Automation has given rise to the fear that accountants – human ones, at least – are no longer needed. Some industry players are attempting to quell concerns by assuring accountants that it’s not that their role will disappear, it’s that their role is changing.
Indeed, small businesses don’t even want the robots, according to recent research from Exact, which found only 10 percent of small businesses would trust a robot to do their accounting. Instead, analysts found entrepreneurs like the human interaction.
That human interaction is becoming more strategic, with accountants acting as an adviser to small business clients as opposed to a paper-pusher and calculator.
But for some accountants, that can be just as terrifying.
“Accountants are pretty shy and introverted,” said Joy Archer, vice president of marketing at Finagraph. “They went into accounting because they like numbers, not because they like people.”
Sure, that can’t be said of every single accountant. But the industry is facing monumental pressure to change and adapt to growing needs of small businesses, as owners have more options than ever before for automated accounting solutions.
And, like any industry professional, accountants are bound to face some friction as they try to adapt.
”Accountants are being encouraged by the industry and by their clients to provide more advisory services, rather than providing a tax service once a year or closing the books once a month,” Archer said, adding that the vast majority of accountants understand how important online and digital accounting tools are for their SME clients and realize they have to adapt, but they aren’t exactly sure how.
”I would say probably about 70 to 80 percent understand that being an adviser is important, but they don't know how to do it,” she said. “No one is giving them the tools to help.”
Finagraph’s contribution to this issue is the launch of Flight, a digital platform that can provide both accountants and their small business customers a more visual, simplified view of accounting data. Announced this week, Flight was described by Finagraph as a combination of Facebook and Quickbooks, providing a feed of graphs, visual data and other key bits of accounting information, making it easier to assess the meaning of financial information.
Despite the Facebook comparison, Archer said she is hesitant to liken the solution to social media, per se.
“I'm cautious about using the phrase ‘social media,’” she said. “We call it an activity feed. A lot of the accountants are older, and very distrustful of social media.” Instead, she explained that the tool provides secure, protected insight in “quick, snack-sized bites.”
For accountants, this provides the clarity and analysis of financial data their small businesses are calling for. For entrepreneurs, the information is easy to understand, which is critical, Archer added.
“As many as 90 percent of small business owners are financially illiterate,” she said. That doesn’t mean they aren’t educated, she noted, but it means they aren't financially educated. It’s the same reason why Finagraph is going after the accountant and not the small business directly, like so many players in the industry are doing.
“We tried to go straight to small businesses, and it just didn't work,” she said. “They're too spread out. There’s no easy way to connect with small businesses.”
Working directly with accountants and other providers of SME financial services, she added, is an efficient way to reach the small business with information they'll actually understand. Information needs to be presented in a concise, meaningful way if an advisor is going to fulfill SMEs' need for a guide to their financial health.
For accountants struggling to embrace the role of advisor, an online data feed could be the nudge they need. Archer said Flight works because it negates the need for accountants to pick up the phone and have a conversation with a small business owner, instead allowing them to share information through an online portal, which can also support the sending of documents and communication between accountant, SME, bank and other partners.
Interestingly, she added, the minority of accountants who embrace the advisory role are the same minority who embrace technology in their roles.
“There’s a very small minority, I would say five to 10 percent, of the accountants are on the cutting edge,” she said. “They are the digital ones. They're using apps. They're the same ones that are already embracing the advisory role, and they're looking for tools to help that.”