In the May / June issue of Accounting Technician, the trade magazine from the AAT (unfortunately not available online), Ben Willis made the case for man versus machine or, as he put it, Computers Versus Accountants. This was the wrong question – accountants don’t need to fear obsolescence in the same way factory workers do. The issue is not whether computers will rule the accounting world, but how can accountants bend “the machines” to their whim to improve their service and business practises.
If the electronic spreadsheet was the first accounting revolution, the cloud and SaaS will be the second. Richard Anning of the ICAEW said in the piece that “accounting systems have been relatively slow to ‘go into the cloud’” – I’d like to make Richard aware that we’re already here, and we have been for a few years (although his naiveté is hardly surprising given the institute’s struggles with modernity). That said, some accountants have shown a certain reluctance to move online – why is that? Aside from wilful ignorance on the part of some, the problem is not with cloud computing – which is seeing faster adoption than ever -but with accountancy practices. The sheer logistics of translating vanilla invoice and expense information into a double-entry accounting system using software is a gargantuan task, made harder still if you want to ensure the books you generate are valid and standards-compliant.
David Quigg of the AAT council surmises that people using electronic accounting system often believe their records are correct purely because they are on a computer – therefore accountants are still required to hold users’ hands, to ensure they make no mistakes. Not so, Mr. Quigg. With intelligently designed software even a completely knowledge-free user can be guided through a simple process to produce correct accounts.
Again, the problem here is not the user nor the technology (which the piece heavily implies), the issue is translating the information from easily-comprehensible figures into the language of accounting. It isn’t easy, but with software it can be done.
Contrary to the research by the Open University cited by Willis (fortuitously timed to coincide with a big promotion of their own bookkeeping courses, it should be added), when setting up Crunch we found that the majority of small business owners saw their accountants as a witch doctors of sorts – practitioners of dark arts who had to be paid in kind for their services. By putting control in the hands of clients through simple software we are helping them to better understand the accounting process (obviously, I can understand why this would worry some accountants!), and allowing them to feel a part of their investment in our services, rather than pouring money into a black hole and having their accounts spat out at the other end.
Where I completely agree with the AAT is that accountants should have a face and be eminently approachable. This is the one thing an accountant can still do better than a computer, and the one huge pitfall of cloud computing. Our accountants often say they feel more like encyclopedias than calculators because they act as fonts of knowledge instead of data-entry grunts. Local accountancy firms have to target several verticals due to their comparatively small market, and can’t possibly hope to be experts in business, personnel and tax regulations for businesses of all sizes. Our market is the entire country – so we specifically target freelancers, contractors and small businesses and make sure we know their issues inside out. Our targeted approach means we can better serve our clients, even if we never meet them face-to-face. Visit VeryGoodService.com, a website recognising companies with exemplary customer support, and you’ll only find one accountancy firm on there – Crunch. When your accountants aren’t tapping away on spreadsheets all day you’ll be surprised how personable they become.
By automating accountancy practises through software we can increase our efficiency (see our “Annual accounts in one click” function, for example), lower our costs – and in turn, our clients’ expenditure. It used to be the rule that a cheap accountant was a bad accountant. We’re the cheapest full-service accountant around and are listed top of an independent leaderboard for small business ASPs.
The trick is to let each arm of the business do what they do best – let the computers do the computing, and let the humans be human. Evolution needn’t be feared.