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The lines between accountants and bookkeepers are ever blurring, and to make market opportunities work in your favour, you have to ask some tough questions of your business model.
Tread carefully. That is the one piece of advice that Lielette Calleja would offer bookkeepers and accountants looking to start working closer together.
The director of the bookkeeping firm All That Counts says, for all the fruitful networks she’s seen, there’s also too many partnerships that end tragically, with one side often losing all of his or her clients.
Her cautiousness comes as recent industry chatter indicates that bookkeeping firms feel threatened by accountants who have started to offer bookkeeping services as part of a bundled package with their usual tax offerings.
“You are seeing more accountants actively promoting bookkeeping as a service,” Ms Calleja says.
“You’re hearing more and more that some bookkeepers, not all, are losing business to accountants.”
On the other side, accountants are becoming increasingly pressured to evolve their businesses in response to technology disruption. Adding bookkeeping services, in an effort to provide an end-to-end experience to their clients, is one way of dealing with the changes.
Whether this means partnering up or creating a bookkeeping arm will depend entirely on what is right for the individual accountant, says Sequel CFO chief executive David Boyar.
“There is definitely disruption in the way we work, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean a change in what we do,” he says.
“We’re in a time in the industry where the major tech innovation has happened. New stuff will always come out and it’ll make things better.
“We just need to work out what is best for us as individuals running businesses.”
In a 2015 PwC report, accountants were called out as one of the professions “most at risk of computerisation and technology”.
The report included a list of professions ranked by the probability of automisation in the next 20 years. With a 97.5 per cent probability, accounting came top of the list.
Though some might cry scare tactics, significant bodies of research like this also point to why so many are searching for new ways to offer value to their clients. One of the reasons why more accountants are interested in picking up bookkeeping services is to fill the skills gap between the two roles.
Bookkeepers and accountants are both part of the accounting world, but historically with different functions. For example, bookkeepers often look after payroll and business compliance while accountants focus on tax strategy and tax laws.
But over the years, bookkeepers have become more technologically sophisticated thanks to software products like QuickBooks and MYOB entering the market. More recently, with the introduction of cloud technology, bookkeepers have arrived at the forefront of automation.
This has led to the role of a bookkeeper shifting from data entry to business advisory. Ms Calleja says this is partly due to the way bookkeepers are perceived by small business owners.
“They undervalue the service,” she says.
“We have to make that shift because it is the public opinion that bookkeeping is a lower-grade role in the whole accounting scheme but it is so not. So, we’re seeing bookkeepers take their businesses to the next level.”
In her own firm, Ms Calleja decided to diversify by separating cloud services from bookkeeping. She has also become an implementation partner with Employment Hero – an HR platform.
“We realised that bookkeeping wasn’t going to give us a sustainable income,” she says. “The bookkeeping is great but from a profit perspective, we can do so much better with training and payroll implementation.”
Meanwhile, Mr Boyar is seeing more clients become interested in budgeting and forecasting.
“Especially entrepreneurial business owners, they want to know more,” he says. “They know they are capturing a lot of data in their businesses. They want to know what it means and they want to see more into the future.”
However, the demand for this is still not as strong, Mr Boyar says.
“For us, I’d love to see that the financial forecast, the budget, become as important as the tax return. If that’s the case, you’ll have a lot stronger SMEs in Australia,” he says.
“It’s a challenge because that’s not a compulsory thing like the tax return.”
While the bookkeeping role is evolving, so are the ways that accountants can start offering these services to their clients in order to add value.
Mr Boyer says some accountants choose to purchase bookkeeping practices as part of a growth strategy, which can benefit both parties if the bookkeeper is not interested in innovating.
“I think what a lot of bookkeepers are asking is, ‘What do I do? I have to learn a lot of new things. This accountant is offering me a bit of money so maybe I’ll just sell my practice’,” he says.
“So, it’s creating this option for bookkeepers if they don’t want to change.”
But this might not be possible for other accountants who may not have the capability to sustain a bookkeeping division. For these businesses, establishing a strategic partnership with a bookkeeping firm may be the best approach, Mr Boyar says.
“Strategic partnerships help with revenue for either side of the business,” he says, adding that these are different to referral relationships which are more like “forced networking groups”.
“A strategic partnership is supposed to help you meet the capability that you have in your business.”
As an example, Mr Boyer says he works with accountants who can handle providing CFO services for businesses with up to a $2 million turnover.
“But when they get over $2 million, they find that the demands of the client become hard. We’re offering that service to them,” he says.
“For us, there are specific services we can’t offer because we don’t lodge anything. We’re not tax compliance people, so we have a strategic partner to help us out with that.
“If a client does ask me for more, they’re not going to look elsewhere because I have got an answer for them through my strategic partnership.”
Working closely together in partnership can also reduce the chance of losing the client, Ms Calleja says.
“The more you work together with an accountant, the stronger you can be together and it lessens the chance of you or the accountant being let go,” she says.
“The client will always have consistent, correct, up-to-date financials.
“It’s a win-win. Both of you are pretty much guaranteeing your future.”
However, because of industry concerns, Ms Calleja urges new partnerships to start off slowly, which could minimise the chance of a sloppy break-up.
“I would say tread carefully,” she says. “Offer a 12-month trial.”
Diane Lucas, an accountant consultant at Direct Management, says there is new a layer of accountability added when accountants and bookkeepers work in partnership.
“The main area of concern I have when the full set of client activities are completed within the one firm, is the potential lack of accountability. When we engage with a new client, the first thing we do is to complete a health check on the business books,” Ms Lucas said in a recent blog post.
“This health check identifies any issues within the company file. I have yet to come across a company file that doesn’t require a clean-up of some sort and, more often than not, the file is in need of some serious corrective actions. With strong governance in place between the bookkeeping arm and accounting arm to ensure clear objectives and the execution thereof, a level of accountability can be established to ensure effective outcomes for all parties, including the client.”
She added that it is important to keep the two roles separate, and that educating both accountants and bookkeepers is key to a successful relationship.
“The interests of the client are best served when there is a three-way interaction between the accountant, bookkeeper and the client themselves,” she says.
“Even if the accounting firm decides that incorporating bookkeeping services into their practice is the best way forward, it should be respected that bookkeeping is not accounting.”
“Keeping these departments separate, interactive and accountable ensures a separation of duties and minimisation of any conflicts of interest. The same applies with relationships between external bookkeepers and accountants – keep each other accountable and be generous in providing education and be gracious in accepting education. The results will speak for themselves.”
Despite disruption fears, this is an exciting time for accountants and bookkeepers, says Mr Boyer. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not the individual is ready to take the leap.
“I really think this is the golden age for financial professionals,” he says. “Whether you’re a bookkeeper or an accountant, there is opportunity everywhere. We just need to be bold enough to go and take it.”