5 Steps to Embrace and Leverage Technology
Over the past 35 years, I’ve had a front-row seat to the most remarkable advances in business technology.
I started my career in a small regional CPA firm in the early 1980s. It was just around the time ADP started offering automated payroll services. In the early 1990s, as controller for a multi-national public relations agency, my department was the first to utilize personal computers, primarily to run Lotus 123 on a DOS operating system. The computer revolution had begun, and it seemed like overnight every employee worked on a PC running Windows. Not long afterwards, I was responsible for implementing cutting-edge ERP software across the entire organization for that same company.
Along the way, whether working in a corporate environment or practicing public accounting, embracing new technology was key to the value proposition I offered employers and clients. I’m sure many of you feel the same. Adapting business processes to emerging technologies fueled the computer revolution. We marveled as technology took hold. We prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve, and companies counted on us to explain to others how it all worked and the benefits provided by adapting business processes.
It was easy for accountants to leverage technology and the applications that were designed to take advantage of it, and for good reason. Much of the technology was designed to aid us. Efficiencies in capturing business transactions, data storage and the ability to access and report on information helped us to be better at our jobs. It wasn’t difficult to embrace and leverage technology when it made us smarter, more efficient and valuable.
However, the focus of technology has shifted, and the pace of change has increased. Today, technology has become outward looking. The benefits of adapting are not always clear. For some, the learning curve has become more difficult as understanding how to leverage technology has gotten fuzzy.
New business applications often are less about improving work products like spreadsheets or tax returns and are more about mobility, practice management and interaction with clients and employees. These newer applications now focus on internal business processes and the way our firms are managed. The speed of change has accelerated, leaving many of us feeling hopelessly behind.
How do we keep pace? The following five suggestions are based on my experience adapting a small CPA tax practice to new technologies that have helped us stay competitive now and will give us every opportunity to stay competitive into the future.
1. Start From the Inside Out
Implement applications designed to help you organize your processes and work product. A practice management solution is a good place to start. There are applications that integrate customer relationship management (CRM), project management, document management, time and billing, client portals, and more. Embracing these applications and the digital storage capabilities they offer enables us to do more with fewer mistakes.
2. Find a Good IT Resource
It is important to have an IT consultant on your team who can help with the transition and take ownership of the technology infrastructure. Your focus should be on learning how to use and leverage the applications you deploy. Seek out an IT firm that has experience working with accounting firms, understands workflow and processes, and can deliver a computing environment utilizing new technologies in a secure environment.
3. Set Your Sights Outward
A good practice management platform is the foundation that allows a practitioner to move from paper to digital storage of client information and documents. This transformation can be leveraged to take advantage of today’s outward looking technologies. Clients want to interact online and receive financial documents electronically in a secure environment via email and the internet.
A cloud-based practice management tool will allow you to deliver resources to employees regardless of where they want or are able to work. The platform should enable you to provide a seamless mobile work environment with all of the tools and documents employees need. Today’s best and brightest accountants are looking for a sophisticated mobile work environment that provides access to new technologies and work flexibility. Having this technology will allow you to attract and retain employees.
4. Step Up Your Client Communications
Businesses of all types are carving out a presence on social media, so be sure to have a presence on at least one social site. Use your practice management software to harvest email addresses for newsletters. Provide targeted information to existing clients from attributes stored in your CRM. Drive clients and prospects to your website, LinkedIn page, Twitter feed and Facebook page.
5. Take the Plunge
CPAs are trained to be detailed oriented. Our profession demands that we have a complete understanding of all the facts. However, this approach doesn’t always work when considering new technologies. Sometimes you need to embrace a “launch and learn” mindset to become more efficient and attractive to clients and employees.
Our survival depends on embracing the direction technology is heading. Today’s technology is no longer just about improving the work product. It’s also about our clients and employees. The ways we sell our services, communicate our expertise, share documents and resources, and allow access to work products has changed. Technology that allows us to create an interactive experience between our clients and employees has replaced the focus on technology improving how we prepare tax returns, spreadsheets and work papers. We must embrace new technology and learn how to leverage it. If we do not, we will have a hard time demonstrating our value in comparison to others who have adapted. Eventually firms that do not adapt will be less desirable to clients and employees.
Michael L. Zola
Michael L. Zola, CPA, is the managing partner of Zola Grace, CPAs, LLC. He is a member of the NJCPA State Taxation and Nonprofit interest groups.
This article appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.