Accounting professionals are often considered to be the “trusted adviser”, working in the best interests of their client and helping overcome obstacles to business success. At the very minimum, business owners recognize that they need their accountant to get their taxes done, and that relationship alone requires a level of trust that no typical vendor can boast.
Accounting professionals are also often advocates for certain computer technology and/or software solutions, largely because they are viewed as tools which facilitate a better working relationship between the client and their accountant, and which may improve the quality of information available to both. Recommendations regarding the selection of accounting software packages and solutions to record and report on business activities may be made by the accountant, and those recommendations are often accepted by the business owner based on the belief that the accountant has the necessary understanding of the client business requirements.
Making software and other technology-related recommendations to clients allows the accounting professional to potentially influence the decision of the business owner, the result of which is often that the client ends up using a solution that the accountant is familiar with and can therefore assist with setup, training, and support services. Because the accounting professional simply made a recommendation to the client, there is some safety in the event that the recommendation ends up not working out. If the client purchases the wrong software or equipment, the professional retains a level of distance from the issue because they were not the vendor of the product. Recommendations are made based on the information available, and the accountant’s defense may be that they did not have all the necessary information to make a better recommendation.
But what happens when the accounting professional BECOMES the technology provider to their client? Accounting professionals should strongly consider whether it makes sense for them to be the technology provider to their client, or simply collaborate with the client on a recommended solution. The areas of concern may include operational impacts to the client business and cost, but one main area of concern should be in the client’s perception of their service provider.
As the accountant, the trusted adviser, you benefit from a high level of respect from your client. The client recognizes that you have knowledge that they need and that can help them. You have a high status level with the client.
When the accounting professional becomes the technology provider, however, changes begin to happen with the client’s perception of their once-trusted adviser. Rather than viewing their accountant as the provider of a valuable service, the client may now view their accountant as a technology provider, responsible for the performance and functionality of IT systems. Now relegated to the position of “technician”, the accounting professional must overcome a variety of obstacles, including those specifically and only related to the technology. Difficulties with technology may overshadow the other areas where the professional is involved, and will often become the focus of ongoing discussions. While the accountant may have been trying to improve their overall value proposition with the client, the actual result may be a reduction of confidence and trust. Where once the accountant was a trusted adviser, they are now simply an IT vendor (and a replaceable vendor, at that).
With accountants and their clients now embracing cloud computing models, many accounting professionals are recognizing the potential benefits of private-labeling and reselling cloud-based solutions to their clients. Particularly if a service becomes a key element to the workflow, or is an enabling feature of the accounting service, there are compelling arguments for incorporating the solution into the “package” offered by the accounting professional. Cloud solutions are, however, just another “flavor” of technology, and the same issues regarding reselling should be strongly considered.
Accountants provide a valuable professional service to their clients. While technology and information systems facilitate and enable this relationship, the relationship itself is not fundamentally IT-based. For this reason, professionals should use caution when considering how to involve IT solutions in their service offerings. Delivering a service under the accountant business brand communicates to the client who their service provider is, but it also communicates a level of responsibility that the firm may not be prepared to take on. When the systems are working well, the private-label model may work very well for the firm. But when systems fail, the risk to the professional is not only lost productivity, but a potential loss of faith and trust – and business – from the client.