Will the future favour bookkeepers or accountants?

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This isn’t simply a question of which qualification you obtain.

Many business people are unaware that anyone can call themselves an accountant. In theory you could claim to be an accountant even if you have no professional qualification or if you have achieved bookkeeper status. But I wouldn’t recommend doing so.

Better to be crystal clear as to the services you provide and where your expertise lies. This is because the public also often use the term ‘accountant’ when they mean a bookkeeper or a tax adviser. And of course many accountants provide bookkeeping and/or tax services.

What you call yourself is only part of the story and it matters not where any of us might draw the line between one service and another.

What matters is that we all understand how the services provided by bookkeepers and accountants are likely to change in the future. Even this isn’t the whole story.

Clients don’t generally care what their bookkeeper or their accountant does as such. What clients typically focus on is the outcomes of the service. This is what they need. They need their income and expenses to be recorded so that they can produce accounts, file tax returns or create reliable cashflow projections.  They need these things done either to comply with their legal obligations or to plan the future of their business.

None of these objectives change with the continued rise in online bookkeeping systems and cloud accounting. The question for this blog post is simply: ‘Will the future favour accountants or bookkeepers?

Plenty of commentators seem to focus on one type of client and then anticipate a future where all these clients are doing their own bookkeeping using an online service.  As a result such clients will not need a bookkeeper – just an accountant or maybe not even that!

This may be true for a small section of the business community but not much. However easy it becomes for entrepreneurs, consultants and small business owners to do their own bookkeeping many will continue to choose to pay someone else to do so. Or they may try it themselves for a while and then give up and engage someone to help them.

The professional’s role will continue to evolve such that your client base may change. You will probably want to prepare for and embrace these changes. Failure to do so could lead to last minute panic as it becomes harder to retain and recruit your traditional clients.

This is also relevant as regards to how professionals charge for their work. Traditionally many of us charge by the hour. This seemed fair although many clients have never cared whether, for example, their regular bookkeeping takes one hour or five hours. They just want it done and any queries raised and resolved in real-time, wherever possible. This raising and resolving of queries is a key service that hasn’t always had the attention it deserves. It will become even more important in the light of HMRC’s ‘Making Tax Digital’ project.

In recent years there has been a big switch to offering the certainty of a fixed-price service. Whether it is higher or lower than would have been charged using hourly rates, it always means less time is spent tracking time, arguing over time spent and charging fees in arrears.

Clients get greater certainty as you have to charge for the value you provide rather than simply the time you have spent doing the work. This approach also means a greater focus on the nature of the services and how the client benefits from these – rather than just doing stuff because that’s what we’ve always done and that’s how we’ve always done it.

Accountants whose clients want to do their own bookkeeping in the cloud also need to evolve their services to offer more advice than perhaps they have done before. That’s where the real value will be perceived – not in taking the numbers from a bookkeeping package and creating a set of accounts or tax return in the traditional way.

The ongoing move into the cloud has led to increased demand by clients for information to be at their fingertips, on mobile devices. This is another opportunity that switched on bookkeepers and accountants can reference when talking about their services.

You need to be involved in the process to check that data has been entered and analysed correctly. Instead of only checking things make sense once a year you will need to be involved more often. As I say, it’s an evolution in the services you provide. And that’s why it doesn’t matter whether you describe yourself as a bookkeeper or as an accountant.

Mark Lee’s tips for standing out from the crowd will show you how to be remembered, referred and recommended. 

Mark Lee is a professional speaker and mentor for accountants.

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