Using Structured Workflow to Manage Offline Accounting Clients

Today, business owners expect instant insight into their current business situation, seeking support for making the variety of decisions they face each and every day. Online and mobile business banking services are now a normal part of daily life, and new web-based business tools with dashboards and gauges reporting on business heath are gaining in popularity and adoption. As accountants and financial professionals, it’s up to us to provide that insight, but how can you effectively do that when the owner isn’t online?

Don’t get out your slide rule just yet …

Certainly, using web-based services and cloud solutions may indicate that the client has adopted an “online” working model, but that is not necessarily the case. More frequently than not, small business clients is still working with paper documents and relatively “low-tech” approaches to keeping business records – relying on their accounting or bookkeeping professional to keep the accounting up to date. Surprisingly enough, many businesses continue to manage their basic incomes and outflows manually on Excel spreadsheets, and only periodically provide these sheets and (hopefully!) the supporting paperwork to the accounting professional for processing.

Where the disconnect occurs is when clients provide information for processing, sometimes well after-the-fact, yet desire to have up-to-date information at their fingertips. The result is often a perception that the accounting professional is unable to provide the level of service required, even if the accounting pro isn’t the root cause of the issue.

This reality is one of the reasons why so many of us attempt to get our clients to embrace online, collaborative working methods. In so many cases, however, the attempt meets with resistance or, in some cases, even distrust. As a result, maintaining the status quo in terms of “enabling” the client becomes the fall back.

Accounting professionals must defend themselves against this new threat to their value and should take measures to combat the perception that they are unable to meet the demands of business owners who need accurate information now. In addressing the after-the-fact nature of periodically processing data for “offline” clients, the only solution is to increase the frequency of getting that client data and processing it. If the firm isn’t in a position to handle this change in the workload efficiently, it is not a solution. Instead it is up to the firm to make the process proactive.

The demand today requires that accounting professionals be more attentive and, yes, aggressive, in terms of “attacking” a regular flow of processing client information rather than batching it at period end. This drives a great need to structure and organize the work, and workflow, so that the repetitive and regularly-performed processes may be streamlined and made easier to manage on an ongoing regular basis. It is no longer good enough to wait for clients to deliver the information and request the resultant reports. We must proactively request and gather the required information for processing, especially with offline clients, in order to get the work done more frequently.

While we would all like to believe that the majority of small businesses will adopt an online, collaborative working model with their accountants in the cloud, the reality is that accounting professionals will continue to work with clients who prefer the Excel spreadsheet method. Excel spreadsheets are often the path of least resistance for working with small business clients, and many practitioners are loathe to force them to do otherwise!

With that being the case, it is incumbent upon the accounting service provider to make the process work, even though the timelines to deliver the goods have been significantly compressed.