Technology – friend or foe?

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Effective customer relationships are at the heart of any business success story including an accountancy practice. 

But how is a good relationship defined and how can it be developed in the modern technology-driven accountancy firm?

While greater use of technology gives most of us more time to make human contact, it is tending to have the opposite effect in the accountancy sector by actually reducing the amount of direct face-to-face contact.

The first thing to recognise is that technology is a tool and not a substitute. In a recent survey by BrightHR only 42 per cent of accountants said that they thought technological advances which replaced the need for ‘human’ interaction was the biggest threat to improving client relationships.

That’s quite a high percentage but bear in mind that at the same time only 20 per cent of the accountants questioned would describe their relationship with clients as ‘strong’. If that’s the case, then at least one-fifth of the profession need to review how to forge better relationships with clients, irrespective of technology.

The advantage of technology is to enable a service to be accessed more quickly and delivered more efficiently, together with the possibility of providing additional services which may not have been available previously. This belief was mirrored in the survey, with accountants rating additional services as the best way to strengthen client relationships.

The question is – do the clients agree?  All too often, all the client sees is that what was previously produced ‘manually’ is now being produced ‘automatically’ and with a consequent decrease in what is usually termed ‘personal attention’. This is not of course the case –  the best technology in the world is still dependent on human input. Problems can arise where the ‘computer’ is left to do its logical best, without the application of rationality that characterises human thought. As a simple example, a system will ‘number-crunch’ far more quickly and efficiently than a human brain, but it still takes the human accountant to derive from the figures the relevance to the client’s business, and to explain it in terms the client can readily understand. Only then can the client make use of the information provided.

Technology in today’s accountancy practice doesn’t stop with accountants’ production systems. If it did, then there would be fewer clients dissatisfied with their professional relationship. Technology is seen as replacing the human interface at all levels. Many firms no longer employ a receptionist, but use filtering for telephone calls and send out computer-generated communications. All of these tend to make the client feel relegated to a unit in a system. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

The key concept in forging a strong client relationship is to make the client feel that their business matters to you. Most technological advances improve quality of working life for the accountant, if used correctly, but the advantage to the client is not so obvious. Even where a client spots the advantage of, say, accounts being available more quickly, all this does is raise the bar of expectation or, worse still, lead to the view that fees should now be reduced.

So, in order to make technology work for you in improving your relationship with your client, take the client into your confidence. Some aspects you won’t need to explain, because the improvement in efficiency will speak for itself. Explaining that you can now produce accounts and tax returns with less manual effort on your part is unlikely to win you any brownie points. The actual effect of prompt service will however speak for itself. Concentrate on the aspects that affect your client directly in ‘human’ terms.

In the simplest terms, wherever technology replaces the ‘human’ interface with a client, tell the client why this is more efficient and, crucially, how the result of this improvement will positively affect them. If you can’t find a positive benefit to clients (however indirect) then maybe you should reconsider. If the concept is (as it should be) that the use of technology will free up more of your time (the ‘human’ face of accountancy), then use this time to improve the vital client relationship by spending quality time on making  your client aware of the benefits your service offers and, even more importantly, listening to the response.

I recently worked with BrightHR to co-author the report ‘Better Relationships, Better Business’ in which we explored how accountants can build better relationships with their clients.

Shaz Nawaz is an accountant and business growth strategist .

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