What is the future of the accountancy practice? Well, it's complicated...

The future of the accounting profession will be all about clients and talent sets. The accounting profession has traditionally held a pyramid-based employment and organisational structure.

It has been focused on partners and a limited range of services including compliance as well as, optionally, advisory services. Client loyalty has been of paramount importance and the lifeblood of the business has been recurring fees.

There is dynamic change on the way, and what seems to be readily appreciated is that the status quo and partner-driven resources are going to be replaced with a definitive focus on clients, client needs and talent recruitment, development and retention i.e. customers and employees must come first. 

This may seem to many people a matter of stating the obvious, but on further inspection the mantra is now well supported by an extrapolation of current trends in the professional services sector. Compliance and accounts production, including straightforward tax, will increasingly become homogenous products and price competitiveness will increase. The overlay of advisory work is no longer optional.

Client advisory work is the holy-grail for the future and this may mean that advisory work should be extended into new service areas. It will mean individuals, whether accountants or not, will need to lead the ‘client relationship advisory end’ of the market.

The accountant who reluctantly meets clients to review accounts and sign-off tax returns needs to be replaced by an individual with commercial advisory skills, not necessarily leading edge technical skills, but someone with personality who can relate to clients, discuss a range of challenges and identify revenue earning opportunities with that client as an individual, their family and their business for the foreseeable future.

There is of course the question as to whether compliance, which will be volume- driven, IT-based and requiring perhaps a reduced level of skill input from employees, will be divorced from the advisory business.

Will tech, and a true client focus, save the general practice?

The test will come as to whether those revenue streams can all be serviced at the leading edge which is going to be required in every aspect, or whether specialists will prevail and due to size, scale, on-boarding and front-end applications will eclipse the traditional general practice services.

This is an exciting prospect but also a creative project. We are looking at the potential transition of a business model which might, for viability reasons, must be moved forward within a three-to-five-year timeframe rather than await natural evolution.

Of course, there will be pockets of clients who do not relate or embrace the change. However, for the flexible accounting firm who is willing to invest, has courage to seek a different client profile, will importantly recruit individuals into new types of role, can further optimise the contribution of those in these roles and nurture them throughout their career, the payoff will be great - and dramatic change possible.

Keith Underwood is a director of practice advisers Foulger Underwood

This is an edited and abridged version of an article that originally appeared in Accountancy Live

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