The accounting profession as a whole is underutilized, according to Clayton Oates, Chief Solutions Officer at QA Business and this week’s guest expert for our Accountant Entrepreneur series. Today’s practitioners are the keepers of extreme expertise that ranges far beyond traditional compliance work. In fact, many accounting firms are well equipped to support clients with advisory services that range from entity selection, retirement plan analysis and succession planning to in-depth tax projections and financial analysis.
And let’s not forget technology—which represents today’s biggest advisory opportunity for firms. According to Oates, serving as a client’s technology advisor is a natural progression. Why? Because accountants are surrounded by advanced solutions on a daily basis—it’s what powers their firms and supports modern delivery of client services. The next logical step is to turn this expertise into a value-add service for clients while also deepening the client connection.
In Part I of this two-part blog series, you will be introduced to the perceived threats as well as the opportunities awaiting firms that choose to enter the technology stack advisory space. You will also pick up helpful tips on getting started in the technology stack advisory space. Overall, this article will get you thinking about what it means to serve as your clients’ technology advisor and, hopefully, motivate you to take action.
In Part II of this series, we’ll explore best practices for selecting software vendors, building relationships with vendors and potential pitfalls to avoid. So, be sure to tune back in for the concluding article next week!
Understanding the perceived threats
Technology continues to rank as one of the scariest areas of business. The mere rate of technology change is enough to overwhelm even the most tech-savvy accountant entrepreneur. But perhaps it’s the feeling of the unknown that keeps many firms from venturing into technology advisory services.
The truth is that with any new service there are potential threats to success. That said, it’s often best to address these first—you know...go in with your eyes wide open. Take the following into consideration before you turn your back on offering technology advisory services:
- No status quo—There is no tangible model that firms can refer to or follow in terms of implementing technology stack advisory services, and this is likely the biggest barrier to firms entering the space. This can lead to avoidance and resistance to implementation. The bigger risk, however, is finding yourself left out of a lucrative revenue stream. Oates affirmed, “Many have not stepped into the technology advisory space because of perceived threats, even though technology is all around us in the accounting profession. But those who have are crafting a future for themselves and adding great value to their clients’ lives.”
- Dabbling—Firms cannot treat this service as a side hustle. If you only plan to dabble in the technology advisory space, you will never truly master it and failure will be imminent. Also be aware that if you don’t fill the void of this much-needed client service, someone else will...so either dedicate yourself full-time or lose out to the competition.
- Loss of independence—Is your independence at risk if you partner with a technology vendor? This is likely a concern for many practitioners. However, the answer is simple: It doesn’t have to be. If you build strong, open relationships with vendors, you are better positioned to advise and support your clients. This only strengthens your independence and how you serve clients.
- Loss of reputation—What if you discover that your team is not strong in this area after launching the service? And what if that leads to a major ding in your reputation? Most of your are thinking this, right? The truth is that if you put the proper time into identifying the solutions that clients need, educating yourself on those solutions and building strong vendor partnerships, you can be highly successful. Don’t let the fear of failure keep you from making this move.
- Getting the model right—Simply put, firms must do their homework upfront to build the right model—that is, one that is scalable and manageable. Getting the model right goes back to proper planning and due diligence in the areas of research and education.
“Many have not stepped into the technology advisory space because of perceived threats, even though technology is all around us in the accounting profession. But those who have are crafting a future for themselves and adding great value to their clients’ lives.”
- Clayton Oates
Action items to dispel perceived threats and move forward:
The key here is to just dive in. Talk to your clients, educate yourself, and to start building your expertise.
- Launch a survey to clients to help identify their technology needs. Aggregate and analyze this data to uncover true client needs.
- Reach out to a few vendors who offer technologies you feel may fill gaps for clients. Begin to vet a few solutions, ask vendors questions (create a feedback loop) and start to envision how solutions fit into a broader technology stack model.
- Get involved in technology conversions, such as desktop to cloud applications. This will offer valuable insight into migration needs and potential roadblocks.
Understanding the opportunities
While the perceived threats are very real for most, it’s important to consider the opportunities available to firms in the realm of technology advisory services.
Oates does warn that before you get too far along in envisioning the opportunities, you must first understand the need to set realistic expectations. He stated, “Avoid the trap of overinflated expectations. We expect that everything is going to happen overnight. We can tend to overestimate what's going to happen in six months, but underestimate what's going to happen in 10 years."
The key takeaway here: You have to commit to playing the long game. Remember, a goal as “simple” as achieving the paperless office took several years for many firms to accomplish.
So, then...what are the opportunities? According to Oates, they are wide-ranging and completely obtainable:
- Building a new sustainable and long-term advisory service. Technology will continue to mystify clients, so why not be their source for answers and guidance.
- Building a lucrative new revenue stream with endless possibilities for expansion. Over time, firms can build multi-vendor relationships, expand the technology stack model and help clients keep up with the rate of technology change (which we know will only accelerate).
- Building stronger client relationships—Advising on technology opens the door to a deeper client connection. It’s another murky area of business that many clients can’t handle on their own. Why not be the advisor they turn to for guidance?
- Establishing expertise above and beyond the competition—Technology is ever-changing, making it difficult to stay current. Establishing your firm as an expert in this area will place you in the vanguard of the profession.
Getting out of the starting block. That’s always the hardest part. But fear not, in this section we offer the basics to get you moving with technology stack advisory services.
Getting started really comes down to two things accountants are very good at:
1) asking questions and 2) dedicated research.
Asking clients for the answer
You can’t begin to venture into a new service if you have no idea what you need to offer. To answer this question, start with your clients. They hold the key to building the right technology stack model and devising your service offering.
Begin by launching a survey. It doesn’t have to be long. In fact, a handful of questions may suffice. Essentially, you are looking to identify operational voids. You might ask clients such questions as:
- What technologies do you need to be successful?
- Where are the gaps in your technology stack?
- Based on their niche, what other solutions might the client need to support a more streamlined and efficient operation?
To help you ask the right questions, leverage Oates “The Clients’ Big 6” solutions model (see below). Solutions within the model represent those that commonly make up a client’s technology infrastructure—beyond the core accounting engine. Understanding all of the client’s technology needs will support a progressive expansion of your advisory services offerings over time as well.
Flex your research muscle
Research is also key to getting started. The more you know, the better you can plan your new technology advisory service offering. Once you’ve surveyed your clients, understand their needs and have identified operational gaps, consider digging deeper by:
- Researching multiple vendors within each solution category. For example, if your client has the need for a CRM, seek out the top 2 or 3 vendors. Make a list of your top picks and then plan to test each.
- Vetting each product. Accomplish this by downloading the trial version and testing it inhouse or scheduling demos with vendors who can easily educate you on system functionality and its value.
- Creating a feedback loop with vendors. Ask questions during the vetting process, note areas where the product could be improved to better support your clients and collaborate with the vendor along the way.
- Building relationships with vendors by engaging in a feedback loop and educating them on your clients’ needs.
Ultimately, all of this research will help you build your expertise on the technologies you plan to support.
There’s more to come…
This article is only the starting point for helping you enter the technology stack advisory space. You should now have a solid understanding of the perceived threats and the reasoning for dispelling common beliefs that may deter you from pursuing technology advisory services. You should also have a good grasp on the opportunities, including a new revenue stream and the ability to set your firm apart from the competition. Finally, if you walked through the simplified steps of getting started, including surveying your clients and conducting the proper research, you are positioned well to make entering the technology advisory space a reality.
But don’t stop here! Continue on to Part II of this blog series where we offer best practices for selecting software vendors, building relationships and avoiding potential pitfalls as you delve into this new and exciting area.