What is the key to accountants’ survival in the AI era?

Jun 13, 2023 | Client service, Key Business skills, Networking, Referrals, Reputation, Sole practitioners, STANDING OUT

One of the biggest changes to be heralded by the introduction of AI so far as accountants are concerned, links to one of my long-term messages for accountants.

How can you stand out from the competition? And, as a result, win more of the business you really want?

Even before the launch of ChatGPT and other AI systems, over the last few years many of us have realised that we need to adopt a new mindset across our marketing and sales activities.

Instead of thinking about whether our Business (B) is selling to other Businesses (B2B) or to Consumers (B2C), we need to recognise that all of our sales and client relationships are dependent on Human (H) to Human interactions.

Personally, I think our focus has always been ‘H2H’ or ‘Person to Person’.

Actually I think ‘Individual to Individual’ would be more accurate but the abbreviation would sound the same as ‘eye to eye’ which simply means directly facing someone else!

Whether we sell accounting, tax, legal or mentoring services, our clients make assumptions about who we are based on the available information.

If we work for a firm, large or small, the firm’s reputation and branding only gets us so far. Most clients engage with us only if they feel comfortable that we (as individuals, along with whatever support we need from colleagues and the firm) will be able to help them to resolve their issues, challenges or problems.

Our clients themselves are individuals (humans) and want to be treated as such, even if they represent and engage us to advise their business.

This is why it has long made sense to include pen portraits of partners and senior staff in firms’ brochures, websites and proposal documents.

Other than when the very largest firms are retained, it is invariably the individual advisers who will secure or lose the engagement.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post. However much work AI can do for us, it is our qualities as humans, as individuals, that will determine our long-term success.

To an extent this has always been true. But this will become ever more important in the future as we see a continued rise in the use of AI, machine learning, and robotic process automation.

If you want to ensure your survival in practice no matter how much (more) advanced AI becomes, you need to be better evidence your ‘human’ and personal qualities; those that cannot be replicated by AI.

Here’s a few examples:

  • Show more compassion, empathy and emotion
  • Allow your personality and distinctiveness to shine through
  • Recognise when a situation requires a non-standard response
  • Be genuinely interested in clients and prospects, friendlier and more personal
  • Be kind, creative and innovative
  • Build rapport and engage with clients as people, not as avatars, numbers or robots
  • Listen more attentively and respond to what’s not said as well as to what is said
  • Interpret and explain data and technical/legal jargon in terms that clients understand
  • Use the phone more often rather than sending emails that might just as well have been automated

Much of this falls within the definition of emotional intelligence (EI) which the author Daniel Goleman suggests has five main elements:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skills

It’s always been important for us to connect well with people as individuals. But equally, the accountancy, tax and legal professions are perceived to attract the brightest graduates whose personal skills and EI may not be as strong as their aptitude to learn, regurgitate and apply technical knowledge.

It has long been the case in larger firms that the majority of ‘client relationship partners’ are typically those best able to relate to, build and maintain a personal (human) relationship with the client.

If you are perceived to be a technical boffin you will rarely get a look in. You might be well regarded within the firm, well liked and considered irreplaceable, but you probably aren’t going to reach the top of the tree – not until you have developed sufficiently strong personal qualities.

This gap between those who enjoy building client relationships and those who prefer ‘doing the work’ is only going to widen over the next few years.

This is because more and more of the work we do will be automated, simplified and done more accurately and faster by new systems and advanced software.

Your personal (human) qualities and how you interact with people will be ever more important in the future.

If you struggle with this concept, your future as an accountant and adviser may be limited. But, if you embrace this concept, you can still have a long future in the profession, regardless of the rate of change and the development of AI.

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