B2B Payments

When Artificial Intelligence Meets Human Intelligence In SMB Accounting

The rise in automated solutions – especially in various finance functions – initially led to concern among financial professionals that their positions might be replaced by robots. With automation becoming more commonplace, however, it’s clear that humans are undoubtedly still needed in the enterprise.

Indeed, small businesses say they are actually demanding more from their accountants and bookkeepers than ever before. In addition to the standard numbers-crunching and tax filing, accountants are expected to serve as strategic advisors to small business clients.

A survey last year from Seed found that small businesses are increasingly frustrated that their banks aren’t providing advisory services they need, and separate research suggests that demand is now falling onto the accountant. These professionals appear to be stepping up to the plate, too, with 76 percent of accounting practices telling Xero last year that they expect to invest more resources into advisory services.

Furthermore, there is evidence that accountants – many of whom may have initially feared the consequences of technology – are now acting as the catalyst for small business tech adoption.

Two-thirds of accountants recently surveyed by Right Networks said they embrace the cloud as a tool to forge deeper connections with their customers, while the cloud’s ability to facilitate forecasting, risk management and other value-added services is also a top focus for accounting professionals.

According to Aymen Zaben, founder of Accountlet, the human element in small business accounting is here to stay.

“You will always need the human element,” he recently told PYMNTS. “I’m a strong believer in that. Technology is great, but it cannot replace the human element. We take that very seriously.”

But it’s true that technology – and the automation that comes with it – is changing the role of the accountant “as we know it,” the executive added.

That will be a critical concept to keep in mind as Accountlet enters an already saturated market. The small business bookkeeping and accounting company announced its official launch earlier this month to provide cloud-based, automated services for accountants and their SMB clients. But in addition to that technology, the company links its small business users with two (human) bookkeepers or accountants.

Not only is the company emerging at a time of great competition in the industry, but it also makes its debut at a time of great technological disruption.

Data analytics will be critical to this disruption, said Zaben, who also noted that he sees small business owners increasingly ready to end their reliance on paper in an effort to digitize – and make use of – that data.

“One of the problems most business owners struggle with is keeping files organized and getting those files to their accountants,” he said. “At the end of the year, at tax time, it was just ridiculous. You would have a whole bunch of receipts, and a lot of it is lost.”

He added that the rise in cloud-based accounting tools is part of SMBs’ desire to nix paper.

“Why would I want to keep files upon files of receipts and paper, when I could just digitize that, and have it saved in a single cloud storage account?” he asked.

Enhancing the use of that data also means that accounting solutions (and the data stored in them) have to be seamlessly integrated into other back-office portals like payroll and ERP platforms – and, according to Zaben, if a company doesn’t embrace cloud technology and data integration in the coming years, it’s unlikely that service provider will even exist in the future.

“The only way this can all work is if all apps connect,” he said. “You don’t want to use 20 apps that don’t integrate with one another.”

Today, financial services providers are racing to develop and adopt APIs that facilitate this kind of integration. But FinTechs have to be careful: in an already saturated market like small business accounting, SMBs are growing weary of using too many apps, and this “app fatigue” can be even more overwhelming as more apps integrate with each other and support connections to more solutions.

Another one of the largest disruptors, said Zaben, is artificial intelligence, though he said it won’t necessarily be ubiquitous in small businesses’ back offices.

“Artificial intelligence is definitely coming into this industry,” he said. “I don’t think it will be the right solution for every business, but artificial intelligence will definitely play a big role with medium-to-large-sized businesses. I think we’re seeing a lot of cloud solutions, automation, artificial intelligence – and blockchain has also become extremely popular.”

The FinTechs developing small business accounting solutions are largely implementing tools like AI in an effort to reach the small business directly. But accountants, too, are embracing these solutions to enhance their own services provided to SMB clients.

A report from BlackLine published last October found that more than three-quarters of accountants believe AI will play a “significant” role in corporate accounting, and an additional 29 percent said that role will be “very significant” as AI solutions evolve to facilitate automation.

According to BlackLine APAC director Ann Furlong, the data highlights expectations for the role of accountant to continue changing.

“Job roles and workflow processes will radically change during the coming years as usage of the technology becomes more widespread,” Furlong said in a statement at the time. “This will allow accountants to shift from routine tasks into roles that add a higher level of value to their companies.”

In other words, technology isn’t replacing the job of accountant, but instead can be an opportunity to empower an accountant to take on an elevated role.

“I don’t think any business owner wants to rely on computer software alone,” said Zaben about the importance of human talent. “They all want professionals to be involved and to monitor their businesses.”

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