Soft skills or technical skills? How accountants stay relevant in a changing world.

To remain relevant, accountants will need to focus on becoming 'strategists with a future perspective'

Teaching staff about empathy and how to communicate with clients: a panel discussion at the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) argued that these “soft skills” are just as important to the modern accounting firm as technical skills.

Eight in ten participants in a World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) session fear that accountants are losing relevance because of emerging technology and innovation.

This was the result from an audience poll in a conference session on the theme of “Shifting from Relevant to Indispensible”, where presenter Jennifer Warawa asked for a vote on the question.

Among the audience of around 140, the biggest response was from the 44 per cent who said they believed accountants were “moderately” at risk of losing relevance, while 16 per cent said the risk was “significant” and 27 percent replied it was “slight.”

Of the rest of the audience, 16 per cent believed that accountants would “always be relevant” regardless of changes in technology, while the balance of the audience said they were still “grappling” with the implications of change.

Warawa, an executive vice president for partners, accountants and alliances at Sage, said that to remain relevant, accountants needed to focus on becoming “strategists with a future perspective” so they could deliver and communicate effectively to clients.

What type of accounting firm are you?

There were, she said, three types of accountants and accountancy firms: traditional firms with a past perspective, a “virtual CFO” style of firm which worked in “current real time”, and those with a strategic future perspective.

“The closer you get to being a strategist the more value you give to your clients,” said Warawa.

“The answer is in a shift in how you talk with clients today, so you can produce interactions which people care deeply about.

“It’s in the engagement, the discussions, the ability to bring numbers to life and make sense of them in a way clients haven’t seen before.”

She asked accountants in the session to describe themselves and their firms: 43 per cent said they were “traditional,” 35 per cent said they were “current” and 22 per cent described themselves as “strategic”.

Warawa quoted Barry Melancon, president and CEO of the Association of International CPAs (AICPA), who said that “this is the slowest pace of change that we will see for the rest of our lives”.

Warawa said the quote was a warning to accountants that the pace of change was only going to accelerate, but she said more than 90 per cent of accountants were “not future ready.”

It was not technology itself which was the disruptor but the new business models which technology enabled.

She quoted Gartner research which forecast that by 2030, 30 percent of the global customer base would be “made up of things” as devices “did business with each other.”

Five years ago, a survey of US accountants put Excel at the top of the list of required technical skills, but in a more recent survey it ranked last, with “soft” skills of communication ranking higher.

“There has never been a better time to start changing your practice,” she said.

Soft skills vs technical accounting skills

In the panel discussion that followed, Bachir Zreika ASA from Sydney firm The Tax Factor said he believed technology was enabling accountants to be “more creative” and was a “great way to enable interactions with clients.”

Asked which skills he believed were required for modern accountants, Zreika said they should be “dexterous, versatile, adaptive to change, high energy and with good communication skills”.

Clients, said Zreika, often felt their relationship with their accountant was “very transactional” and that they were in meetings “just to be told something.” Many would leave meetings “at the earliest possible time.”

Tony Dormer, managing director of Tricor Dormers, said his firm spent as much time teaching soft skills as it did technical skills and had recently held a workshop on “EQ versus IQ”.

“Teaching your staff how to manage and EQ abilities are very important,” he said.

Dominic Myssy CPA of Myssy and Co said clients expected their accountant to have technical skills and were looking for someone with empathy and communication skills to help them build their business.

When clients had founded their business and their livelihood depended on it, it was important to communicate them in a sensitive way and understand that it might be better to pick up the phone sometimes rather than send an email.

Read next: The changing role of accounting education in a tech-centric future


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