Automation (and AI) are one of the world’s most interesting phenomenon. They are concepts that fill many of us with delight and fear, all at once.
For accounting roles – and most especially in the times like tax season that come upon us in droves — the promise of a little time saved and a little streamlining in the workflow can make a dramatic increase in client satisfaction and revenue earned. But where and how do we begin?
Regardless of the size of your practice, I suggest you start with the essence of automation. Specifically, the concept of setting up a machine or process to perform work automatically to reduce the time and cost of human capital, improve efficiency and reduce human error.
Rather than attempting to eat the entire elephant in a massive overhaul, think about automating strategic tasks one by one, beginning in the areas that can provide you with the most immediate wins. Try these four things in your practice first:
1. Struggling with staff? Begin with your clients
This will help you in several ways. Firstly, you never want to require your client to be the one who’s paying the price for your automation delays. So while you’re trying on the idea of overall automation for size, think about rolling out the benefits to the client side first.
You will benefit, too, by increasing stickiness to your service and growing satisfaction in the area where it matters the most. The clients will stay with you, will grow with you, will be satisfied and will tell others. This will also compel the stakeholders who may be digging in their heels.
When your clients are happy, interestingly, everyone seems to soften their stance. Revenue and clients become the benefit that allows the subsequent decisions to flow.
2. Ask what manual tasks are repreated more than three times
For example, we supported a leading professional services firm on the east coast that uses Google.docs as their means of secure document exchange. But this company, which works in compliance, requires a significant number of folders and subfolders for their clients to load their documents in.
It was taking a senior professional as much as four hours to purge out files to create a new template with new logos and new names on the folders for every incoming account. This is something automation can accomplish in minutes and is easily quantifiable by adding up the salary costs (and opportunity costs) of the professional hours. Repeat this process as many times as needed as you take your automation progressively higher.
3. Don’t let trust be a barrier
Can you set things up in a way that eliminates the need for direct human oversight? For example, in the auditing world, the fear might be the risk of losing a critical file and making your client noncompliant.
Your people may need to see a new system in action for a time before they’re willing to trust an automated process with their critical files. Give them the chance to adapt.
But here’s another perspective to consider: In many parts of the accounting process, access to big data is useful or potentially even required. Uniform storage, security and access to documents can be a matter of life or organizational death.
Statistically, security loss in stored documents (from issues such as system failure or getting hacked) is far less frequent than loss during transit of documents. But either way, it will be important to prove to practitioners the new process is one they can trust.
4. A consistent process is vital
While companies may store documents securely, they may continue to send protected data through email. Or they may talk in email about the health of a business (their own or the client’s) that would be highly valuable to a competitor or may be sending trademarked or patented information or discussing trade secrets.
To prevent this, use automation to manage the direct upload of any document containing HIPPAA information, credit card numbers or SSNs and birthdates. Build a process that ensures private dialogues are happening only within a protected workspace.
These steps are a start. In all, remember that automation should enhance and empower human interactions by providing access to meaningful data and business intelligence for client. It empowers individuals and teams to use their time for things that give them and their firms highest value, not cutting and pasting in a spreadsheet.
With effective automation, creativity and connection between consultants and clients should increase. The human aspects are protected as the invaluable jewels that give meaning to every transaction or interaction.
Any automation that doesn’t strengthen and uphold the principles of courtesy, respect and enrichment for the lives it touches, I will maintain, is destined to fail.
I will have much more to say on these topics in future posts, but in summary will note the better we understand and respect the interplay between humans and automation, the more successful, fulfilled (and profitable) we will be.