What do finance directors really want from their accountants?

What do finance directors really want from their accountants?

Industry professionals discuss what will separate the successful firms from the also-rans.

What do finance directors really want from their accountants?

In an age of accountancy practice in which technology is making in roads into the more basic elements of the job, what is it that will separate the successful firms from the also-rans? George Carey asks what great accountancy services really look like.

The role of all professional services is changing in the era of digitisation and automation, and accountancy is no exception. These changes have been picking up pace in recent years, with a 2017 survey revealing that some 62% of accountants surveyed said that they didn’t think they would broadly be doing the same day-to-day tasks at work in five years’ time.

So, where do businesses now see the value in engaging an accountancy firm, beyond jumping through the perennial regulatory hoops?

Getting the basics right

Mother is an industry leading advertising agency with more than 500 employees in three territories and, as such, group finance director Rollo Price is well versed in dealing with large firms.

When working with major practices, his first priority is effective communication and connectivity between the various teams he comes into contact with. Having been frustrated by the results of poor interoperability between accounting departments, he sees this as a vital prerequisite to good service.

Price explains: “When this doesn’t happen, I’ve experienced working with three siloed teams duplicating information requests and missing deadlines.”

Working in a younger, and rapidly growing business, Better2Know finance director Anthea Morris is keen to establish a good cultural fit with any firm she employs.

“You need to feel you can get on with these people through difficult times and challenging scenarios,” she says.” Emphasising the importance of individual businesses’ requirements, she adds: “If there was one fit that worked for all, there wouldn’t even be a big four, there would simply be a big one and everyone would use that firm.”

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Beyond the basics, Price sees that the real value from a practice lies in advisory services based on in depth knowledge of Mother’s business.

He’s quick to point out that the creative industry is different to the more traditional service industries, which is why an appreciation of the agency’s business model and the market in which it operates is absolutely vital if a practice is going to provide an effective service.

“From a personal point of view it’s great to have a good cultural fit with the firm you use, but I would always prioritise an understanding of our industry and the challenges we face,” he reflects.

As the person in charge of financial operations for a relatively nascent company, which straddles the health and tech markets, Morris is very keen to benefit from the more consultancy-based services firms now offer, as Better2Know agrees its direction of travel.

Adding real value

While she has an excellent working relationship with a relatively small firm for more routine services such as payroll and corporation tax, she feels that the image and reputation of a ‘big four’ firm will prove invaluable when it comes to strategic work such as growing or selling the business.

“We’re finding, at the moment, that because our business is growing and in an interesting space, that we are being courted by the big firms. They want to build a relationship with us and they’re absolutely in it for the long term,” she says.

Reflecting on this relatively new approach to service compared to experiences of years gone by, she adds: “They’ve really upped their game and I think it’s very impressive. It’s going to be difficult to make a decision about who to work with when the time comes.”

Underlining big firms’ move away from engaging on the basis of procedural services, Morris recalls: “They’ve never tried to offer me more run of the mill services such as audit.”

The view from across the aisle

Offering a perspective from practice, Peter Gillman, former chief executive of Price Bailey LLP and owner of Peter Gillman consultancy, also sees a consultative approach as the key to success. Offering his take on the changing face of accountancy, he says: “The ratio of engaging people to process-driven people is changing.”

It’s Gillman’s assertion that any business, no matter how large or small, will always appreciate having a “sounding board” to bounce ideas off. “When it comes to critical business decisions, you can’t look these things up on Wikipedia,” he says. “It’s about judgement. That’s where the real value lies.”

Citing the privileged position of the accountant, with access to so much sensitive information about the businesses they work with, he describes a failure to use that information to advise as akin to “a dereliction of duty”.

Gillman sees a growing trend in which accountants’ contact with clients will be limited to those strategic judgements on business critical and complex matters in which a client needs to get an expert opinion on the best course of action to ensure success.

Offering a note of caution, Price maintains a healthy scepticism about just how industry-specific a practice’s knowledge is likely to be. He asserts that accountancy firms need to be careful that they don’t spread themselves too thinly in terms of expertise and that they recruit people with the right experience.

He concludes: “I’m not convinced that someone who doesn’t have industry-specific knowledge of media and advertising can ever have a the fully rounded expertise we would need to rely on them for wider, strategic advice.”

What is clear from these conversations is that, more than ever, it’s close relationships and a detailed understanding of their business, not just their accounts, that companies expect. For people in practice everywhere, it’s time to demonstrate a mastery of nuance rather than numbers.

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