Accountants and bookkeepers have a new reality with their small business clients: machines can do number-crunching and calculations, and these professionals are now forced to examine how to elevate their role with SMBs to continue to provide value.
Today, evolving the job of a small business accountant means not being replaced by technology, but tactfully using it. Troves of data are available within automated cloud accounting platforms like QuickBooks, as SmartBooks Founder and CEO Cal Wilder told PYMNTS in a recent interview. However, accountants are not developers, so understanding how to unlock that data and wield it to provide actionable insight for clients is a challenge — one necessary to overcome, though, if accountants are to demonstrate their value.
In this regard, Wilder said, the rise of seemingly competing automated accounting platforms like QuickBooks has opened opportunities for accountants — if they have the right tools and technology to take advantage of them.
“There is a lot of data [in these platforms], but it’s not presented in a way that’s easily digestible to small business owners — and not easily presented by advisers like accountants to the small business owner,” he said.
These professionals could, indeed, extract that data, upload it to an Excel spreadsheet, and deploy complex calculations to obtain insights like gross profit margin percentage over 12 months, for instance, or gross margin by product line, or customer payment analytics. However, such manual data processes would take up a significant amount of an accountant’s time if they have the knowledge and skillset to complete such tasks.
SmartBooks’ answer to this began with a solution it initially used internally; last week, the company announced that the tool, SmartBooks Genie, is now available to other outsourced accounting and bookkeeping professionals. The Genie software overlays QuickBooks to automate data extraction, with several preset modules to analyze that information and present a range of performance metrics for users’ clients.
The Artificial Intelligence ‘Hype’
Providing more sophisticated analytics of companies’ financial data stored within their back-office platforms has emerged as a top focus for FinTech developers and industry professionals. In this effort, artificial intelligence and machine learning have become staple buzzwords in this industry.
Last week, researchers at the accounting services group, Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA), released new data on the impact AI has already had on the profession, with a survey of 251 accountants finding that 52 percent agree AI will have a positive effect on their jobs. AI also landed at the top of items accountants expect to be the most significant trend in this space.
Though CABA service director Kelly Feehan acknowledged that artificial intelligence could be too expensive or advanced for some firms to adopt, she said it was “encouraging” to see so many accountants optimistic about the technology.
“As organizations become used to automation, they will start to see how technology can work to complement their workforce,” said Feehan in a statement, accounting to Accountancy Age reports, adding that AI can “help lessen the burden of menial, administrative tasks on employees.”
While SmartBooks Genie does include some artificial intelligence, Wilder warned against the profession putting too much stock in the technology — at least, for the time being.
“There is a lot of hype in the industry around artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it seems like everyone is trying to say they have the latest-and-greatest technology — automated everything,” he said. “But there’s nothing that really works very well that delivers on that promise right now.”
Wilder said that artificial intelligence is not getting agile and sophisticated enough to make good on promises like 24/7 zero-human-touch automation. So while AI can, as Feehan said, reduce the burden of manual tasks like data entry and analytics, today, small business clients are less interested in the technologies their outsourced accountants are using today, and more interested in the value-added service and insights their accountant partners provider.
As accountants develop their technology adoption strategies, Wilder noted that a part of that strategy should include combining technology with expertise and service — benefits, which, some automated cloud accounting platforms don’t come with today.
“When the technology is a little more evolved, we’ll look to do a little more with artificial intelligence,” he said. “But initially, we’re trying to empower traditional bookkeepers and accounting services firm to have better technology to do their jobs, and to be able to more effectively compete against software companies out there that don’t have personal customer service.”
Accountants’ ability to compete with technology must also include technology, however, so finding the right tools to provide small business clients with sophisticated, actionable insights that their automated accounting platforms cannot offer is essential.