by Ashley Doyen, Manager, CAS Firm Strategy, CPA.com
At this very moment, many of your business clients are facing a dilemma. Facing a more volatile and unpredictable business environment, many recognize that they need more forward-looking insights from their finance team (if they even have one) to help ensure they make more informed, successful decisions. Meanwhile, ongoing high demand for the type of talent who can deliver those insights has resulted in a talent crunch. It’s just harder to find – much less retain – the finance professionals who businesses can rely on day after day, and quarter after quarter, to inform their most important decisions.
This has created an important opening for accounting firms, many of which already have access to the financial data coursing through their clients’ organizations every day, not to mention a growing arsenal of advanced data analytics tools and commercial software for making sense of all this information. In many ways they are perfectly positioned to build on these assets and relationships to deliver advisory-level insights to their clients. Still, delivering on these expectations isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Most firms were built to deliver reliable, accurate, timely accounting – not detailed insights across clients, day after day. Shifts in people, processes, and technology are all required to deliver business insights at scale across a firm’s client portfolio – with data analytics capabilities serving as the engine propelling the strategy forward.
Is your firm ready to step up and start delivering more advisory-level value to clients using data analytics? Following are some critical aspects of the analytics-advisory conversation that your firm should consider as it plans its next steps with data analytics
Beyond ad hoc analysis
In this context of a true advisory practice, “data analytics” doesn’t mean simply having a CPA spend a little more time with a client’s spreadsheets to extract insights on a given issue. It’s the discipline of gathering data from clients’ accounting systems as well as others that they use to run their businesses, using both templated and custom analysis tools to identify patterns in the data, and routinely distributing those insights in ways that clients can easily understand and act on.
From one-off relationships to your entire client base
As valuable as today’s analytics tools are for clients, they’re just as valuable for the firms that help put them to work. Scale is one big reason why – reports, visualizations, and automation tools that work for one client can often be easily templated and applied in similar situations for other clients, with minimal rework. As a result, when firms notch analytics successes with one client, they can extend the same capabilities to other clients quickly – and reach new heights in terms of revenue, relationships, and reputation.
Analytics tools: What to look for
As the amount of data generated, stored, and managed surges across industries, demand for data analytics technologies for squeezing the full value of all that data has never been higher. As a result, new analytics tools and packages are being launched every day.
Whether as add-ons to existing software packages, or as standalone tools, there are more data analytics capabilities for the accounting profession available today than ever before. That makes choosing the right tools for your firm and clients even more important. While there are entire webinars, conference sessions, and full-length articles available on this topic, a few top-level considerations are worth mentioning here:
Low degree of technical or programming skills required
Capabilities that are easy to maintain over time
Smooth integration with existing firm/client solutions
Intuitive reporting and other outputs
These are only a few of the attributes firms should account for when evaluating data analytics solutions – each firm should develop its own checklist based on conversations with a range of internal stakeholders.
Are your people ready? Talent, recruitment, and upskilling
Historically, front-line accounting professionals have not been expected to serve as advisors to their clients on business strategy issues. As a result, neither their formal training and education nor their experiences working in firms have provided them with a clear pathway to advisory. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these professionals do not have the capacity to serve in this role for clients. If anything, they may be better positioned to make the move to advisory than any other client partners, given their deep familiarity with the ins and outs of their clients’ businesses. Accounting professionals can be data analytics experts responsible for providing actionable insights to clients – they just need to develop those skills through training, education, and new experiences.
Orienting themselves in an industry is another proven way for team members to ramp up the skills and insights clients expect. By immersing themselves in the client’s industry and attending industry-focused conferences and events, professionals can gain a first-hand understanding of the issues their clients face. Eventually, they will think and speak in industry terms – a convincing signal to clients looking for evidence of industry expertise.
Technical training can also play a central role in upskilling existing staff. At GRF CPAs & Advisors, Elinor Litwack, Partner, Outsourced Accounting & Advisory Services, says the firm has built its own training library based on internal sessions.
“We have our own people train one another, record it, and then save the sessions in a training library,” says Litwack. “It gives our people key opportunities to learn from one another – if someone is really good at some aspect of data analytics or advisory, we let them create the coursework and teach others.”
For some firms, training and upskilling existing staff isn’t enough to enable their CAS strategy – which is where recruitment comes in. For example, firms often bring in industry experts who don’t have the deep accounting experience of their peers but have the deep industry understanding their clients expect – and that their colleagues can learn from.
“I’m a living example of that,” says Brian Singleton, Director at FORVIS. “I started in public accounting, spent some time in industry, and then returned to the profession in our outsourced accounting services practice. There’s no way I could deliver a high level of service to my clients if I didn’t have that industry experience. Today, hiring people from industry has really helped our practice grow.”
Start delivering the next level of value to clients today
Not long ago, data analytics services were the types of offerings that only large consulting and accounting firms provided, because they were resource-intensive and required lots of highly specialized, proprietary technology. But that’s changed. Today, firms of any size can tap into a wealth of readily available technology solutions and other resources to begin providing data-driven, insight-based services to their clients. However, most clients remain unaware that firms are able to provide these services – and many others aren’t even aware of what is possible with data analytics today. This is an important opportunity for firms to begin communicating about the deeper value they can offer clients – and to start delivering it.
“Start the conversation with them,” says Sage’s Nicole Ksiazek, Senior Director, Sage Intacct Accountants Program. “It can be as simple as saying ‘we’re thinking of doing something new that could deliver more insights to you – is this important to you? What would you like to see? Where would new insights benefit you the most?’”
Through the Sage Intacct Accountants Program, firms are leveraging the best-in-class advisory capabilities of Sage Intacct to deliver high-value engagements such as virtual CFO-level outsourced advisory and data analytics advisory services for their clients. Designed for advisory firms, the program offers access to an Accountant console as well as a plethora of industry-leading resources, tools, education and support.
Sage Intacct features customizable dashboards providing visibility and access to all client data from a single, centralized location as well as flexibility and advanced reports. The reporting tools and an extensive library of financial reports that support key regulatory reporting requirements, plus capabilities to measure business metrics and performance.
Together, CPA.com and Sage Intacct have helped firms of all sizes successfully adopt the processes and technology solutions they need to build successful analytics-enabled advisory practices – and to help ensure their people benefit from the training and skills development they need to sustain these practices. Visit https://www.cpa.com/client-accounting to learn more about how we can help you start delivering more insight – and more value – to clients today.