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What Is Accounting’s Next Act?

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
accountant work life balance

April 8, 2021

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Now what?

Last week I mentioned how WFH had been good for me. It gave me lots to write about, especially within the confines of the accounting world, which was mostly new to it. And while the accounting profession has mixed feelings about working remotely, you can’t deny that the pandemic has presented many business opportunities for firms. Even if a firm charged nothing or very little for some of its pandemic-related services, they’ve likely earned a lot of social capital that will pay off immeasurably.

recent Sage Intacct survey of its Accountant Partners found that 88% of them offered CARES Act/PPP consulting services. This says a lot about firms’ capabilities: They’re dedicated advisors who, when push comes to shove, are comfortable with risk and change. That’s exactly what many businesses needed last year.

But I can’t help but think—now that the anticipation of returning to normal life is crescendoing like the John Williams-composed soundtrack to our lives—that accounting firms are going to have to figure out what to do next. Sure, consulting on crisis-rescue legislation is great for business, but we’re not going to be in crisis-rescue mode forever.

So what should accountants focus on post-pandemic? Obviously, many will go back to the tried and true stuff: tax prep and planning, audit, accounting, and bookkeeping. But I don’t know how firms could be satisfied with that. The revenue growth at some firms was “staggering,” according to the Sage guy quoted in Accounting Today: “[T]here were firms that saw 100 percent year-over-year growth.” Plus, even if things are “back to normal” they’ll only be back to normal in the sense that we are eating in restaurants, commuting on buses and subways, and working in offices, with the full knowledge that we just came out of a year-plus long pandemic. Past, prologue, etc. All the context is going to shape how firms think about how to serve businesses.

For example, the Sage Intacct survey found that second behind the CARES Act/PPP consulting, 71% of firms provided cash flow forecasting and management. And, sure, this is fine, and obviously was/is in demand—but one could argue that most firms could have already been doing that. It just doesn’t feel like, after all we’ve been through, that cash flow forecasting will be the torch that accountants pick up post-pandemic.

Soagain, what will the post-pandemic boomtime service for accountants be? If my colleague Will Lopez wrote this newsletter, he would tell you that it will be People Advisory. (Full disclosure: I have said this, too). For the uninitiated, it’s a service that focuses on serving businesses but also their employees. Even if I didn’t work at Gusto, I wouldn’t have a hard time making a case for firms to advise clients on building better workplaces.

Post-pandemic, employers that continue to take their people for granted will repel value, while employers that go out of their way to take care of their people will create it. Huh. That’s not a bad sentence.

But if taking a risk on something like People Advisory seems too wild, too out there, too ON THE MARGINS, then I get it. Going back to normal means going back to normal. Plenty of businesses will need accountants just like they needed them in the past, and that won’t require drastic changes. Still, if you’re going to try something new and a little harebrained, right now might just be the best time to do it.

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Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.

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