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Robots preparing tax returns?


31 March has passed, it's a good time to reflect on the future accountant.

Last Wednesday, the Herald published this article on the future automation of jobs, listing the top 10 jobs to disappear (tax preparers coming in at number 8).  The news piece was based on an NZ Institute of Economic Research study commissioned by CAANZ and will meet with both warranted scepticism and a healthy regard for future opportunity. 

There is no doubt that a perfect storm is gathering to reduce the transactional side of accounting.  Algorithms that drive predictive coding, a growing DIY culture spawned by cloud accounting, and the marginalisation of the accountant as the intermediary between client and IRD are conditions we are either experiencing or sensing. 

I'll let you in on a secret.  I no longer prepare my own tax returns, my lucky husband does.  It's a painful experience for me (and possibly for him), with its fair share of angst and anticipation.  I like to know how much tax I have to pay well in advance and most importantly how my taxes can be managed better.  This means I need a human being to talk to and debate the possibilities with.  Notice I said human being, not human calculator.  In other words, I will never take tax or business advice from a robot, ever.  Truly empathic robots will be a long time coming. 

I do however welcome the demise of all that effort on analysing transactions.  I'd much rather that energy went into improving my business.  As my husband will tell you, I have no appetite for conversations about GST reconciliations or ICA calculations.  Just do it.

My take on the profile of the Future Accountant.

Last week at a Business Development workshop, I was asked for my stance on the future accountant. Here it is, seven attributes:

1. A very good accountant - no need for brilliance.
2. Financially strong - can interpret quickly.
3. Sound tax knowledge - if need be we'll outsource to an expert.
4. A good communicator - clear and positive.
5. Can sell - not a product pusher, from a position of caring.
6. Commercial - can speak wider than the numbers.
7. Empathy for clients - understanding their condition and acting to improve it.
The first three attributes are generally no problem to accountants.  The fourth attribute (communication) is a learned skill.  When I was in my thirties I was incapable of speaking in front of an audience, to the point of being verbally crippled.  I went to toastmasters and I practised.  I still get nervous, but I am now mainly confident.  We sent our daughter Natalie to speech and drama classes at the age of 8.  It has been our best ever investment in her education and has provided her with a communication edge.

Number 5 (learning to sell with confidence) is going to be crucial if you want to replace recurring compliance with recurring Business Development revenue.  Selling is a learned skill, but it is equally a new muscle which must be built and flexed. 

Attribute 6 (speaking wider than the numbers) can be accelerated with a reasonable investment in learning and experiences.  The service opportunities are many: 

- Strategic planning  - Governance structures 
- Business planning  - Trustee services 
- Accountability coaching  - KPI improvement 
- Organisational improvement  - Virtual CFO 
- Succession planning  - Process development 
- Cashflow improvement  - Cloud systems implementation 

Some of the above services may appear to be numbers centric, but think again.  
The value add is not merely in the analysis and interpretation of the data, the real value add is in the tactical piece, the exploration of the strategies that can be applied to close the gap between where your client is now and where they want to be. 

This is a step further than many accountants currently go.  If your client asks for a cashflow forecast and it turns out that's bank driven because this is the third time in as many months they've requested an extension, the real work lies in resolving why cash isn't flowing in that business AND what to do about it.  Preparing the forecast is just treating the symptom, not the cause. 

Number 7 (empathy) worries me.  I've met more Sheldons (Big Bang Theory) in this industry than I've filed income tax returns.  If they even notice their clients' condition, they seem very unwilling to act on it.  In fact, if you're interested in assessing your individual empathy levels, take the Cambridge Scale Empathy Quotient Test.  The results for some will be sobering.  If your empathy levels are really low, you may not care.

Can empathy be improved?

Can empathy be improved?  Absolutely.  One of the strategies psychologists discuss is to 'turn the tables', in other words put yourself in someone else's shoes to understand their behaviours and actions.  A big empathy enhancer I see in our profession today is that accountants (unless you're retiring in the next few years) have to learn new skills that their clients had to develop from day one.  A great example is marketing and selling. 

Frankly we've enjoyed an advantage (IRD as our marketing and sales arm) that is being marginalised and now we have to get real about the skills we need in a new order.  So let's do that.  That will take your time, your energy, and some financial investment. 

The statement that resonated most from last Wednesday's article was this - 'the most important thing that society can do is to give people the skills to cope with potentially multiple career changes'.  And that's what I love most about the career change that our profession is undergoing.  It's a new job with a new set of skills where people help clients improve their financial, time and mind freedoms. 

Do that and your value will always outperform the robot (or human) calculator.
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