Date posted: 27/05/2020 5 min read

What was a bigger hit than Gangnam Style for this accounting firm?

The CA Business Advisory Accelerator Program supported financial advisory firm Prime Partners in their transformation to be more valuable to clients. Applications for the next intake of the program are now open.

In Brief

  • Automation and AI is important to accounting’s future, but you can’t automate human relationships.
  • It’s essential you help clients understand the value of your strategy to their business.
  • As an accountant, continually developing skills is important because it’s an ever-changing environment.

By Stuart Ridley

The moment of celebration and congratulations isn’t the most important part of a success story; rather, it’s identifying the moment when everything changed. For Prime Partners, named 2019 Xero Accounting Partner of the Year (NSW/ACT), that pivotal moment was in 2012, a year best remembered for the London Olympics and pop sensation “Gangnam Style” by Psy.

James Carey CA, who joined Prime Partners as a senior accountant in 2009, had been used to coding bank statements by hand for manual processing. But when he discovered Xero in 2012, it was a revelation.

“By not spending a client’s accounting dollars on doing data entry, we could then spend that time talking to them about their business,” says Carey, who became a Prime Partners director at the end of 2012.

“By not spending a client’s accounting dollars on doing data entry, we could then spend that time talking to them about their business.”
James Carey CA, Prime Partners

“You simplify expense processing, but it’s like a domino effect. You start seeing more and more things are possible and how the solution can make our clients’ lives easier.”

The transition to cloud accounting plotted out a new future path for the 27-year-old firm, but while the cloud has revolutionised processes, Carey has been careful to maintain some more traditional aspects.

“For us it’s about going back to basics and ensuring client services are happening as they should,” he says. “That we’re a sounding board for them and how they run their business. We need to not forget that clients are human, staff are human, and you can’t automate those relationships.”

James CareyPicture: James Carey CA, Prime Partners.

Cloud accounting still needs a human touch

Carey’s first big tip for succeeding in cloud accounting is to help your clients understand the value to their business.

“When we’re talking to clients about why they should move to the cloud, it comes down to the benefit to them,” he says. “It will save them time, save them money. It’s easier to use and they’ll get better data.

“A computer can do all the manual things quicker, faster, easier. And because of that we have more time to spend on the valuable stuff, like speaking to the clients.”

For Laela Hansen CA, Prime Partners founding partner and director, it’s important to distinguish between what the software is best at and where the human touch is essential.

“Artificial intelligence is going to start doing the accounts – the compliance work, the tax returns, the financial statements. You won’t need that human element to produce the accounts,” she says. 

“What accountants have to do is take those numbers and do something with them. And because the numbers are real time, use them to connect with clients, become their trusted adviser, become the person they go to.”

Says Carey: “AI can’t have conversations, or hand over a box of tissues to clients. To any young accountants wanting to get involved, the ability to have meaningful relationships is much more important than the ability to do maths in your head.”

Why you need to prepare your team for change

Getting clients on board is paramount to a successful transition to cloud accounting, but first and foremost a firm needs to ensure everyone within the organisation is ready as well.

“It’s no good having leadership saying ‘We’re gonna change – these are the changes’,” says George Morice CA, Prime Partners’ managing partner and director. “It’s bringing people together as a group and saying, ‘We need to change. These are the things we’ve highlighted that we think we need to change. What do you think about that?’”

From experience, Morice has found that staff members, including directors, only have capacity for two major changes in operations in any given year. That means it’s important to get the plan right so you don’t need to roll it back later.

“You’ve got two shots,” says Morice. “Make sure it is the most valuable two shots you’ve got. If you go off and do a change and it doesn’t work, you’ve wasted one. Get that buy-in first.

“Change isn’t something that happens in a short term, and it doesn’t happen one-off. Make sure you’ve done your due diligence before you do any change.”

He also counsels against describing change as a “project”; instead, introduce change as the new constant for ongoing success.

“Get used to that uncomfortableness of change, because it will continue to happen,” he advises. “Make one change and the next thing will come along, then you make another change. You need to prepare staff for that.”

The real value of networking

It’s not only technology that is changing. “The industry used to be a lot of individual silo accounting firms not talking to each other,” says Carey. “Everyone was your rival. But now that’s less of an issue. The challenge [now] is how you focus on continuing to run your business and not get distracted by all the technology constantly in your face.”

To help them overcome that challenge, the team at Prime Partners has joined in various CA ANZ initiatives, including the CA Catalyst and Accelerator programs. They have found great value in learning from leaders and peers in the industry.

Tom Scrutton, a senior accountant at Prime Partners, took part in the CA Catalyst program. “It was a great insight into how we can push the firm into a more advisory role for our clients,” he says.

“Over the past year, we’ve really developed our skills in model building and talking to our clients, not just about their tax but also about the health of their business.”

Morice says he’s discovered the “real value” of CA ANZ in the learning opportunities the organisation offers. One recent event helped him discover new technologies he hadn’t considered before that could simplify work.

“That can add a whole new branch to my firm that I would never come up with myself,” he says. “CA ANZ is doing a great job at the moment preparing firms for what’s coming. They’re being really forward looking.”

Carey adds: “There are firms that don’t go to conferences or don’t talk to other people, and they don’t know what’s going on. I would encourage them to take a look because it is all good stuff.”

‘Never stop learning’ is a key to success

If there’s one rule above all others in the accounting industry today, it’s the importance of staying on top of what’s new and the best methods for using the tools and techniques available.

“Continually developing your skills, especially in the accounting role, is so important because it’s an ever-changing environment,” Scrutton says.

“The risk of not continuing to learn is that you’ll basically stagnate. You’ll become a redundant accountant who doesn’t grow their business and doesn’t grow their clients’ businesses as well.”

Andrew Campbell CA, former senior manager at Prime Partners [now at BDO], says while change will be constant, it’s important to remember some clear fundamentals.

“There is no doubt things will become more and more automated,” he says. “That’s where we need to step up, continue to nurture and really value that trust relationship we have with our clients because it is important. And that’s where the value is in this industry.”

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The CA Accelerator program is being designed to equip firms in public practice with specialised skills and capabilities needed to develop services and specialisation in advisory.

If you would like to help shape the pilot program or express your interest in participating, please email us at [email protected].

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