40% don’t use service providers such as accountants, and 39% don’t use technology at all.

3. Accountants are the most trusted advisors in the small business community

Which means that they are best placed to help SMEs improve their business knowledge and streamline their systems. This requires new models and ways of working in order to serve them effectively. Particularly using cloud technology, says Turner: “Rather than doing what I call binge bookkeeping, where you put it off and put it off and then one day you have to do all of this work to get the month-end done, we train small business owners to do it little and often, and you can just check in and just tidy up any errors they might have made. Then by the time you get to month-end, you’re running a set of management accounts, which is unheard of in an SMB.”

4. Accountants need to be straight-talking finance translators

As the business world becomes more and more driven by micro-entities, there is a need for accountants to put accounting terminology in layman’s terms, and to present information in a clear, easy to interpret format. This came up at several points throughout the conference. Gary Turner at Xero mentioned this, as did Richard Simms of FA Simms and several delegates throughout the conference. “I think AAT members are more straight-talking than most accountants,” said one delegate during the dinner. “So I think we have an advantage.”

5. Clients want their accountants to deal with all compliance issues – including HR

That’s according to Daniel Shah, head of channel partnerships at BrightHR. Clients are asking accountants to help with HR issues, and accountants have no idea how to deal with it, he told us in the conference exhibition hall. “But they keep being asked, so they look for a third party that can do that work for them,” he said.

6. Accountants need to sell themselves on their personalities – both in the real world and online

It’s the only way they can really stand out, said accountant and motivational speaker Mark Lee in his keynote speech: “As accountants, what we do is not unique,” he said. “The only thing that is really unique is us.”

Lee’s presentation offered delegates the tools to make a lasting first impression with potential clients and useful contacts. “When you’re talking to people, the best thing you can do is to listen to them. People will generally find you to be a more interesting person, the more interested you are in them. Listening is key.”

7. Remote working is on the rise – and is most likely here to stay

More and more business leaders are extolling the benefits of remote working. Statistics revealed in Sage’s closing keynote at the conference that remote workers experienced increased productivity by 10-20%, lowered stress levels by 25% and improved diet for 73%.

In fact, 36% of employees would choose the opportunity to work remotely over a payrise. But it needs the right people to work, said Sage’s Abbas Ahmed: “At my previous company, some people rejected working from home. They wanted to be in the office and be in the office environment to get the motivation and culture that comes from being a part of something.”

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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