Accountants Rank the Top Five Challenges in Practice for 2016

The 3rd Annual Accounting Firm Operations and Technology Survey (AFOT Survey) revealed the top challenges faced by your accounting and tax practice peers, including:

  • Recruiting and retaining staff
  • Workflow and efficiency
  • Change
  • Archiving and retention of email
  • Attracting new clients

Recruiting and retaining staff
More than 60 percent of all practices are challenged with recruiting and retaining staff. The demand for qualified graduates has outpaced supply since 2000; a trend that is anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future. The AICPA also estimates more than two-thirds of its members will retire in the next 20 years. Although the issue of recruiting and retaining staff will continue to plague the profession for decades, there are steps you can take to attract and retain staff.

Several factors impact how attractive a practice is to a candidate, many are necessary to create an environment in which a new hire can succeed. The firm that best addresses these factors is more likely to attract and retain new staff than a firm that hasn’t.

For example:

  • Modern technology (e.g. digital workflow within the firm and with customers versus paper or paper-folder driven documented systems and processes.)
  • A learning culture.
  • Involvement in change management.
  • Mentorship programs.
  • A clear career path.

Workflow and efficiency
For three consecutive years, the results of the AFOT Survey indicate practitioners have ranked workflow and efficiency as significant concerns.

Using a carefully deployed workflow solution is the most common catalyst to begin managing firm-wide efficiency. Efficiency refers to how well we use technology and human resources; it is measurable. Improvements to efficiency cannot be recognized without meaningful measurement. The best way to improve efficiency is to identify the metrics used in the practice today to measure activity you wish to improve before you change how you do something. With efficiency measurements in hand, the amount of resources necessary to accomplish work today can be measured and later compared to results using new tools, systems and processes.

Practitioners continue to express frustration about change. Primarily, practitioners are bothered by having to keep up with changes to software and systems and have difficulty of keeping staff and partners on board with change. Frustration with change is understandable; it’s considered common to find 45 to 75 software applications being used in a practice over the course of a year. Some require multiple updates annually and often user interface changes impact how easy it is to find buttons, menu selections and shortcuts. Keeping up with changes in software applications can be exhausting.

If workflow efficiency is a priority, staff and partners should document a standardized way of getting work done firm-wide. The largest benefits with real time electronic workflow are realized when workflow software is first adopted as everyone works together to adapt to the firm’s way of getting things done. Later, you should expect only small adjustments to process as the system matures in a firm.

Archiving and retention of email
Practitioners report archiving and retention of email as a top challenge. To better understand why this has become a leading challenge, consider how messages from clients were handled before email became prevalent. Before email became a common way of handling communication with clients, working professionals had one or more layers of filters keeping an external contact from immediately reaching them. For example, phones may have been silenced, calls routed through a receptionist and snail mail was sorted and prioritized. Technology – including email – began creeping into our business processes without considering how we would let it [email] change the way we work.

By accepting email as a means of communication, we gave permission to the world to reach us instantaneously; we reinforce and affirm that permission when we allow email to manage us rather than us choosing how to leverage email as a business tool.

To take back control of your schedule, consider these email management pointers:

• Turn off the new message notification in your email software and make your calendar your default view;
• Decide the window of time each day you want to spend processing your email; and
• Move everything in your inbox to an age and delete folder.
• Process your inbox during the times you choose by evaluating each message only long enough to delete it or delegate. Remaining messages will be either, 1) tasks you can handle immediately, in less than two minutes, or 2) things that require more time and therefore should be scheduled.

Attracting new clients
It is common to hear shareholders talk about adding new clients and staff to increase gross revenue by increasing total hours billed. Adding more clients may cause bottlenecks and slow your team down if processes and technology are not adequately addressed. Less common, but important refining questions include:

  • Could we better serve existing clients and better leverage those relationships with value billing?
  • Will our existing systems and processes scale well as we grow?

By implementing integrated workflow and document management tools, you’ll create time to better engage the clients you have today, compete for and retain staff and add new clients with the confidence of knowing your systems, processes and culture are ready to support growth.

So what to do?
Determine the changes you’d like to make. Consider how you will change processes. Look at system changes you can make with workflow and document management tools. Select, implement and train everyone on the new tools. Finally, look at the results, adjust to improve and retrain. Continue this cycle over a period of years, and you’ll be amazed at the difference in realization, team member satisfaction, client satisfaction and partner profitability.

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About Randy Johnston
Randy Johnston is Executive Vice President and a shareholder of K2 Enterprises, a leading provider of technology CPE in the United States and Canada. Randy is also CEO of Network Management Group, Inc. (NMGI). The NMGI team provides IT consulting services and recommendations to CPA firms and industry businesses including financial, healthcare, manufacturing, distribution and NFP.

Randy has kept his finger on the pulse of technology that supports accounting in both public practice and industry. This includes infrastructure, accounting software, document management and workflow. Helping organizations think strategically and choose technologies that help them leverage their business assets to meet strategic goals is Randy’s specialty.

About Chuck Wilson
Chuck Wilson is a Senior Client Solution Specialist with Doc.It. Chuck is an expert in implementation consulting and training services for accounting and tax practices. Prior to joining Doc.It, Chuck worked for a public accounting firm managing all systems implementation, product selection and migration, disaster recovery planning and process excellence initiatives. Chuck joined Doc.It in 2006, and has personally assisted over 150 firms with document management implementation and training initiatives. Follow Chuck on Twitter @mycharliewilson or connect on LinkedIn