Why People Advisory Is the “New Normal”

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know how accounting and advisory go hand in hand? Workplace changes in recent years have driven shifts in how people operate. From navigating remote employees to understanding that putting people first will benefit the bottom line, clients need help from trusted advisors. This is the “new normal.”

Gusto is your partner in accounting and advisory, and we’re here to show you the biggest trends impacting your profession. As always, we’re excited to partner with CPA Academy to bring you these insights. The webinar, “Advise Clients on Benefits With a Simple Framework,” featured two pillars of the Gusto team: Jaclyn Anku and Caleb Newquist.

Jaclyn Anku is the Partner Education Manager at Gusto and is an expert in financial literacy for small businesses. She previously worked as a business consultant, is passionate about people services, and believes that financial stability and well-being are intimately linked in the workplace. Caleb Newquist is the Editor-at-Large at Gusto and the founding editor of Going Concern, a leading accounting news publication featuring breaking news, developing stories, and industry insights in the field. Caleb combines his editorial eye, content expertise, and accounting background to create his unique brand.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the demand for advisory in accounting, remote employee engagement, and how to put people first in your advisory services. Let’s get started!

The demand for advisory has never been greater

There’s no doubt about it—the accounting industry is changing, and advisory is something people want and need. Sage’s Practice of Now study about the United States accounting industry demonstrates the shift toward advisory. The study found that 79% of accountants have expanded their services to include business and financial consultancy. Eighty-six percent of clients are increasingly demanding more flexibility within their budget to access the services and resources they need. 51% of accountants think that tech skills will be the most important factor impacting their profession in the next decade. These stats point to a compelling story.

“When we think about the story that the stats are telling, we see that clients now expect advisory, that they want the advisory services that best meet their needs, and that technology is seriously impacting the profession. … I think what’s so neat about accountants … is that you’re stepping up to expand your service offerings and to learn things about benefits that were traditionally out of the realm of accountancy.”

– Jaclyn Anku

As Jaclyn mentions, more and more accountants are excited about the changes and are preparing themselves to expand their offerings with confidence. This is a huge step forward. While fluctuations and shifts in the industry have been unsettling and destabilizing, Jaclyn would argue that they’ve brought much-needed shifts. 

Female client consulting with an accountant in the office.

Historically, accountants have been very reluctant to offer advisory services or even payroll services. Jaclyn shared how working at Gusto desensitized her to these offerings—she saw payroll and advisory services as part of the profession. She was surprised to learn that it wasn’t the norm and was sobered by the explanation for why.

“I joined Gusto from Xero, and I sort of took advisory for granted. It just became more normalized to me through working there. … I just assumed that a lot of accountants offered payroll as par for the course. I distinctly remember in my first week at Gusto asking Will [Lopez], who’s [the] head of [our accountant] community, ‘Will, why don’t more accountants offer payroll services?’ His answer was really sobering because he shared that payroll has traditionally been very high-risk and low margin.”

– Jaclyn Anku

It’s understandable that many accountants would want to avoid a high-risk activity such as payroll. Without adequate support, a lot can go wrong. Without tech tools and expertise backing payroll, mistakes can crop up, which can have serious consequences.

“If you screw up payroll, that means that employees aren’t getting paid, and over 60% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, so not receiving an income has very serious implications. By no means do accountants want to drop the ball on getting payroll. … Also, Uncle Sam’s waiting for his part of payroll. Over three trillion in federal annual revenue is derived from payroll taxes, so everyone needs to get paid on payday, and not doing it right is not fun, so it’s high-risk [with a] low margin.”

– Jaclyn Anku

Given these risks, it’s no surprise payroll has taken a backseat to other accounting processes. Advisory services were also considered high-risk, and people services weren’t considered part of an accountant’s job. 

Workplace changes drive new demands

Changes to how people worked and who businesses could employ drove massive shifts in accounting roles nearly overnight.

“COVID accelerated small business owners’ need for people-focused advice, and accountants stepped up to the plate to fill that gap. I think [accountants] did an incredible job of taking care of … clients and helping them access PPP funds.”

– Jaclyn Anku

Paycheck Protection Program loans were federal government loans granted to small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic when countless companies struggled to stay afloat. The loans enabled employers to pay employees (rather than laying them off) during the near-collapse of the global economy.

HR managers listening to candidate at job interview.

Countless companies needed help navigating these complicated relief funds to stay in business and keep their employees. Many accountants played pivotal roles in these endeavors. Accountants had intimate knowledge of their client’s financial situations, so they could help businesses navigate these loans. 

“[Due to] the nature of how they designed the rescue legislation, it was critical that people had the most up-to-date information about their employees. … [Accountants helped by] interpreting new legislation, … understanding it quickly, …  and being able to facilitate those loans so that businesses could keep operating and keep their people employed.”

Caleb Newquist

Many heroes emerged during those times of unprecedented change, and among them were accountants who assisted businesses with PPP loans. This shows that many within the industry have amazing flexibility, adaptability, and resourcefulness.

“It really is a testament to the accounting profession [and] its ability to really roll with change in really urgent situations. [Trust is] built in those kinds of circumstances. … Goodwill has longevity, so I think what the profession decides to do next is important. The decisions that firms make about how they build on that trust going forward is really important.”

– Caleb Newquist

The trust built between accountants and their clients is valuable and should be treated as such. This is the perfect time to enhance and sustain that value by building on that trust, and a great way to do that is through people advisory.

Putting people first builds long-term trust

As emergency situations pass, people begin the process of rebuilding. A “new normal” isn’t always something that’s predefined. Instead, it’s something people continue creating. It holds both positive potential and tough challenges. As an advisor, you have the chance to help shape the new normal, overcome challenges, and help your clients achieve positive outcomes. You can do this by stepping up your offerings to include payroll and advisory services.

“COVID was this very eye-opening moment for the profession in which I think a lot of accountants realized that they can add a lot of value through payroll. From the client’s perspective, that heightened sense of expectation isn’t going away. In fact, it’s becoming more acute as the nature of work is changing as we all work remotely and embrace this work-from-home life and culture. Small businesses really need help navigating what it means to have a distributed workforce across state lines and not only from a compliance perspective. How do they build that great place to work when work looks different?”

– Jaclyn Anku

Payroll is a great segway into people advisory. People advisors combine financial expertise with knowledge of people operations to guide clients on building a great place to work. As an advisor, you may not only help with human resources or benefits but switch how you approach services. 

For example, you can frame payroll within a larger context—taking care of employees. Accurate and timely payroll processing is essential to employee well-being because it creates a sense of trust and safety between employers and employees. If you look at payroll and payment as a means to better employer-employee relations, you have a whole new way of approaching payroll services.

“What gets me so fired up about people advisory is that it turns payroll on its head and gives us an entirely new way … to help your clients with their people needs. … Payroll is so much more than a transaction—it’s that transfer of value from an employer to its employees. … Employees need to be valued for their work, and payroll really represents that relationship. When you’re able to become a part of that relationship, it also deepens your client’s trust and respect for you as an advisor.”

– Jaclyn Anku
Young businessman talking on a cellphone in a modern office.

After providing payroll services, you can offer more. You may ask your clients about their benefits packages, including their healthcare and time off. You may ask your clients how their employees are doing, whether they’re happy and motivated, or whether they seem dissatisfied. You may need to draw attention to the value of these things, as many busy business owners aren’t necessarily invested in them. 

“When [clients] think about running their business, [they’re likely thinking about] ensuring that they’re on top and [meeting their] bottom line … [They’re asking themselves,] ‘How do I save on rent cost?’ or ’How do I decrease this loan payment?’ They may not immediately think, ‘How do I offer benefits to my team to keep them around over the long haul?’”

– Jaclyn Anku

When you approach clients with people advisory services, you present them with something natural but forgotten: the importance of employee satisfaction. It makes sense to make your staff happy. Apart from simple goodwill and human connection, it affects their performance and longevity at a company. Happy employees will want to show up to work, they’ll be excited about it, and they’ll want to stick around long-term. This is a departure from the shift towards industrialism, consumerism, and technology.

“The concept of people advisory is based on the idea that it’s people at the heart of every business. This may be something that we all take for granted, but it’s actually pretty revolutionary. Over the span of just 300 years, the nature of work has shifted from us being an agrarian-based society to [one powered by] the industrial revolution—enter machines, manual labor—and the tech revolution. … Now we’re moving beyond tech to be a people-focused economy. It’s all about your people. People are at the heart of business.”

– Jaclyn Anku

Whether you’re helping clients with remote employee onboarding, remote employee engagement, providing robust benefits, or giving timely compensation, now is a great time to step into the role of advisor. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing how much you’ve helped, and you’ll increase your own services’ value. It’s an all-around win.

Learn more about why people advisory is the “new normal”

Workplaces are shifting toward becoming more people-focused. Changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic forced accountants to step into the role of advisors as they helped businesses navigate crucial PPP loans. When automation can perform menial tasks in the accounting profession, accountants are poised to begin offering more strategic advice, including offering payroll services and guidance on how to make businesses a great place to work. Advisors can frame how this people-focused approach will positively impact a company’s bottom line. Happy employees are more productive, reliable, and tend to stay with companies longer. 

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We’re here to help you expand your services and build your reputation. Check out our other articles based on the same webinar: “How to Frame Employee Benefits for Your Clients” and “Gusto’s Premium Benefit Packages for Your Clients.”

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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