Sage is emphasizing the technology solution of the new Sage Business Cloud, and the softer skills of the Sage Practice Growth Plan to respond both to accountants’ concerns about the future and some of their ambivalences about technology in accounting.
Client expectations of their accountants are increasing, and a significant number of accountants are looking to technology, including artificial intelligence, in response. A significant minority – a majority on some issues – does, not, however, indicating that more education on how tech concepts translate into business success is needed. The data comes from a new independent research report, “The Practice of Now,” commissioned by Sage.
The survey, conducted by Viga, was also conducted last year, but has been greatly expanded since then, from a research pool of 700 accountants to 3000 across eight countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
Increasing interest in technology comes from a broad recognition among accountants that their customers are increasingly expecting them to do more.
“Globally, 83 per cent of accountants say that clients expect more now than they did five years ago,” said Jennifer Warawa, EVP of Partners, Accountants and Alliances at Sage. In Canada, the number is less but only slightly so – 79 per cent. “42 per cent expect them to provide business advice,” Warawa added. “That’s why two-thirds of accountants [66 per cent] say that they would invest in AI to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks.” Once again in Canada the number is less, although not drastically so, at 62 per cent.
For Sage, that interest in AI is likely the cheeriest part of the report, given the company’s increased interest in it, particularly with their emphasis on the Pegg chatbot assistant, which was announced two years ago, and has been steadily enhanced since.
“Accountants see that if they don’t embrace technology, they will be left behind,” Warawa said. “55 per cent said that they will invest in AI over the next 3 years to improve practices.”
Warawa saw that data point as a positive. It does, however, mean that 45 per cent of accountants don’t plan to invest in AI in the next three years. Some of the other points from the survey showed that a majority is in the technology rearguard, rather than the vanguard. Only 42 per cent of accountants said that they get why technology is important. Only 44 per cent of accountants said that technology has benefits. A smaller number still, 39 per cent, describe themselves as early adopters of technology. In Canada, only a minority, 47.2 per cent, said that they believe that AI tools like chatbots and smart assistants will improve the way that they run their business.
Almost half – 49 per cent – of the respondents globally think that AI and automation would be of value in minimizing routine data entry, email and diary management, which is time-consuming, mind-numbingly boring, and offers no ability for the accountant to add any value. Support for AI as a tool to interact with clients to process simple queries was much, much lower, however, at 18 per cent.
The accountants who are less interested in embracing technology aren’t simply Luddites, who are just resistant to change. The core value proposition of good accounting is not technology-driven. Moreover, while accountants overwhelmingly see the need to provide more services to the customer than simply delivering completed forms, many don’t associate technology with providing those strong services. Indeed, they are more likely to see it as a distraction.
The need for improved messaging on this issue is one reason Sage has reworked their event outreach strategy, moving from having one large customer show per year, to having a series of travelling road shows, which they call Sage Sessions. They first did this last year, and it is continuing this year.
“Going from one big event to taking the show on the road to meet with customers and partners gives us a better opportunity to get face-to-face with stakeholder groups and have more real conversations,” said Nancy Harris, Sage North America’s EVP and Managing Director. “We kicked off in L.A. last month and were delighted with the positive feedback we received.”
A major theme at Sage Sessions is the new Sage Business Cloud, and its ability to simplify things and make the use of technology easier.
“We spent a lot of time talking about the value of the Sage Business Cloud, the rationale behind the simplification of naming, and the strategy, in unifying some of the individual product ecosystems we had built in a siloed fashion onto a single platform,” Harris said. “It lets ISVs and customers integrate us much, much more easily, and it makes it easier for customers to add on new capabilities, or graduate to a more advanced product as their business becomes more complex.”
The next stop on the tour is April 24, in Chicago. Canadian Sessions will be in Toronto in May, Montreal in June, and Edmonton in July.”
The survey also showed significant concerns among accountants about the future, with the way the cloud increases competition being a key factor. Compared with 12 months ago, accountants say they feel less confident about the prospects for their practice. Just 28 per cent feel more confident about their prospects. 40 per cent feel less confident. Sage is also addressing these concerns about the future with the Sage Practice Growth Plan, which provides a transformational model that extends beyond technology.
“We have been talking about the Practice Growth Plan a lot over last few months,” Warawa said. “We know that advancing the overall accounting profession is about a lot more than technology.”
Sage partner David Cowan, Principal and Owner of Marietta GA-based Tribal Ledgers LLC, a cloud-based practise he started in 2010, has gone through first stage of the Sage Practice Growth Plan.
“I was looking for path to take the firm to the future,” Cowan said. “The Practice Growth Plan focuses on developing personal and team skills – soft skills. These soft skills give you the foundation to go forward, and walks you through things like change management, things that we just shuffled under the rug before. You have stress and fear as you go through this, but the program teaches you how to transition through that.”