By Coco d'Hont Run your business What could a chatbot do for your accounting firm? 13 Sep 2017 “If only I had a little robot to do my expenses for me…” Many business owners will have had this thought at some point. With legislation constantly changing and the day-to-day often getting in the way of admin time, keeping track of the books can be difficult, especially for small business owners with little or no accounting expertise. Luckily, that handy finance robot that so many have dreamed of is finally a reality. It’s virtual, so sadly it looks nothing like R2-D2, but it does make light work of everyday finance tasks such as tracking expenses. Virtual accounting assistants such as Sage’s Pegg, Xero’s Hey Xero and Unit4’s Wanda, are flexible and easy to use – and you can even chat to them like you would a friend. Although this technology is still relatively new, it’s likely to have a big impact on the accounting sector. Chatbots can help business owners perform standard accounting tasks quicker and more efficiently than before. As a result, accountants could find themselves pursuing new kinds of activities: chatbots will likely take over menial tasks so that accountants can use more of their expertise to add value for clients. In fact, for those who engage, chatbots may even help attract new clients and impress old ones. The robots are coming Unlike traditional accounting software, chatbots offer a conversational experience and respond to questions as if they were a real person. Claus Jepsen, chief architect at Unit4, explains that his is helpful for users who are not used to working with accounting software, because chatbots make communication with technology much more intuitive. “Wanda is now the face of our software, so to speak,” he says. “It’s the digital assistant you communicate with directly. But our existing accounting software package is still behind itt.” The conversational experience chatbots offer makes performing computerized accounting tasks a faster and less frustrating experience. Craig Walker, CTO at Xero, explains that Hey Xero uses Facebook Messenger, a platform many clients will already be familiar with. The idea is that by offering support in this way, Hey Xero makes the process feel more natural and less like a burden. “It’s like having a helper on demand 24/7,” Walker says. “There’s no waiting, no ‘hold music’ and no need to be frustrated. The likelihood is that you already have Facebook Messenger open on one of your screens, so in time you’ll be able to simply connect to Hey Xero and ask for your bank balance, send reminders, access POs and more.” Our robot will see you now Worried that chatbots will make human accountants irrelevant? That’s unlikely to happen. Because chatbots can only perform simple tasks, the ability to give complex and tailored advice is more relevant now than ever before. Think of chatbots as helpful assistants which can take over time-consuming and tedious tasks, freeing you up to help your clients with more complicated jobs. Another chatbot feature accountants can benefit from is the directory function. Hey Xero’s geosensing function helps business owners find accountants in their area. Even if they’ve never considered hiring an accountant before, this service may lead new clients to your door. And on occasions where the bot can’t answer their question, clients will still need your help, insights and expertise to get things done. “Hey Xero works with the directory’s geosensing features to showcase partners that operate within the area the small business is situated in,” Walker explains. “This equips the accounting and bookkeeping partners with the tools to market their businesses and grow their client base.” The future is bright Accountancy chatbots are signalling an exciting future for the finance sector. Chatbots’ ability to make users’ lives easier will improve exponentially as time goes by, because bots can recognize user patterns, adapt to them and learn from them. For example, if you always check your expenses at a specific time, the bot will start checking them for you automatically. No matter how smart this sounds, though, Jepsen believes it’s unlikely we’ll be having philosophical discussions with chatbots anytime soon. “I think that’s science fiction. It requires tonnes of additional understanding about how we interact as humans,” he says. “But chatbots can improve how we communicate with software. Going forward, users will have a conversational experience with enterprise software, either in written form or through speech recognition.” For the moment, the main attraction of chatbots is their ability to simplify communication with complex software. Because they make it easier to get complicated or tedious tasks done, they help users maintain well-organized financial records, making your job as an accountant easier and less frustrating – even if you’ll lose out on the fun of seeing a physical robot rolling around your office. How to introduce a chatbot to your practice See the opportunities. Don’t be afraid of chatbots making your job obsolete. Instead, consider how they can benefit your business. Then engage early. Connect with your clients. Chatbots make it easier than ever before to work with, rather than for, your clients. Check in with them regularly and find out about the challenges they face. Become tech savvy. If technology isn’t your thing, try to get a basic grasp of the most important developments anyway, or you might miss out on new learning or business opportunities. Reconsider what you can offer. Although chatbots can do a lot of work for you, your expertise is more important than ever before. Make the most of your ability to be an advisor and coach. Don’t lean back. Chatbot technology is new and likely to evolve over the next few years, so keep an eye on new developments and embrace tomorrow’s solutions with a smile. Coco d'Hont is a staff writer at Flibl and reports on technology, finance and workplace wellbeing. Follow her on Twitter @cococatani.