No one’s in any doubt that the world of accounting is changing at a faster rate than it’s ever done before.
And for certain specialist roles – bookkeeping perhaps being the most prominent – there’s uncertainty about what the future looks like and not a little fear that many parts of the profession are increasingly being automated.
However – the reality is that the future of bookkeepers has never been sounder, as long as professionals embrace the changes, identify opportunities and seize the chances that present themselves. So how is the role changing – and how is technology enabling certain traditional accountants’ roles to become the bookkeeper’s?
“It’s true that as businesses increasingly go to digital products, the role of the bookkeeper will change,” says Karen Lowen, Director of Dod-dle. “Not only will some businesses want to keep their entire bookkeeping requirement with their bookkeeper, but others may want to move to having their bookkeeper oversee, or review, their digital efforts. This may well involve checking the debtors and creditors at month end, reconciling the bank account or just checking that postings have been made correctly.”
Technology makes it easier for businesses to keep their accounting up to speed – with software like Dod-dle’s being designed specifically for ease of use by small companies – but this gives bookkeepers new opportunities, rather than replacing them. “Review what services you offer now,” Lowen advises. The key is to be flexible and adaptable. Technology – and particularly the move to MTD – “offers a chance to grow for all concerned. Businesses grow because they have increased information at their fingertips, and bookkeepers grow with the subsequent increase in demand for their services.”
Be tech-savvy, know what different platforms are available, and be able to demonstrate clearly what you do for your clients. A client won’t necessarily know (or want to know) the difference between Xero and QBO, or what Spotlight does. They don’t need to. They want to leave things to the bookkeeper to sort, and if you can be nimble about that, you will gain new clients and retain grateful existing ones.
The fact that bank reconciliations can now be done at the touch of a button does not mean the bookkeeper’s role is becoming piecemeal redundant. Rather, it frees you up to focus on other things – you can offer advice in real time, and less time spent on functional tasks means more time to grow the business.
If you have clients who are fearful or suspicious about cloud safety, see it as part of your job to reassure them
Working with, as well as for, your client
A customer-focused attitude is essential to achieve this, however. “I once spoke to an accountant who said they would only accept clients who use a certain package,” says Lowen. If you want to be a growth-oriented, solutions-focused bookkeeper, this isn’t the approach to take. “While that might be acceptable to someone with only large company clients, it won’t suit a practice who have sole traders or micro-organisations as their customers. It’s in the client’s interests, and therefore the bookkeeper’s, to consider the array of packages on offer and see what fits.”
Be proactive, and see yourself as a confidante to your client – not someone who works in isolation. For example, if you have clients who are fearful or suspicious about cloud safety, see it as part of your job to reassure them. Your key role as a bookkeeper is to support the business by building an accurate picture of financial activity. The technology that is increasingly available ensures you can build that picture more quickly, see long-term financial health at a glance, and become alert to problems as they arise. You can also see where money is going less efficiently than in other places, or which might be areas to capitalise on more.
“Your focus should be on adding value,” says Brian Palmer, Brian Palmer, Tax Policy Adviser at AAT and CEO of Tax Policy Advice. “Yes, technology is going to make some basic parts of the job no longer necessary. But the work you can now do in interpreting figures – in helping to make adjustments that will feed through to increase profitability – is a far more interesting prospect.” You can help clients make changes to the business now that will really help them – “isn’t that better than pointing things out six months after year end, when it’s too late to do anything about it?”
And for the future? “If you’re not already, familiarise yourself with cloud-based products and their associated apps; see which best for you and which integrate with your software; and identify what’s going to work best with clients.” Additionally, Palmer says, “look at your training needs. Software is becoming much more intuitive,” he points out, so these training gaps often lie more in the ‘soft skills’ arena.
Finally, we have to accept that “technology does mean the death of certain jobs – but it leaves those who can adapt, in a place where they can work in a much more interesting place.” The quality of work has gone up, Palmer argues, “and the result is the removal of capacity constraint.”
Previously, bookkeepers would be spending all their time doing necessary but time-consuming jobs – and increasingly those jobs can be automated. Rather than looking backwards and trying to hold onto those roles, look at how you can be a value-generator, think about what your clients want from you, and communicate effectively. And think of how this ‘removal of capacity constraint’ could help you re-orient your business. “It’s a very interesting – and exciting – time.”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.