Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today.
One of the most gratifying aspects of my work is gaining an inside view of diverse accounting firms and their leaders. The creativity that’s transforming our firms, and our profession, is nothing short of inspirational. And this is true of the smallest to the largest firms.
Among the most forward-looking CPAs I’ve encountered in recent years is Jody Padar, CEO/principal of New Vision CPA Group. Those who’ve met Jody know she’s controversial, experimenting with new approaches many others shy away from, and always on the cutting edge of disruptive technologies. I sat down with her recently for a conversation about the role of technology in her firm’s continual reinvention.
Not Your Father’s Firm
When Jody joined her father’s practice several years ago, it served primarily tax clients and was unexceptional in its approach to technology. Things quickly started to change, as Jody moved much of the firm’s work to the cloud, signaling her priorities.
Today, New Vision fully lives up to its name, with the usage of human assisted artificial intelligence, also known as augmented intelligence. You might also have heard the terms bots, digital robots, or robotic process automation, which is part of a cloud-based platform she accesses through the third-party provider Botkeeper. The platform also incorporates machine learning, and offers automated accounting, bookkeeping, reconciliation and other services, “while decreasing human error…(and) bookkeeping costs by 30 – 50%,” according to Botkeeper. And think about this – we are still only in the early years of bot usage!
Unpacking the Plusses
Jody sees two primary advantages of working with bots. First, it permits a low-tech firm of any size to leap frog to tech-savvy status, eliminating the recent learning curve required to use accounting technology (more on this below). Second is the fact that, because AI allows you to scale without adding human resources, smaller firms are relieved of the pressure to merge.
Before bots, New Vision was 100% cloud-based and used QuickBooks Online and Xero to deliver outsourced accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and tax services (the firm does not offer audit). Jody had already moved to a monthly, fixed-fee pricing model, touching clients quarterly rather than only at annual compliance deadlines. This was fortuitous, because with bots working for $2 to $3 per hour, hourly billing is no longer relevant.
Over time, bots have permitted Jody and her partner to grow, while reducing labor by almost 40%. Bots not only work cheaply, they also work without interruption, 24/7/365, and without absence due to sickness or traffic.
Another significant fact is that artificial intelligence yields data. Bot users can readily collect client data for analysis and benchmarking. In the current data-hungry environment, firms can help clients by providing valuable metrics to better run their businesses.
The algorithm-driven platform saves time and increases accuracy, partly because the bots, whose work is reviewed by a team of human accountants provided by the service, make decisions for you. The platform rationalizes data and flags any exceptions, much as your credit card alerts you if a purchase seems out of the norm. And with machine learning, the bots get smarter with time, seeing similar items from past experience and making decisions, such as which general ledger account to code invoices from specific vendors.
It’s a sea change for CPAs at firms like New Vision, who over the past decade have been forced to become accounting technologists, expert in Xero, NetSuite, QuickBooks Online, Bill.com and other platforms. Much as car-owners don’t need to know what’s under the hood to drive successfully, bot users can deliver high quality client accounting services without understanding the underlying platforms or algorithms.
The move to machine learning has also made it easier for smaller firms like Jody’s to serve clients in more than one selected industry. In the past, managing multiple interfaces and industry-specific point-of-sale systems made this difficult and costly.
Asked how she spends her time now that bots are handling much of the firm’s work, Jody explains, “I write. I speak. I explore strategic options for the firm, as well as new client opportunities. I act like a managing partner should act.”
Like any service you’re considering, start by identifying providers and asking for information, demos and references. Jody notes the need for cautious vetting, as some providers of AI services choose to work with accounting firms, while others may market themselves directly to your clients.
Just over a year into the relationship with Botkeeper, New Vision CPA Group has realized significant return on its investment—reduced head count, increased productivity, and time freed up to explore strategies for continued success of the firm.
Will a bot have your back in the future? It may be time to see what artificial intelligence can do for your firm.