insight magazine

Practice Perspectives | Summer 2019

The Risk of Trading Relationships for Technology

As technology touches more of what CPAs do, CPAs can’t lose their grip on the human touch they bring to the profession.
Art Kuesel President, Kuesel Consulting

“But services are still different.” “The accounting profession is different.” Right? Maybe. Technology’s creep into nearly every transaction we make as consumers is inescapable. As CPA firm leaders, we need to embrace the fact that technology can make client interactions and transactions with our businesses easier, more convenient, more efficient, and can result in transactions with less overall friction for us and our clients. But at the same time, the relationships we build with clients still have real value.

Relationships create context, make the client feel valued, add a personal touch, and demonstrate value received. These things cannot yet be replicated or replaced by technology. Would I love to have a relationship with my CPA firm that is easier, more convenient, and has less friction? As any consumer would say, you bet. But there must be a balance in how we navigate the relationship versus technology conundrum.

I can personally relate to this conundrum; technology has directly influenced my personal interactions with my CPA firm and my personal investment of time in getting ready for tax time.

Four years ago, my firm sent me a paper tax organizer and a large business reply envelope. I compiled and organized a small mountain of documents and mailed them back to the firm. That probably took me close to six hours to handle. My guess is that it was rather time consuming on their end to get everything sorted and organized and manually entered into their tax software. But this was the way it has been done since 1913 (I’m exaggerating here), so no one was the wiser of more efficient ways to manage this tedious process.

Then, three years ago, I sent in the same items via email — via my scanner. Yes, I scanned all the documents requested and sent them over as email attachments. This probably took me upwards of three hours, and who knows how many emails, to complete. That was a nice time savings on my end. Sure, it was less secure, but I have a Life-Lock membership. And it was easier for the firm to drag and drop the documents into their software and databases. But we all know early generation OCR capabilities required significant human intervention, so maybe it didn’t help them that much after all.

Last year, my firm moved everything into a secure portal. I admit as a client it was a bit confusing to navigate. And, I recall it being so secure that all the layers of security frequently locked me out because of forgotten passwords and missing reset emails. It probably took me three or four hours to get all my documents into the system, meaning it took me more time and gave me more frustration (despite the technology being “better”). I’m a fairly typical client, and I’d guess I wasn’t the only one with this experience. Some typical clients probably even barked and bit or reverted to the old ways of submitting their tax documents in revolt. Me? I just had a call with my “guy” at the firm to vent my frustrations, and he smoothed it all out. Two steps forward and one step back.

This year, my firm tried a new tool that enabled more seamless document management for my tax return. I could snap pictures of documents and upload them via an app. I could upload statements and records directly to the firm from my laptop. It was intuitive and easy to use. I looked at a list of requested documents, scanned some, took pictures of others, and could upload them directly into the correct spot. I was on track to be back down to two or maybe three hours of prep time — or so I thought. Several of my files were rejected. They were too large, not of the right format (jpg, pdf, etc.), or not in the right location. I was frustrated and capitulated; I emailed everything in like I had done in years past. My personal preparation time was jumping toward six hours, with much of that being aggravation time. Two steps forward and two-and-a-half steps back.

If not for my pre-existing trust-based relationship with my CPA firm, I would have declared the relationship over and sought a less friction-laden experience. Instead, I called my team and they took care of me. They assured me that I wasn’t the only one having trouble and apologized for the issues. I stay with my CPA firm because I know they value my business, and they always put context around the numbers, make me smarter for next year, and often add a personal touch to our interactions. This can include things like asking about Graham, Colleen, upcoming travel, recent wine, or barbecue adventures. Technology can’t replicate this!

My cautionary tale isn’t meant to diminish the role technology can or should play in our firms. Rather, it is meant to remind us of what we need to think about when evaluating technology: client relationships. We often forget the downside of technology, which is that it increasingly takes the place of human interactions. I’ll argue that human interaction is the glue that keeps our clients stuck to us and our firms.

The relationships we build with our clients influence so much of our success as accountants, but only if they are made a priority. Technology and relationships can and should exist hand-in-hand. So, don’t forget this the next time you are evaluating your next technology upgrade. Perhaps at the same time you should plan on some relationship upgrading as well — just in case.

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