People vs. Technology: What Matters Most in Accounting?

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know how people and technology can work together? The automation revolution has permanently changed the accounting industry, but that doesn’t mean technology should replace people. 

At Gusto, we’re committed to helping you thrive now and in the future. That’s why we brought you our online show, On the Margins: LIVE, with hosts Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Will Lopez, Gusto’s Head of the Accounting Community. In this episode, they talk with Gusto’s Product Marketing Manager for the Accountants Program, the talented Leah Brite, about the balance between people and technology in the industry.

Leah is a gifted marketer with a knack for drawing out the best in every product and every team she supports. Her current focus at Gusto is bringing our revenue-boosting products to our accounting partners. Joining Gusto was her first foray into the CPA industry, yet she ramped up quickly and is now helping trailblaze a new path for accountants to work with technology.

How accountants have defied expectations

Are all accountants introverts who love math, are tax experts, and find joy in spreadsheets? Maybe you relate to the stereotypes to some degree, but chances are, you and your colleagues have diverse tastes, interests, personalities, and reasons for working in accounting. Since Leah had never worked in the industry before joining Gusto, Caleb and Will asked her how the CPAs she works with now measure up to her preconceived notions of the industry.

“I think that once you get to know a group of people, you understand more deeply the breadth of folks that are not just defined by a single choice in their lives, such as their profession. … The variety that exists within the accounting and bookkeeping profession and even at work, how they choose to run their practices, [always amazes me].”

– Leah Brite

Leah recounted that her initial impression of CPAs was formed years ago with her friend Tim. Tim was a hardworking CPA who eventually burnt out and chose to buy and run a farm in New Zealand. 

Two business people working together in the office.

“Tim was an incredibly smart, caring, and compassionate man who was very rooted in his beliefs, but at the same time, really open to new ideas and ways of thinking. I’ve always had a ton of respect for Tim, and that was really my perception of the profession. So I think my perception was that accountants had an incredibly strong financial acumen and big hearts.”

– Leah Brite

Breaking down stereotypes about CPAs reveals the humanity behind this indispensable profession. It’s our humanity—our beliefs, ways of thinking, skills, and emotional awareness—that can’t be replaced by machines. Not only do those qualities shine through in client relationships, but they also guide how we work, what work we do, and who we work with.

For example, CPAs with creative inclinations or who are in contact with people in arts industries are uniquely suited to work for those industries. Let’s say you live in Los Angeles and have a large community of actors, musicians, costume designers, and filmmakers. Based on immersion and proximity, you might know a thing or two about the commercial side of films, such as the challenges of managing tight budgets, paying a variety of people on time, and keeping production costs under control. Your knowledge of the industry makes hiring you desirable. 

Just as people have different things to bring to the table, so do organizations. They vary greatly in everything from ambition to motivation. Will discussed the difference between himself and a CPA he met.

“The motivators that were driving me to run my practice were drastically different [from his], but we were doing the same thing. We were trying to help clients. We were trying to help small business owners run their businesses. [We were trying to] help them survive during tough times.”

– Will Lopez

Some firms understand the importance of work-life balance while others are more entrenched in a traditional culture with more demanding hours. Some firms more closely align themselves with strictly doing accounting work while others are focused on expanding their services and increasing their value that way. Will discussed how his vision for the accounting industry is unique in that he leaves room for possibility and answering to what customers truly need.

“[We saw where] the industry [is] going. … [We saw] clients really wanting more and small businesses really needing more, [and we saw that] our role was to be better accountants, not just the status quo and that being an accounting professional is a journey, not a destination.”

– Will Lopez

At the end of the day, accountants are united by the fact that they provide a service everyone needs. The nuts and bolts of how that looks are really up to the individual.

How to balance people-powered accounting with technology

There’s no doubt about it: the automation revolution has shifted the industry in ways we’re just now beginning to see. Is that all bad? Absolutely not. When you partner with tech platforms, you have access to the increased speed, scope, and accuracy that automation has. Meanwhile, you can get busy tackling more complex challenges, providing financial insights, and bridging workplace satisfaction with financial performance.

Of course, there’s also the risk that technology is seen as a replacement for people. We need to find balance. Caleb asked for Leah’s thoughts on this.

“Right now, there’s a very interesting conversation going on in the profession. … [We’re thinking] ‘What is the role of technology? What is the role of automation? What’s the effect that that’s going to have on the accounting community?’ And we’ve seen certain companies like ScaleFactor [who don’t] understand the right balance between people and technology, and they believe that technology will play such a strong role in the client relationship that there is not a need for the people part of the equation.”

– Leah Brite
Three people having a discussion using laptop in the office.

Leah observed that when the scales tip too far in the direction of technology, firms don’t perform well. While automation is growing more and more important, it’s not replacing people overnight. Additionally, many new businesses tend to favor accountants who take more of an advisory role.

“If you think about the cohort business owners that are coming into the business today [such as] millennials that are starting businesses, they [don’t just want] someone who can keep them compliant, someone who can save them money on their taxes, someone who brings that really strong financial acumen that we know that accountants and bookkeepers bring to the table. They also want a really strong business advisor that is great to work with.”

Leah Brite

As an advisor, you bring higher-level thinking, leadership ability, and the ability to frame goals within complex contexts. Additionally, soft skills are key. When people come to an accountant, it’s because they have an issue with one of the most touchy topics people have to tackle: money. It’s a sensitive subject and should be handled with care.

Most of the time, people come to an advisor or a CPA because they’re scared. They don’t know what to do about their taxes. They don’t know how they should run their business. They need help, and they look to you and your expertise for it. A machine can’t ask the right questions to get to the root of a problem. That takes being in the moment with another person. 

“I think that we’ve underplayed the role of people and the role of … soft skills, and I think we need to recognize that that’s a key part of the profession. … The more that accountants can lean into that, the better that they will do, and they can lean on technology in some ways to do that. … It actually makes life quite a bit more fun if you can find a way to serve your clients in a way that they want to be served and they’re really satisfied with. It’s so much more fun to work with a client who is engaged and happy to take your call on the phone than one who might be dreading your call or not necessarily looking forward to catching up.”

– Leah Brite

CPAs who work with technology instead of fighting against it will fare better than those who don’t. This means you lean into what sets you apart from technology while taking advantage of what tech does that you can’t. Harness technology by automating and building efficiencies into your practices, then focus on expanding your advisory practices. 

Learn more about what matters most in accounting

The automation revolution has changed the industry in far-reaching ways, but technology is not a replacement for people. Firms that don’t understand the need for people have already shown signs of poor performance. While you can look to tech to automate some of your processes, you should also lean into what sets you apart from machines. Your soft skills, leadership abilities, and complex problem-solving capabilities are irreplaceable. Your value also lies in your sense of service, your desire to help, and your ability to talk through complex problems with clients. Even your personal passions and community can influence how you work and what you know. Take advantage of them. 

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We want to help you harness the changes in the industry as best you can.  To learn more about how to navigate change gracefully, check out our other article based on the same episode: “A Small Business with a Huge Impact: Rumi Spice.”

Becoming a Gusto Partner can make your life easier. Get payroll and HR support for your team and our new advisory revenue stream for your practice through our people advisory platform. As a Gusto partner, you’ll also get tools to help you expand your accounting practice and offer your clients new insights, plus a free payroll subscription for your own accounting firm. Sign up today!

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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