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Sage Series: Modernising culture, mindset and relationships

Read the second installment of our new four-part series written by Jules Carman, Digital Transformation Expert from Alliott Group Preferred Partner (Accounting Software) Sage.

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Time is literally a-changing in the world of accounting. From the increasingly prominent role of technology to shifting client requirements and the need to provide an expanded range of services: transformation is everywhere. And as the profession evolves and matures, so too must the way firms do business, enabling them to keep pace with their competitors and meet both employee and client requirements.

The relationships accounting firms build with their employees and clients are now more important than ever, especially with a new generation of employees entering the workforce. Planning for both a multi-generational workforce and client base, as well as finding a niche for the practice, is therefore vital to honing skills and being competitive in a crowded business landscape.

The accountant’s practice of the future needs to be shaped and molded – waiting for it simply to happen is not an option. A change of mindset and culture within accountancy firms is now a pre-requisite to ensure success both for today and tomorrow, primarily involving two key groups of people: employees and clients.

Prepare for an employee evolution

To ensure a competitive edge, accounting firms need to create the right culture and employment choices. This will include recruiting people who can wear multiple hats, possess the digital expertise that has come to be expected, and those with ambition. People who have the drive to become Partners and want to develop the project management skills needed to run a successful practice will be the ones leading the future of the profession.

Understanding what is important to existing staff is also essential, which starts by having an open dialogue. These conversations can help to shed light on different cultural characteristics of the firm, while also highlighting common discrepancies. For example, millennial accountants will naturally be more digitally-focused and used to collaborating with colleagues remotely when compared with the ‘baby boomer’ generation. This disposition affects attitudes towards processes like bookkeeping and account management, as different generations will have slightly different ways of working. Understanding these types of disparities is key when it comes to shaping company culture and providing the specific support each employee needs.

Related to this is the issue of succession planning, which is important for supporting business intelligence, keeping the right skills within the business and maintaining service levels for clients. With baby boomers approaching retirement age and more millennials entering the accounting workforce, firms have to be prepared for a transition to take place. Partners and Directors should be encouraged to mentor younger staff and develop them as leaders while recruiting experienced accountants with the necessary skills to take the firm to the next level.

Finally, a change in mindset around the use of technology is required to provide the culture that younger employees expect – and to add value for clients. Firms must be operationally prepared to enhance their technological capabilities, for example by automating data entry or investing in cloud solutions so accountants can be connected to clients 24/7. This mindset will drive a different culture by unlocking new opportunities, providing new working practices and, most importantly, meeting the demands of the modern workforce.

Focus on the client experience

As well as focusing on what’s happening internally, accounting firms also need to look externally. It’s critical that they evaluate their practice to make sure they can build an energetic, forward-looking brand and deliver the experience clients now demand. According to research from Salesforce, 81 per cent of business buyers believe the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, while 67 per cent say their standard for what constitutes a ‘good experience’ is higher than ever.

These figures highlight just how important interactions with clients have become and how the traditional accountancy model is changing. Rather than focusing on being service-based – such as doing the numbers and completing annual audits – accounting firms need to shift their mindset and practices towards providing a personalised and engaging client experience.

This means accountancy firms will have to learn how to work differently. Being able to move away from the transactional relationships of the past and instead offer a more strategic advisory service around areas such as business development and risk management can now be a key differentiator, and company culture plays a key role in realising this ambition.

Transforming relationships in accountancy requires this two-pronged approach, involving a focus on both employees and clients. Although achieving this is easier said than done, following a few simple steps can go a long way towards bringing about cultural, operational and technological change and driving effective transformation.

Invest in understanding what colleagues want

Gaining a better understanding of employees should be a key objective, as knowing what is important to them can help identify any cultural gaps. It can also provide clues as to whether people are resistant to change, or willing to embrace it. The employees that are passionate about transformation and want to take the firm to the next level are more likely to be the ones that will succeed in the long term.

Related to this are the challenges that some employees may come across when having to work alongside digitally-savvy accountants. From a culture point of view, giving them support and creating an open, collaborative culture is so important.

Incorporating an employee retention scheme, for example, can help to further encourage employees by incentivising good people to stay with the firm and help build a roadmap for the future.

Respond to changing client demands

When it comes to clients, attitudes towards how they view accountants are changing, with the Sage 2018 Practice of Now report highlighting how the vast majority (83 per cent) expect more in terms of services and resources than they did five years ago. As such, creating a culture that encourages employees to really get to know the companies they are working with is essential.

Rather than just focusing on the bottom line, firms should promote the importance of understanding the client’s journey, building trust and communicating regularly. Familiarising themselves with clients’ unique business goals and offering bespoke services to suit their needs, requirements and budgets are also essential.

But this won’t happen by itself. Firms have to adopt a more inquisitive and consultative approach to doing business, and question if their current approach really is the most effective.

Offer real choice

More than ever, it’s vital that firms provide a range of choices to help differentiate themselves from the competition. Again, this applies to both employees and clients. For employees, this might relate to ways of working or the adoption of specific solutions that give them additional insight into their clients’ businesses and access to client documents from wherever they are.

Clients, on the other hand, will be more interested in getting the best value for money. Ultimately, they want to be able to choose how quickly they will have access to the knowledge their accountant holds and the different types of services they can make use of. By providing a tiered set of services – such as offering additional business development consultancy for higher paying clients – the client can choose which one they want, resulting in a personalised service and a positive experience.

Whether the focus is on employees or clients, offering choice will enable firms to pinpoint ways in which they should transform and provide solutions to help meet these needs.

Shift from redundant to indispensable

In an age where competition in the accounting profession is fiercer than ever, firms have to change how they operate in order to make themselves indispensable to their clients. They simply can’t afford not to.

The culture of any firm must be focused on working as effectively as possible, modernising any legacy processes that are taking up too much time and holding accountants back from doing their job – such as manual data entry. To truly transform the way they service clients, firms must focus on the quality of work and the value derived from it, rather than just the number of hours put into each project. This may involve using technology to transform operations and internal processes, moving away from the ‘timesheets mindset’, or simply changing the way they interact with clients.

Ultimately, accounting firms have to make themselves a part of clients’ businesses, but the culture has to be geared towards this outcome. By doing so, their employees will be able to concentrate on building profitable, long-term relationships and ensuring indispensability.

Don’t stand still

One of the biggest considerations when it comes to company culture is to be prepared for constant change. From the rapid growth of new technologies to an evolving workforce and a myriad of external pressures, the accountancy sector has a huge amount to deal with. And, whether this excites or terrifies, it’s not a trend that is likely to disappear any time soon.

As such, firms can’t afford to stand still. Senior management has to constantly be thinking about how employee succession will be managed, how they can retain the company’s values and what they need to do to create a culture of commitment and performance. That way, the relationships firms have with their clients will be positive, long-lasting and profitable.

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