Change is Inevitable

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There have been a plethora of articles on the changes technology is bringing to the workplace: how accountants and bookkeepers need to integrate these technologies into their firms and utilize them for the added value sale, to increase client retention and client relationship, and manage internal workflows and employees. “So many apps, so little time” is now the mantra. Yep, the accounting industry is now in full Cloud mode.

I just read a post by David Bergstein in Accounting Today on whether or not it’s necessary to be a CPA in order to grow and run a successful (and profitable) accounting firm.

The answer is, most emphatically, no. Consider what the rest of the working business world is experiencing. We are already accepting the idea that over-the-road truck drivers will become, to borrow a Star Trek reference, Captain Dunsails. They’ll no longer be necessary. My son works in logistics at Home Depot, dealing with trucking schedules, truck drivers, inventory, and all that minutia of where, when, how, and how many. When we discussed the future diminished need for truck drivers, he said he had no problem with it because computers would make it easier to deal with all those moving parts. They will be gone, replaced by someone that can manage the relationship, yet they won’t need to know how to shift 18 gears on a downgrade in a snowstorm (a skill with which I am personally and acutely familiar).

Last week on NPR, there was a discussion on the potential closing of Sears, a box store that has been slowly bleeding from the impact of online shopping. My mother worked at Sears on Mass Ave in Harvard Square raising my six siblings and me on a salary as a specialist in fitting women for bras. She eventually became manager of the lingerie department. It was an arduous job, but she did it. I remember her bringing home three-ring binders (E-ring size) to do inventory work, deciding which items would be in the Sunday ads for the Globe and Herald, and managing the sales staff in her department. Those were high cotton days for us. She burned the mortgage; we got a new HiFi, a new-to-us used car, a new fridge. It was heady stuff. Then life changed for my mother. Sears, to increase profit, logically, moved to the kiosk system and they minimized not only sales staff, but many of the ones with expertise. My mum kept her job, but she was miserable. They began hiring lower level help who had no customer or product experience. She began to cover all of the women’s clothing department, not just lingerie. She no longer had to worry about the sales advertising, and the inventory management was easier with new technology, but, overall, she was sad to see the change. The store was less like a family and, to use her words, more like an Automat.

Now we see the end of even the kiosk low-level associate sales staff. In the early 2000’s, people debated the idea that consumers would buy a product online without touching it, holding it, or trying it. Can we call that one dead and buried? Yep. If you ever doubted it back in the early 2000’s, Amazon has ended that debate on the side of the online shoppers. Yes, they are having issues with their Amazon stores. I can’t see the need for those, but I personally dislike shopping. However, the word Amazon is now a verb; you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant and Amazon. With Amazon, it is delivered to your door the next day, and often the delivery is free with Prime. I can even bypass logging into my browser or app to place the order. Just ask Alexa, and she will gladly take your verbal order. Now even those sales associates at a kiosk or on chat are not needed. I Google or Yelp to find out reviews, make my selection, and the product is where I want it to be the next day. Need to return? No worries; UPS will pick it up, and Amazon will easily track and refund. How many people of different capabilities were required to get that bra fitted, sold to the right person, and work to make sure they came back again in the women’s department of Sears in the 1960s? How many by the 70s, 80s, and 90s? Each year, the number of people and their required knowledge level decreased. Now if you want to have a well-fitting bra, and ladies we all know the need for that, you go to a specialty store to get fitted, pay big bucks, then buy additional ones in their online store. But let’s face it, most of us just order online and forget the fitting.

I own and run an accounting and bookkeeping firm. I tell all my clients that I am neither an accountant nor a bookkeeper. I am a customer onboarding specialist, a relationship expert, and a tech advisor. My staff is good at what they do, and they are especially good at learning how to use technology to increase speed to get the end results desired. In February, I visited with an accounting firm based out of Rhode Island. We met at a nice seafood place in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts. The two owners (not partners) are not CPAs, nor are they accountants. They were two smart, young men with MBAs who saw the mess in a typical accounting firm and how poorly they are often run and said, “We can do that better.” They have purchased additional firms and now run things with one CPA on board to handle only compliance, tax signing, and higher level accounting questions. With new technologies and a ‘business first’ mindset, they are on the way to be a great accounting firm. Their business model has little need for CPAs but will require, for now, great data reviewers. How long before even those data reviewers will be lower in number? And who will replace them? AI, Alexa, and Google Home? Remember when they said no one would buy on the internet? It won’t be long now, folks.

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