It’s accounting, not rocket science

The recently retired NASA space shuttles still ran on technology that was 30 years old. Accounting firms can be much the same.

The space shuttle supposedly still operated a general purpose computer with 1MB of RAM. That’s less than most mobile phones today! It’s understandable if you think about it, because blasting through the stratosphere and orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth is a pretty dangerous endeavour. So for the systems on board a space shuttle, ‘fail-safe’ trumps ‘cutting edge’ every time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Things need to be 100% reliable.

Accountants like ‘reliable’ too. For the most part, we have a reputation for being a conservative bunch. And that’s not always a bad thing. It’s why people trust us. But it can also make us seem a little…cautious.

While we continually try to convince people that it’s just a stereotype and that in fact we’re really quite zany, that kind of talk often makes us seem even nerdier. Far more dignified to be comfortable in our own skin. Let’s call it what it is – we don’t like change. To any accountants reading this and preparing their very best response as to why they are the exception – you just proved my point! Cool people don’t need to tell people they’re cool. At least, that’s what a cool person once told me. I can’t speak from first-hand experience. But let’s get to the point.

Many accountants run their practices like a space shuttle. Sure, we need IT to enable us to function. It’s mission critical. But more often than not, we don’t like our systems. They’re often clunky and designed with the ‘precision-over-all-other-practical-and-social-considerations’ mindset of an accountant. We tolerate them because we know them inside-out. They give us a result of sorts, sometimes begrudgingly (ever tried customising a report?!), and that’s what matters. We do all of this because in fact there is an efficiency in familiarity and we’re in a profession that craves efficiency. We’re constantly working towards deadlines. We feel like we have more work than we can manage, and yet we need to deliver a result that is timely and accurate. People trust us to do just that, even though there are times when they don’t understand exactly what it is we do. Under those circumstances, fail-safe trumps cutting edge every time. We need our systems to be reliable, even if it means that the result is of no constructive use to anyone. At least we made it back safely again this year! That’s the main thing.

But familiarity does not necessarily translate to efficiency. It can also breed complacency. And that can lead to a false sense of security where we miss opportunities for improvement through fear and inaction. Refer previous comments regarding our conservative point of view. For people like us, familiarity can be a comfort blanket.

Or is all this just me? Maybe it is. Regardless, the breakthrough for me came when I realised that quite simply (if you’ll pardon the cliché), it’s not rocket science. We’re not trying to defy gravity here. We’re not trying to launch something into orbit with human beings inside of it that also needs to survive re-entry. We’re a business like any other, and what we do is customer service. So if others can do it better, why can’t we? What’s stopping us? Why should our systems be such that we just manage to get ourselves over the line each year? Why shouldn’t we utilise cutting edge? Maybe it’s possible to be more efficient and deliver a better result at the same time! Everybody wins.

We have some great relationships with many of our clients. And we often find that we do deliver a result that they love, especially when doing the stuff that actually helps them grow their business and save money – our consulting work. But isn’t this even more reason to put everything under the microscope? One set of tax returns and financial statements pretty much looks the same as the next. We happen to think we do it very well, with a high standard of quality and integrity. But what accountant doesn’t? And would our clients notice the difference anyway, when the result looks the same no matter where they go?

Perhaps if they were audited they might, but that’s a bit like having a great life insurance policy. It’s probably sensible to look around for the best policy you can get regardless of the cost, and there will be those that do, but right now there are many who will simply shop around on price because until you need it to be great, the immediate outcome is the same. The only way to differentiate is on price. Unless you’re able to offer something more. For most people, compliance is exactly that – what you’re forced to do to comply with the law. If our clients really love us saving them money and helping them grow-  and that’s the work that we love doing too – doesn’t it make sense to find ways to do our compliance work as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible (while still maintaining our quality) so that we can spend more time doing what everyone involved would prefer? And in the end, isn’t delivering the best possible return on investment the heart of good customer service?

So as a firm, we’ve decided that if it’s out there, we’re committed to finding it and embracing it. Our goal is for all of our clients to love what we do for them!

If you know anything about accounting technology, you can probably tell from the title of this blog where we are headed. But while the sense of discontent is something that’s been percolating for a while, we literally only made the final decision to throw most of it out and start again last week. So this blog will be the story of that journey, for better or worse.

There are numerous personal goals in all this too. As directors, we want a business that works for us. And we want our team to love what they do and be rewarded for it. We all want more time for the people and things that we love.

So…work/life balance that’s weighted on the side of ‘life’, and a product that our clients love and recommend to their colleagues and friends? Is it too much to ask? It might be utopia – a kind of Shangri-La that exists ultimately as an ideal to be aspired to. But we’re determined to getting as close to it as possible.

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One thought on “It’s accounting, not rocket science

  1. Pingback: A journey of a thousand miles… | Approaching Xero

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