The professional services sector experienced very different challenges during the global COVID-19 pandemic when compared to other sectors. Demand for services hit record levels. The role of the CPA firm as the trusted advisor to the business world was demonstrated on numerous occasions as organizations faced challenges very few had prepared for.
One of the biggest impacts for the accounting sector, and accounting firms, during this time was in how their staff needed to work and how they needed to engage with clients.
The approach to delivering compliance and advisory services fundamentally shifted in an instant, with change projects implemented in days rather than years. As staff relocated from the office or client site to working from home, auditors and accountants were quick to embrace new ways of internal and external communication.
As the world looks to the future, the opportunity is available for accounting firms to create a blended experience going forward. Retaining core benefits of virtual working while bringing back the in-person interactions that add value to clients and staff.
A core activity that has changed for many accounting firms is the approach to collecting and sharing client information. Dated techniques which remained prevalent when working on-site, such as USB memory sticks and print outs, are no longer practical or optimal.
And while the fallback option may often be email exchange, a significant increase has been seen in the demand for client collaboration technologies. Such technologies offer a more secure, structured, and transparent approach, and adoption is proving popular with firms and clients alike.
While firms new to such solutions bask in the quick-win and the efficiencies offered, firms with more experience in this area are now focusing on the expanded role collaboration technologies can play in delivering highly effective and more valuable audit and accounting services.
Here we explore the 5 key trends in client collaboration, where the most progressive accounting firms are doubling-down their innovation efforts.
1. Communication convergence
Almost all accounting services require some level of client information exchange. The extent and frequency may vary, but the only true distinction is whether the client is an individual or an organization.
Niche collaboration tools may be suitable when working with individuals, for example to prepare personal tax returns. But organizations seek a simpler way of collaborating with firms across all their compliance and advisory needs.
Progressive firms are delivering consistent cross-firm collaboration focused on the needs of their clients, creating a more joined-up approach across audit, tax and advisory teams.
The trend is to rationalize tools and converge to a single collaboration experience.
2. Enhanced client experience
Information exchange might be a significant element of the client to advisor communication, but engagement interactions are far broader.
The pandemic moved many on-site client interactions to a virtual setting. But these interactions became disjointed, required scheduling and lacked the context of an in-person query. Integrating video calls and instant messaging into the collaboration experience allows for more natural communication, more closely replicating in-person communication.
Ancillary solutions can be incorporated too. Obtaining electronic signatures on documents can be simplified, eliminating disconnected email reminders. And overlapping requests, such as audit, corporate tax and accounts production information, can be rolled into a simpler client experience.
The trend is to combine all related activities into a streamlined client experience.
3. A blended approach to data
The challenge of yesterday was secure file transfer and project management. The challenge of today is data.
The thirst for data is exponential. As a result, the information needed from clients is evolving from a disparate collection of Excel files, Word documents and PDFs to voluminous data sets. This trend has two key impacts.
Data sets are far bigger in size than the typical files shared by clients, breaching file limitations, or significantly increasing storage needs.
But more significantly, the process of extracting and uploading data is a highly specialized area. Clients need to be provided hand-holding support, tailored to their systems. They often need to be guided towards more automated approaches, to eliminate the data preparation time which frustrates accountants seeking to analyze, visualize and interrogate the data.
It is some time yet until data sets are the only prepared-by-client request – but the direction of travel is clear. A blended approach is needed now to support this transition.
The trend is to merge file sharing and data transfer in an advanced collaboration approach.
4. Unlocking potential with automation
Progressive technologies, such as Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence, present significant efficiency and quality opportunities. Yet unstructured information and the lack of standardization represent significant barriers to unlocking this potential.
The collaboration process risks increasing that issue, moving organized information within client systems to a disorderly collation of files. Beyond the hours lost in the tangle, it necessitates human involvement in tasks which are ripe for automation.
Integrations leveraging Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow for collaboration to be automatically instigated by actions within practice management or other tools. And down-stream actions can be initiated once information is uploaded – for example to file a signed engagement letter or populate financial values in an audit or tax tool once a client has uploaded a trial balance.
The trend is to increase structure and standardization to unlock automation.
5. Continuous value throughout the year
The digital world has created an intense battle for the time and attention of prospective buyers. So, while collaboration may support a functional information transfer process, progressive firms are leveraging the time and attention it secures.
The collaboration experience can be enriched by making the broader knowledge of the firm accessible to the client. Tailored marketing collateral can be provided based on the organization’s industry, growth aspirations or financial performance, or the roles performed by client staff.
And as firms explore how services can deliver timely value to clients more continuously throughout the year, the regularity of these interactions and touchpoints compound.
The trend is to increase the value of collaborating, for clients and the firm.
by Mike Bowman