Technology is at the very core of the modern accounting practice. From common day-to-day functions like email, calendar tools, time tracking and mobile devices, to highly-specialized software for tax preparation, accounting and auditing, it is hard to imagine that only a little more than two decades ago, many practices were barely even using their own computers.
New innovations for businesses and accounting firms seem to come out every day, with each promising to amp your workflow and profitability. But how do you know which products are worthwhile and will work in your practice? Some may be exceptional for certain types of firms, or firms with certain types of clients, but may not be as productivity-boosting for another firm. The size of the practice, and number of professionals is another obvious factor. If the technology will be at the core of your firm, such as a practice management system, it is also important to go with a vendor you trust, that has been around for awhile, that has experience serving professional practices, and has a track record of successful and useful innovation.
Disruption Can Be Positive
Changing a core software program that a firm uses is going to cause a disruption in workflow and productivity, and even client service, at least until the new system is fully adapted. Also, firms may need to adjust their workflow processes and even staffing in order to maximize the potential from the new technology. All of this most certainly will cause hiccups and strained nerves during the implementation process and while staff are trained on the new system, but if the technology improvement is worth it, the end result should be dramatically-increased productivity and client service.
As an example, the adoption of paperless document storage required staff to completely change the way in which they interacted with client files. While this may have been a headache at first, the disruption eventually led to staff members being able to access files anytime and anywhere, electronically annotate or edit them, and instantly share documents with coworkers or clients. This was a boost to productivity and an improvement in client service.
To put it bluntly, change is inevitable, and while it can be painful in the short term, the end result is positive. The key to gaining the most from potential technology changes in your firm is to follow some simple steps before and after you make a commitment.
1. Identify Where Your Firm Needs Improvement
What processes are working, where are the traffic jams in productivity? Ask your staff what their pain-points are. A good time to do an assessment is after your busy season, if you have one. For most accounting firms, this would be following tax season. This can be one-on-one with staff, via video conferences, or by less formal methods such as a suggestion drop-box.
2. Assess Your Current Technology
The new technologies you may be considering will need to work and integrate with some of the other technologies you have. For instance, new project and time tracking system may need to integrate with your tax prep software to reap the full benefits in busy season. You may also need to upgrade hardware in order to optimize new software.
3. Follow Tech Trends
It isn’t necessary to be on the cutting edge and you definitely don’t want to try every new thing that gets hyped. While implementing new systems can provide benefit, doing so unnecessarily can be counterproductive and costly. But do keep an eye out for technology and new workflows that other accounting firms, particularly those like yours, are using. The best way to do this is to use online resources like CPA Practice Advisor, Accounting Today and the Journal of Accountancy, as well as following industry thought leaders on social media. Tech trade shows and conferences, even virtual ones, can give good overviews of how the tech works in practice. When you’re considering potential solutions to the issues your firm needs to improve, look at how the new technologies perform specific tasks and processes. These day-to-day functions may save only seconds or minutes each time a task is performed, but that can add up to many more productive hours very quickly.
4. Chess, Not Checkers
While keeping an eye out for these potentially beneficial technologies, keep the other eye on whether this seems to be a trend or something with real productivity potential. This requires looking into your firm’s future: Will the new tech be beneficial in two to five years, helping you to get where you want your practice to be? Identify the goals you have for your productivity and how the new technology can help you achieve these goals in the near and long term. After all, when you implement new technology, it is an investment in your firm’s future productivity and sustainability. And the wrong tech can not only hurt your bottom line, but can even adversely affect staffing. Also consider whether the technology will keep up with your firm if you experience growth. Fortunately, many cloud systems make it easy to ramp up users during busy season, but keep longer-term growth in mind, as well as integration capabilities, and cost of additional users.
5. Get Professional Help
No, not a psychiatrist. Whether you’re a business, tax, engineering or other type of professional, odds are you aren’t a professional tech systems expert. For some tech, you may be able to test and implement on a do-it-yourself basis, but if you are looking at making changes that will have a major impact on workflow and may take a significant investment, you should consider having a consultant give you assistance, one who specializes in helping firms like yours. After assessing your broader workflow processes they may even help find solutions to issues you were unaware of.
6. Invest in Training
To optimize your new technologies and workflow processes in terms of productivity and profitability, your staff needs to be properly trained not only on how the technology works, but also up-to-date on the best ways to stay organized. Invest the time and the money necessary to get the most from the investment you’re making in your technologies.
7. Keep Your Clients in Mind
Whether the focus of your new technologies is on client service or on back office productivity issues, determine how your clients may be affected in the short term (during transition to a new system) and as the end result. Moving to a new cloud system, for instance, may have dramatic impacts on how clients are able to interact with the firm and access their documents, but even new email or tax software can change how clients are involved in their engagements. If the changes are likely to have a significant affect in how you interact and serve clients, let them know how, and let them know why this change will benefit them.
8. Step By Step
Keeping your technology progress to one project at a time will help you keep your focus on getting it done right. Moving to new systems or workflows can be disruptive, but when your staff begin to see the benefits, the day-to-day easing of the old pain points and bottlenecks, they will grow increasingly positive and help others in adopting and improving upon their workflow. But it’s important to get one major new process fully implemented and in place before trying to assess other areas in your practice that may need addressing.
9. Back to Steps 1 and 2
Firm managers need to periodically revisit how workflows and staff experience is progressing, and where their technology is succeeding or is less than optimal. By proactively measuring productivity and profitability in your firm, you can measure gains that may be realized through new systems, as well as compare your own progress against benchmark goals. It may be worthwhile to create a technology working group in your firm that will periodically look at tools that can help the firm be more productive.
Overall, you need to keep in mind not only the business and clients you have today, but the business you want to grow into, and the clients you will serve then. This will help guide you as you look for ways to provide better client service, improve your firm’s productivity, achieve a better work-life balance, and increase your profitability at the same time.