This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of ICPAS INSIGHT Magazine.
Technology is driving two shifts that are set to shake your accounting world, and both require very human responses.
Two major tectonic plate shifts in the accounting world are going to make a serious impact in your career and practice. The first shift I initially detected long ago, but it’s on the move in a big way now: Specialization.
“Find your niche” is now an industry-wide mantra. Undeniably, there will always be a need for bookkeeping and basic accounting services, but increased competition and price wars are driving profits in this sector lower and lower. Many firms are simply moving out of this space to focus solely on high-margin niche consulting services. Most universities, who are motivated to place their graduates successfully in the market, have recognized this evolution and are providing more specialized classes in business valuation, financial management, forensic accounting, and accounting information services. In my focus area, forensic accounting, the old adage was “get two-to-three years in audit and then come see me” to be considered for an entry-level position. Now, firms recognize the need to get professionals into a niche at the onset of their careers and recruit accounting students as early as their sophomore year for internships and potential long-term positions. This is more than a trend; this is a permanent movement in the U.S. accounting industry.
The second major shift in accounting is the profession’s increasing reliance on technology. Some will argue that we’ve already been impacted greatly by technology, while others will say the profession moves at a glacier’s pace in adopting new technologies. No matter your take, the pace of change will never be slower than it is today. And, there are more technologies at our disposal for every aspect of our business than ever before. Take social media, which has forever changed how accountants — from students to managing partners — can, and will, connect and market themselves and their professional services. Myriad tools are available to measure and manage social media engagement. By recording visits to websites and professional profiles, accountants can track, tweak, and direct their branding efforts. Even the term SEO, or search engine optimization, has become familiar to accountants across industries. Technology has helped level the competitive playing field for small accounting firms by providing access to programs and software at a low cost (if not “open source” at no charge).
There is no denying that technology has made access to information faster and easier. But as a service professional moves across the spectrum from commodity-service provider to specialized-service provider, consumers need more than just information and data to make decisions. A deeper dive into a potential service provider is going to go beyond our technology-driven marketing and a simple Google search. What I am saying here is that despite our growing reliance on technology to provide valuable services to our clients, more than ever, strong interpersonal skills are going to be required to capture an opportunity and retain that client over the long term.
Think of this scenario: A loved-one has suddenly become extremely ill. This is a life-threatening scenario. You need to find a specialist with just the right skills to perform an emergency procedure. You enter key search terms into your search engine and find a list of individuals who all appear to be highly qualified. How do you determine who you will consult or hire? Remember, this is life or death. You will want to see this person and speak directly with this person. If you’re younger or more tech savvy, you’ll research the individual online and read the available reviews. A more traditional approach would be to ask for the doctor’s patient referrals. While this may seem dramatic, I argue that the process for seeking specialized accounting services are the same. The higher margin specialty services come with much higher client expectations. Potential clients want to see and speak directly with the subject matter expert(s). They want to hear what past and present clients have to say, either in reviews or as direct references. Great marketing concepts and execution can lead to more opportunities, but known and respected referral sources often ultimately seal the deal. Having a credible source vouch for you can be the difference between winning the engagement or not.
If you’re just starting out with a specialized skill, how do you obtain these critical referrals and client reviews? Simply, do your very best work each and every day. Great results lead to great relationships. But be prepared for mistakes — we make them every day. The lowest hourly rates, best education, and professional credentials won’t matter when a project goes sideways, and it was a problem you could have prevented. Don’t shy away from mistakes; be willing and have the fortitude to ask a client for feedback when a project has not gone as well as expected. It is my experience that the brightest and the best are continuous learners, and there is no better teacher than a preventable mistake. Again, by employing the human touch you can strengthen your client relationships and find that clients are more willing to look past errors when they perceive a candid desire to correct the situation. Low-tech communication (i.e., a phone call) can rescue a relationship that’s headed toward the abyss.
The day may come when specialized accounting services are available on Amazon or Craigslist, but we are simply not there… yet. Technology provides ever-evolving tools to help expand our services and brand awareness. But don’t forget that in the world of accounting specialization, the personal touch still matters. By combining new-school skills and technologies with old-school communication and relationship building, you can grow personally and professionally. There is no substitute for relationship-building skills, so as you specialize skills and technologize your services, don’t lose sight of the importance of humanizing your work.