In January 2013, The Sleeter Group conducted some research of small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners across the US. The goal of the research was to learn about what SMBs want from their outside accounting firm. We asked a series of questions that targeted the types of services currently provided by CPA firms, as well as the types of services that SMBs desired from an outside accountant. We also wanted to understand the SMB’s impressions of what services their accountant could provide compared with what they thought their accountant wanted to provide. We presented the results at the recent AICPA SaaS Executive Roundtable.
The data might surprise some accountants as well as SMBs. Quite often the difference between what SMBs want differs from what they think their CPA wants to do for them, especially in the areas of technology consulting.
When we combine the quantitative research of 160 respondents with our nearly 20 years of qualitative research and understanding of how accountants work with their clients, these findings point to some significant opportunities for forward thinking accounting firms who invest in technology skills and who build client services to leverage these skills.
Characterizing the SMB’s Who Responded
The majority of respondents were service businesses, in business for between ten and fifteen years, average revenues of between $250,000 and $1,000,000, and under 5 employees. 54% of the respondents provide services to consumers (B2C), and 46% provide services to other businesses (B2B).
Some examples of these typical CPA firm clients are:
- B2C – Auto Service, Artists, Church, Construction, Hair Salons, Landscaping, Legal, Manufacturing
- B2B – Advertising, Design, Information Tech, Internet, Legal, Manufacturers Reps, Consulting, Property Management, Wholesale
Some surprises we found among the businesses who have employees:
- 90% Have Internal Bookkeepers
- 70% hire external bookkeepers (other than the CPA)
- On average, they assign 1.26 employees to bookkeeping tasks and 0.71 contractors.
When we asked these businesses about their current accounting system, it was no surprise to find out that overwhelmingly, they are QuickBooks Desktop users with an in-house bookkeeper, about half of whom prepare their own payroll. Over 70% of them use QuickBooks on local hardware in their offices.
In a nutshell, these businesses are living in the “old world” of desktop software, running within their own offices, and they are only using cloud services if their desktop systems have add-ons that connect to the cloud. For example if they use merchant services, online banking, or Bill.com for managing AR/AP and cash management.
SMB’s and their Accounting Firm
We asked about how satisfied these SMBs were with their current accounting firm, and found the following:
- SMBs are satisfied to highly satisfied with their “external accounting firm”
- 50% have switched firms at some point, but we don’t think we can conclude that this means they were unhappy. Perhaps they just had new needs that were not served by their previous firm.
- Accountant NetPromoter score is 26 – This is high-average compared with other service businesses as measured by SatMetrix.com.
The Net promoter score is measured by asking a single question “How likely is it that you would recommend your external accountant/accounting firm to a friend, colleague or another business? Please rate on a scale of 1-10”. The Netpromoter score is calculated as follows:
- Promoters (score 9-10) are loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others, fueling growth.
- Passives (score 7-8) are satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who are vulnerable to competitive offerings.
- Detractors (score 0-6) are unhappy customers who can damage your brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.
To calculate your score, take the percentage of customers who are Promoters and subtract the percentage who are Detractors.
When we asked questions about who SMBs seek out for strategic advice, we sought to understand the expectations from SMBs about how much involvement they want from their CPA as far as “strategic technology advice” compared with “strategic business planning advice.” The idea was to get the SMB to differentiate between an obvious match (business and financial planning) as compared to help with technology planning.
It was no surprise that when it comes to seeking strategic financial advice, accountants score at the top of the list.
But more interesting to us was that we discovered SMBs have a desire for help with technology planning, but at the same time they perceive their accountant as either not able, or not willing to provide technology related planning and consulting services.
This leads us to conclude that there is a significant opportunity for firms to differentiate themselves in the market by providing technology related services, and to market themselves as being experts in technology.
Most SMBs WANT their accountant to be proactive helping them plan and implement technology changes…
But nearly the same number say their CPA does NOT WANT to proactively help them.
Are Accountants Up-To-Date on Technology?
We also thought it was important to understand SMB’s opinion on how “up to date” their accountant is with regard to adoption of new technologies.
We found that only 15% said their accountant is ahead of the curve as far as technology usage inside their firm, and 65% said their accountant is either behind or current in their technology use.
This may help to explain the earlier results that indicate SMBs don’t think their accountant can or wants to provide technology planning advice.
Since we often help software companies figure out how to engage and partner with the accounting profession, we also asked about what SMBs want as far as recommendations about technology solutions. In particular, we sought to understand how SMBs feel about the accountant being involved in the sale (i.e. commissions) when they make recommendations for technology solutions.
What we found is that SMBs either do not want technology recommendations at all, or when they do want the recommendations, they don’t want their accountant to be involved in the sale.
These results didn’t surprise us, but it may surprise many software companies. As logical as it may seem to turn accountants into resellers, SMBs would rather their accountant be “solution agnostic” when making recommendations.
Opportunities for Accountants and Solution Vendors
For technology vendors, these results present opportunities. On the one hand you cannot expect accountants to sell for you, but on the other hand, if you ignore the accountant as part of your team, you’re really missing a valuable partnership that could drive your market success.
The opportunities for solution vendors and accountants are:
- Provide education to help CPAs understand and recommend your product, even if they do not want to SELL the product.
- Continue to engage CPAs as partners, not a sales force.
- Remember that the client is the lifeblood of the CPA. Every time the accountant recommends technology, they risk the client relationship. If it goes well, great, but if not, they lose the client.
- Often, the CPA can VETO a technology, but rarely can they FORCE a technology on a client.
- Depending on the CPAs business model, they may be a good sales channel, but usually, they’re a better influencer who refers you sales.
- The trend of CPAs moving into the Client Accounting Services business allows many technology vendors to be “suppliers” of technology to the firm. For example, Bill.com provides a valuable tool for firms to use to provide profitable outsourced AP and AR services.
- If you consider “Sell to” “Sell through” and “Partner With,” it will almost always work best to partner with accountants.
When it comes to the services SMBs are currently receiving from accountants vs. what they want to receive, we found some not surprising results, and some semi-surprising results.
Most SMBs say they’re receiving traditional CPA services, but technology services don’t even show up in the top 6 services.
When asking which services SMBs want from their CPA, the traditional services once again dominate the top, but dashboarding and technology related services do begin to show up in the list.
How SMB’s Select an Accountant
After we get a picture of what SMBs want, it’s helpful to know how they select an accountant, and what is most important in their decision to engage with an accountant.
Not surprisingly, clients want expertise and a personal relationship with a CPA who is responsive and has a good reputation in the community.
Most SMBs prefer their CPA to be a specialist in their industry, but surprisingly, many do not care. A possible reason behind this answer is that unless the accountant is helping them with business planning, technology planning, and business process engineering, perhaps they don’t see a need for industry expertise. But I see this as a warning sign that the SMBs who answer “don’t care” are only receiving compliance services (Tax Preparation and Financial Statements), which is quickly becoming a commoditized service. The real opportunities in the coming years will be in the advisory services that develop deeper engagements with clients.
Summary and Recommendations
In summary, although SMBs are mostly happy with the accounting profession, there is room for improvement.
More importantly, the new world creates new business process complexities for SMBs that they are not equipped to handle alone. When an SMB starts selling online, taking credit cards, or streamlining their paperless workflows, they often don’t have the expertise needed to evaluate options and integrate the chunks to create an efficient business system.
Opportunity for Accountants to Differentiate:
For Accountants who stick to Financial Statement and Tax Preparation services, the dramatic improvements in technology will continue to commoditize those services. For example, it’s already the case that payroll and sales tax preparation services have become not much more than pressing the submit button on the software product. Here is your checklist of for how to differentiate your practice in this new world of technology:
- If you’re mainly in the compliance services business, move towards higher value added services such as Strategic Business, Tax, and Financial Planning.
- Educate your staff on new world technologies and adopt a set of recommended products for your clients.
- Develop skills to connect systems together from multiple vendors.
- Use and recommend collaborative accounting technologies to broaden and deepen your client engagements.
- Be proactive with engaging your clients in strategic technology planning.
Opportunities for Technology Vendors
Technology vendors have more opportunities than ever to fill the unmet needs of SMBs. Of course developing well-targeted, fully functional, bug-free, easy to use software is paramount, but partnering with accountants is a golden opportunity if you do it right.
Here is the checklist for how technology vendors can work with the profession:
- The fastest road to success is to partner with CPAs who provide the “last mile” of customer service.
- Provide education and tools for accountants.
- Engage accountants as “PARTNERS” who are critical to driving ultimate client success.
- Make your product “play well with others” so that accountants and clients can connect your applications to other applications and services.
Many thanks to Steve King of Emergent Research and Greg LaFollette of CPA2Biz for their assistance with this research.