Adviser: handle the software soft-sell

So Microsoft plans to woo members of the accounting profession in the UK by inviting them to join their Professional Accountants’ Network.

Other major software houses have already launched successful accountant networks in the UK, including Sage, Access Accounting, Iris and Quick Books. So why are accountants in practice suddenly of interest to software developers? Should we be flattered by the attention or concerned?

For a long time, software companies have seen accountants as a major influence on opinion among SMEs. The accountant is trusted and sometimes privy to secrets that even husbands or wives may not know. And rightly or wrongly, they are also viewed as a potential sales channel to the SME sector.

This is not to say that these relationships have not been beneficial to accountants, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions. Accountants joining the clubs receive preferential rates on software, commission on sales made and other technical support benefits. But there is no such thing as a free lunch ð sales and introductions are expected in return.

The potential benefits to accountants are happy clients and additional fee income. For many SMEs, buying software is an altogether alien activity. Many smaller businesses have limited in-house accounting support and rely heavily on their external accountant.

If that accountant can assist them to set up a system that enables their bookkeeper to work efficiently while generating a reasonable set of figures to work with at the year end, their fees should be accepted at least with good grace. Some practices have trained staff to specifically assist clients to set up ‘off-the-shelf’ systems. And it could be said that this is only one step further on.

But there are also risks that it would be foolish to ignore. The greatest risk is having insufficient skills to do the job. When your client brings in their first set of annual accounts, how will you explain that the member of your staff who helped set up their accounting system got it wrong?

Training and quality control are essential to avoid costly mistakes. There is also the danger that the accountant will be seen as just a salesman, or an extension of the software house’s sales function.

There are several possible reactions to these overtures. Some brave souls may sign up for them all. Or perhaps as a profession we should refuse to join any? But I am doubtful that doing nothing is an option.

Accountants have a valuable role in assisting businesses to implement accounting systems. If we fail to get involved, then we could loose the market forever, to the detriment of SMEs and the profession.

Instead I suggest that, as a profession, we should welcome the attention and invite the software houses to meet us and to show their products. We should seek to influence future developments for the benefit of clients and the business community as a whole. Whether this is best done on an individual or collective basis is a moot point.

Mark Holland is a partner in the IT Advisory group of Baker Tilly

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