Constant changes to the tax system, hiring and retaining staff, and understanding the impact of technology on your practice – these are all challenges for the modern accounting firm. Here are eight of the top issues for public practitioners.
Updated 8 March 2019
1. Staying on top of tax changes
Constant changes to the tax regime mean the need for public practice accountants to stay up to date is greater than ever.
Whether those changes are intended to stimulate parts of the economy, benefit certain taxpayers, close loopholes or directly raise greater revenue, they can affect many taxpayers when only targeting the behaviour of a few, says Robyn Jacobson, a senior tax trainer from TaxBanter Pty Ltd.
At the CPA Australia Public Practice Conferences in May and June 2018, Jacobson outlined the most important changes of the previous 12 months.
“Most of the tax policy I’m seeing at the moment is in response to groups of taxpayers who are not complying,” Jacobson says.
“Sometimes there are only small groups of people in certain industries who are not complying, but the government will turn its attention to that entire industry. It’s like the old expression, ‘using a sledgehammer to crack open a walnut’.”
“In some cases, there are just a few people doing the wrong thing but the government introduces integrity measures which affect everybody.”
Jacobson says some of the measures are “incredibly complex” and can increase the likelihood of taxpayers and their advisers making inadvertent errors.
“Practitioners need to be across all of these changes in order to correctly advise their clients,” she says.
2. Being alert to work-related expenses crackdowns
The Australian Taxation Office is also focusing on work-related expense (WRE) claims, with Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan repeatedly saying that the WRE gap (the difference between what you can claim and what is being claimed) is estimated to be greater than the corporate tax gap of A$2.5 billion.
Overclaiming is worse when an agent prepares the return, says Jacobson.
“It is so important to remember that you must have incurred the expense to claim it; there is no standard deduction.”
ATO reports tax agents on work-related expenses
“The message is that it never stands still – tax changes are a constant,” Jacobson says.
“I go out to clients once a month and speak with them about the changes, and a month later there is always so much more to talk about.”
3. Delivering to deadline without killing yourself
Public practice accounting businesses are all about client service delivery. A practice without a client service focus is not going to be in business for long. Where there used to be downtime between client deadlines, time to regroup and plan for the next project, today’s practitioners leap from one extreme deadline to the next.
“People with fantastic technical skills are being smashed by deadlines and burning out,” says Alena Bennett, leadership expert from alenabennett.com.au.
“It’s not because they’re no longer good at what they do. Rather, it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to experience how leadership skills can support their superb technical skills.”
Why is there no longer any downtime?
“There is an increasing number of changes in the market and that means the volume of work is also growing,” says Bennett, a qualified accountant.
Of course, there are also changes in staff attitudes to work and to work-life balance. Where once everybody stayed until the work was complete, an exodus at 5.15pm is now not uncommon.
“That leaves the partners to get the remaining work done themselves,” Bennett says.
4. Getting clients on board with new technology
Bennett says, “There are constant regulatory changes that public practitioners need to stay on top of and guide their clients through.
“Technology continues to evolve and that can create great opportunities for practices, but it also throws up the challenges of making the right investment, successfully deploying the new technology solutions and getting their clients on board.”
5. Growing or sustaining your accounting practice
What’s the solution? How does a business existing under constant pressure remain not only sustainable, but achieve growth? How does a practice lurching from one project to the next find time to innovate, or to surprise and delight clients with improved delivery and tailored communication?
Bennett shares four practical tips:
- Get clear on your critical path. The landscape has changed, so must your practice. Delegate or drop non-critical activity.
- Understand how changes as a result of #1 might impact the nature and frequency of interactions with your client and how you spend the rest of your time. Optimise your workflow.
- Be transparent with your clients and staff about how the changes in your practice will impact them. Have effective conversations (see below).
- Remember that any actions from #1–3 need to be congruent with your practice philosophy. If you don’t have a practice philosophy, or you haven’t revisited it in a while, now’s a great time!
6. Thinking of small changes you can make
Bennett says, “My challenge to those that attend my presentations is to go back to work the next day and do one thing differently.
“It can be as simple as communicating to your clients or staff differently, or simply considering the impact of your conduct and behaviour. How can you do things differently based on that awareness?”
Small changes that inspire the people around you lead to greater clarity and thus a better ability to make decisions, which comes back to improving the business, Bennett says. It’s about turning a painful cycle into a positive one, and that’s good for everybody.
7. Working on your communication skills
When she first went into business 21 years ago Ondina (who these days goes without a surname), director and personal presence expert from Ondina Studio, had what she describes as “dreadful workplace conversation habits”.
It wasn’t until six or seven years later that she realised something had to change. Her business was growing and she had less and less time to manage her people.
“People go into business because they have really good skills around their chosen field,” Ondina says.
“When they do that, they don’t necessarily have other skills that are vital for running a business and particularly for managing staff.”
Relationships in the office are defined by conversations, she says, and the quality of those conversations affects the quality of the business.
“We all expect our team to come in and just do the job,” she says.
“Very little time is spent on having a conversation because everybody is so busy. A lot of the managers I’ve come across are very concerned about pleasing the shareholders and increasing profit.
“Along the way proper conversations with staff, which make these things happen, get pushed to the back.”
Ondina breaks it down into easily digestible pieces that go back together to build powerful change in the workplace, from active listening to self-awareness and knowing how one’s own mood will affect the conversation, to tone of voice and conscious intention.
The most important fact, she says, is that good conversation is more than words.
“I help people to understand and be aware of how they come across, how they forge relationships, what their body language means and what stories they tell other people,” she says.
“In your thoughts you create a feeling and that feeling creates behaviour. The better your thoughts, the better the behaviour. What are your behaviours like? What are you known for? What do people say about you? Develop a good understanding of these things and your influence will increase dramatically.”
8. Keeping an eye on the future
Accounting firms have to be proactive if they are to attract top talent. The sector faces an ongoing skills shortage, so small- to medium-sized practices need to shift gears to ensure they attract and retain the next generation of practitioners.
This can be challenging for smaller firms competing against larger organisations with more resources, but there are some key tactics that smaller firms can use to attract top talent, including highlighting the benefits of working for a small or medium practice and developing prominent brand awareness so the company is known as an attractive place to work.
How to attract top talent to your accounting practice
And then there’s succession planning.
If anyone can successfully manage the sale of a public accounting practice as part of a retirement transition plan, it should be an accountant. Excellent financial and business knowledge. Invaluable negotiating experience. Strong people skills.
However, while accountants are typically very good at advising their own clients, research from Bentley’s The Voice of Australian Business Survey suggests accounting firms are among 43 per cent of small businesses that currently lack an adequate succession plan.
Selling a public practice has become more complex in the past decade, and good planning and ensuring you consider all options will have a significant impact on the eventual outcome.
In its succession planning toolkit to help accountants prepare for a possible sale, CPA Australia stresses the importance of presenting a firm as an attractive investment opportunity and outlining its practice profile.
This should include its history, team structure, vision and competitive advantages; details of all services and products being provided to clients and if there are referral sources to the firm; an analysis of the firm’s client base; a rundown on its marketing plans; and an overview of its human resources and technology strengths.
Test your succession-readiness: CPA Australia provides an online diagnostic tool to provide you with a quick assessment of your level of succession readiness, identification of your succession options, and an indicator of practice value.