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How technology is changing what SMEs look for in an accountant

By Marnus Broodryk, Shark Tank SA Investor and Xero Gold Partner

The rapid advancement of technology, and its impact on the commercial environment, is changing the relationship small and medium sized enterprise (SME) owners have with their accountants. Research conducted by Xero and World Wide Worx shows that technology is increasingly handling the more repetitive and administrative accountancy tasks. In fact, 34% of SMEs surveyed said that automation is helping them become more self-sufficient, and 31% don’t believe they will need an accountant in ten years’ time.

If you’re an accountant, you can view technology in one of two ways; something that threatens to eliminate your job completely or as something that will change it, but also make it more interesting. Fifty-nine percent of the accountants surveyed believe that technology takes care of the number-crunching and helps free up time for more strategic consultancy.

The reality is that an accountant’s role is far from obsolete and those willing to embrace the new tech-driven working world have much to gain. With a few simple adjustments, accountants and their SME clients can both benefit from the exciting changes that lie ahead.

Number crunchers

Accountants are often treated as compliance specialists and number-crunchers. The traditional view of their job is to keep company finances in order and out of trouble, while other professionals focus on growth, profit and strategy. Of course, compliance-related tasks are critical to a business: 76% of SMEs surveyed said that year-end accounts and tax returns are very important. However, more and more SMEs are taking these functions in-house.

As businesses automate their compliance needs, accountants need to offer more value-add services to maintain relevancy. This is supported by the fact that 51% of SMEs value accounting and finance software advice and support. Far from putting accountants out of a job, technology is liberating them from the daily drudgery of time-consuming admin and enabling them to offer services beyond compliance. According to 59% of accountants, technology frees up their day to include strategic consultancy work over and above traditional number crunching tasks.

Business advisers

 Overall, the research shows that SMEs respect accountants: 65% of SMEs count them as their most trusted business advisers. However, a further 52% believe that the accounting profession needs to step out of its compliant comfort zone even more. The survey results show that 23% of SMEs ask their accountants for non-financial advice regularly, and 74% of respondents considered this advice as very important to their operational success.

It makes sense then for accountants to position themselves as business advisers rather than number crunchers. Such a move will help boost profits and keep up with the competition. When it comes to the specific value-add services that are in high demand, technological expertise ranks highly. Unsurprisingly, 66% of SMEs believe that knowledge of accounting software is a valuable skill. In terms of other essential skills, over half of the respondents (54%) rate forecasting as ‘very important’.

On-demand accountants

Communication will always be a crucial skill for any business adviser. There are various channels available in today’s digitally connected world however, 64% of SMEs choose email as their preferred choice. That said, 18% like to communicate using their accounting software and 16% enjoy the visual element of video calls. Whatever the channel though, the more responsive the accountant the better: 70% of SMEs consider responsiveness when deciding who to work with.

Technology helps accountants be more responsive. The old ‘9 to 5’ work day is no longer as relevant and accountants are now able to offer their SME clients an ‘on-demand’ service, with 28% of SMEs believing that they will have increased communication with their accountant in the future. The ability to work remotely and with greater flexibility is of great benefit to both SMEs and accountants: 56% of accountants believe that flexible work hours will increase overall productivity.

Cloud software means that an accountant can supply services from their kitchen table, the bus or even the beach. Neither accountants nor the SMEs they work with need to stick to a conventional time frame: short notice tasks and long-term projects are easily addressed without any dip in accuracy, efficiency, or client experience.

Ultimately, accountants remain an indispensable support to South Africa’s small business owners. The type of service required though is changing. Technology is impacting both SMEs and accountancy businesses; automating run-of-the-mill jobs while simultaneously creating the need for more strategic assistance. The accountants of today that will still be around tomorrow, are those embracing this change and moving from number cruncher to business adviser as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Xero is a proud Partner of the NSBC.