Technology is opening up new business opportunities for accountants and making it possible to build stronger relationships with clients near and far.
In his critically acclaimed book from the mid-1960s, The Tyranny of Distance, historian Geoffrey Blainey spoke of Australia as a nation forced to adapt to its geographic isolation from Britain and Europe.
Overcoming the distance factor through the development of infrastructure and regional trade linkages had been instrumental in shaping the nation's cultural and economic psyche, even up until fairly recent times. But if Blainey were to add in a new chapter to his analysis now, 50 years down the track, he might well focus on the way new technologies have effectively bridged the great distance divide and actually turned remoteness into an advantage.
Distance, rather than being an economic obstacle, is no longer the insurmountable problem it once was, particularly for corporate service providers such as accountants and business advisory specialists. That's thanks to a proliferation of sophisticated software products and internet platforms, including cloud-based systems that facilitate instant communications and secure data sharing between professionals and their clients.
Yet, while online accounting systems are the norm for most practitioners these days, a high percentage of accountants are not leveraging easily downloadable products that could, if used to their full potential, transform the bottom lines of their businesses. And many of these products are free.
Virtual business model
For management accountant and business adviser Alycia Edgar, founder of Business Performance HQ, operating in a virtual world using readily available technology products is second nature and has enabled her to take on clients across Australia, without ever having to meet them. They have also enabled
her to cut her business operating costs substantially.
Edgar has been running her national consulting business from her home in the small town of Jan Juc, on Victoria's surf coast, for around 10 years — the past four on a ‘virtual’ basis. Nearly all client communications are conducted via email, instant messaging, telephone and video conferencing.
“I deal with all of my clients virtually, using a range of systems and technologies,” says Edgar. “Distance does not have to be an obstacle. I’ve got a client who is based in Queensland that I have been working with for around four years. We have met face to face once, but only because I happened to be in Brisbane at the time.
“I have so many clients I have never met in person, because there are lots of tools available these days to conduct business online. That's how I’ve set up my whole business and how I work with clients.”
A broader scope
Building up and maintaining strong connections with clients on a virtual basis may sound a lot harder than face-to-face interactions, and perhaps counterproductive in terms of building working relationships, but Edgar says it's all relatively easy and most clients actually prefer it. “Clients can always get me on the phone if they need to, but a lot of it is about training your clients on how you would like to be communicated to as well,” she says.
Edgar regularly conducts conference calls with her clients on video and voice chat platform Skype. She uses social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate more broadly. (Indeed, one of her clients came via Twitter and has been a customer for the past six years.) Edgar, members of her virtual team and clients all access various online project management and file sharing applications.
“Online systems actually enhance your business scope, because rather than being limited to your local geographical area, they can put your business out to the wider world and allow you to serve clients wherever they may be,” she notes.
That's particularly pertinent in the context that not all accountants are created equal, and many practices go beyond taxation to provide specialist business advice. Proximity has little bearing on finding clients, so the ability to source them through online channels, and to maintain good working relationships using technology, should have definite appeal.
Edgar says that accountants need to be available verbally, by phone, and visually, by video, as well as through email and other systems.
“What can also break down the barriers — and where accountants can really improve — is to bring down the walls a bit with your clients,” she adds. “Part of an advisory role is being a counsellor to your clients, so you almost develop friendships with them. Technology shouldn't be a barrier at all to making that happen.”