Can software generated reports really help accountants build a business advisory service?

By Tracey Loubser

As published by “Public Accountant – The official journal of The Institute of Public Accountants” on 8 January 2016

Accountants understand numbers. At a glance we can discern what they mean and what to do about them.

SME business owners, on the other hand, tend to be action people – numbers, for them, are often just too abstract to make sense of.

If you ask them to sit down for an hour and go over the numbers, they’re already going into rabbit-in-the-road mode. The truck full of numbers – driven by you – is charging straight at them, and they know they have to deal with it. And, if they survive, they know they’re supposed to remember what to do next time.

That’s a double-barrelled challenge! In spite of their best intentions, the adrenaline and the ego defences take over and they try to flee or fight … unless they’ve avoided the whole encounter in the first place. Or maybe they just sit there like good little bunnies and wait to be roadkill.

Can we get technology to do all the work in business advisory?

Software generated reports are a dream for accountants under pressure to deliver more advisory work, more business performance and profit reviews, and more cash flow forecasting.

And yet it’s easy to rely far too heavily on reports generated from accounting solutions to form the backbone of your value-added service. Their benefits are huge, it is true; but they are not the turnkey resource many would like because:

  • the numbers within these reports require more analysisworking together
  • the allocation to accounts may not be entirely accurate
  • they may not include as much detail as we really need
  • they may provide too much historical data
  • they may still not allow for a combination of historical data and forecasting information.

And still we are mesmerised by the pretty graphs and charts, the pages and pages of ‘tick this box’ and ‘cross that box’, which can spit out more pretty graphs and charts, as well as many pages of columns and rows of numbers.

We need to snap out of our total reliance on these reports. It’s our job to communicate all of these numbers in a meaningful way to our SME business owner clients. We need to disregard the irrelevant bits and concentrate on what is most important right now for each individual client’s business.

“Where’s my money?!” they demand. That’s the hot issue for them after all their hard work. Who’s got time to wrap their head around the difference between a current ratio and a quick ratio and all that other accounting mumbo jumbo?

So how do we bridge that gap for them? How do we hand them back the power they want to make better decisions and grow their businesses?

And how do we create a dynamic and trustworthy alliance with the business owner that will stand the test of time and result in far greater prosperity for them – and, of course, for us?

Human collaboration – how to make it happen

Make your reporting visual. Transform software generated reports from a sheet of numbers into graphs, charts and diagrams. Whatever it takes to build them a picture. Be prepared with alternative visual depictions of the same information, just in case they need to see it from different perspectives. Try the following to start with:

  1. Use a pie chart to represent proportion percentages, such as Gross Profit and Net Profit percentages.dreamstimefree_6899733(2)
  2. Track differences in Actual vs Budget through bar charts.
  3. Use bar charts to track actuals and progress towards forecasts.
  4. Experiment with setting aside your sheet of numbers as your main or only prop. Instead, try formulating your explanations into words on a page. When you meet with the client, have a copy of this in front of you and a copy in front of the client. This will set the stage to have an interactive conversation with your client. The words on the page should be a takeaway for them, a resource they can use later to review and reflect on your conversation.
  5. During your interactive conversation with the client, use your visuals to clarify what you’re talking about and make sure you’re hearing and understanding each other. Take the time to discuss what everything you’re showing and telling means in relation to everything else.
  6. Brainstorm together to explore solutions as the picture clarifies for the client. This is where the REAL value of business advisory work is to be found.
  7. Ask, don’t tell. If you’ve been doing everything mentioned so far, your client will be seeing, for example, that they need to reduce staff costs to earn a better GP percentage. But let them ‘discover’ that for themselves by asking them, say, ‘Is there any way we can reduce staff costs, while still getting the job done?’ or ‘Could we improve the efficiency of staff with realigned systems and processes? If you can work more efficiently, then maybe jobs can get done faster, which would reduce costs and bring up Gross Profit’.
  8. And so to my last tip: talk team. In your conversation, use the word ‘we’ as often as you can, instead of ‘you’. It’s important to recognise and respect the boundaries between you, so don’t do it indiscriminately. (Check out their body language when you use ‘we’, to see if you’re on track.) Your aim is to let the client know that, as their business adviser, you are a part of their team. You are part of the decision-making process, should they want you to be. You are integral to bouncing ideas around and implementing changes and improvements in profit and cash flow. So be a team player, and talk as one.

Some guiding principles to go on with …

  • Never underestimate the value of this personal discussion and engagement with the client.
  • Your ability to understand and analyse numbers, percentages and proportions is literally priceless to someone who isn’t wired that way but who needs it.
  • Never let the machine swallow your genius. Your human intelligence beats the artificial sort every time when you’re looking for a win-win outcome all round.
  • So, go ahead and use the software to generate reports. Their value and meaning is for you, the accountant, to see and understand what a business needs to succeed. Like a traditional medicine man or woman, you see with different eyes and must translate for your ‘tribe’ what they need to know to thrive. First you ‘divine’ the numbers on your own. Then you share your insights – that’s the real gold your fellow humans can use to make beautiful business dreams come true..

(For the tried and tested recipe for this success – join us for a LIVE 90 minute webinar – click here)

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