A few months before COVID-19 hit and turned our professional and personal lives upside down, I joined Botkeeper as VP of Strategy. For ages, I’ve been preaching the need to go digital, to get on the cloud, and to find ways to automate workload so we can apply our gorgeous CPA brains to help our clients become healthier and smarter financial entities. Botkeeper is all about automation and saving us precious time.
I asked Botkeeper’s own Chris Mahl, President and CRO, and Byron Patrick, VP of Growth and Success, to share their thoughts on time-saving automation and how COVID-19 has accelerated the jump onto the technological bandwagon.
Chris puts a lot of emphasis on value, which I’m guessing we can all appreciate since it’s basically our life’s work to identify opportunities to grow and add value to our firms and our clients’ businesses. So, where’s the value in the digital transformation that we are all living through?
“Since the invention of the chisel and stone, people have been figuring out the wheel, and then how to do things better with better tools. It’s all about the tools and problem solving,” said Chris. “Often, with today's technology, things move so fast people can’t absorb and figure out how to leverage the technology available to them.”
According to Chris, the past 12 months of Botkeeper’s service development has been heavily focused on CPA firms.
“Early on, we had an easy time automating certain categories of clients, but there was always this write-up client challenge that would constantly pop up! So, that’s where we had to start,” Chris said. “We distilled a client need into an automatable solution. In this industry, you must have wide ears and open eyes to see and hear what clients need most. Our job is to respond to that need. That is the best way to serve the industry and build scalable technology.”
“So, you go out to become a tax expert and you end up a write-up specialist,” said Byron.
Byron sums up the challenge with obvious enthusiasm, pointing out that, “as a tax accountant, you are delivered this pile of bank statements and checks that need to be turned into a tax return. So, you go out to become a tax expert and you end up a write-up specialist. It's really the necessary evil that has to get done so you have numbers to go into the financials.”
Leveraging quality, reliable, scalable, proven write-up technology is an obvious advantage.
Technology: Anticipating Future Problems and Fixing Existing Ones
That’s the funny thing about technology—it feels so forward-thinking and often alien—and yet this AI software at Botkeeper is literally tackling the oldest problem facing CPAs.
“In this industry, you must have wide ears and open eyes to see and hear what clients need most. Our job is to respond to that need,” said Chris. “That is the best way to serve the industry and build scalable technology.”
The write-up services available within Botkeeper use a connectivity tool that allows the platform to connect to over 16,000 financial institutions and automatically import ongoing bank transactions, categorize the bank and credit card transactions, all on an ongoing basis.
“This is tax write-up work,” said Byron. “We're not dealing with ongoing bill payments or invoicing. We're taking those transactions and categorizing them in a hands-off way. We're able to ensure accuracy and reconciliations are completed. At the end of the month, there are financials that can actually be shared with the client. So, it's really easy to link into all the necessary accounts and maintain financials on an ongoing basis.”
No manual reconciling. No data entry. Problem solved. Solution delivered. And this isn’t some made-up problem that is years off. (However, on that note, should we talk about how tech started to make working remotely a possibility in 2008, but no one was interested?)
The Tech Safety Net Hit Hard by Free-Falling CPAs
Accounting Today recently released survey results about accounting firms' willingness to embrace working remotely…permanently! If that isn’t a tectonic shift in our industry, I don't know what is! No more time sheet?! Be still, my beating heart!
If you haven’t already, this shift shows the necessity to adopt new technologies that enable flexible working environments, such as cloud-based technologies and accounting, practice management, and workflow systems.
Byron jokes that the necessity for tech infrastructure right now reminds him of the online grocery ordering option that has been around forever. “I was like, ‘Why would I ever want to order my groceries online?’ And now it’s like, oh, right. All those grocers that had that safety net in place sure are lucky now!”
A tech campaigner for years, Byron points out: “In the last 12 months, I’ve seen an adoption evolution. Folks initially would say they don't understand where tech could fit into their firm. And now they're like, tell me how this can fit into my firm.”
COVID-19 has eradicated resistance. Firms must find a way to get tech savvy just as we all had to figure out how to order our groceries online. Tech infrastructure is the new brick and mortar.
Concrete Returns from Botkeeper Investment
We began talking about write-ups. So, let's circle back and explore the gains to be had by automating that one sliver of workload.
The first and most obvious payoff of automating write-ups is moving one-time annual revenue to recurring monthly revenue. You’re welcome.
Automating financials is ongoing and in real time. So, no more pile-up and compression during tax season. You might actually make it out of the office at a reasonable hour.
Accurate and always up-to-date financials means that tax planning moves from hypothetical to an actual service you can provide. You can rely on accurate numbers and data, and you don't have to wait till the end of the year to get your hands on them. Go ahead, flex that tax planning muscle. It’s fun.
You save so much time! How you spend that time is entirely up to you, but in our field, we are always referencing “higher-level advisory work.” Now you have the time to train younger staff on how to deliver advisory work or dig into it yourself. This is a huge gain for your clients as they plan for their future, and that kind of hourly service creates a great revenue stream.
Technology adoption makes your firm appealing to young talent. Added time and a flexible work environment all add up to an opportunity gain for young staffers to build expertise and spend time working with clients. From a cultural perspective, it’s exciting for young staff to envision climbing the professional ladder by actually having the opportunity to advise clients, not just crunch numbers.
Automation and the time it saves can have a big impact on firm strategy. Has your talent been getting bogged down in write-ups or payroll, activities that really don’t serve your firm’s goals? Now, you can focus your collective energy and put it towards growth goals or whatever else you have up your sleeve.
Botkeeper COVID-19 Insights
Beginning in mid-March, it became abundantly clear to Chris and Byron that client check-ins, an opportunity to take firm temperatures and hear about their clients’ needs, was a must. And the loudest message that emerged from those weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, conversations was the absolute solidarity between firms and their clients.
“I was blown away by the nature of the profession,” said Chris. “It was kind of like watching the doctors of the financial world go into triage. All these firms were right there with their clients, figuring it out and fighting for them. And by default, we were that way with our clients. I saw firms across the board working through the crisis together.”
The spirit of the industry was impressive, and there are a number of positives that seem to have emerged from a tech perspective.
CPA firm clients that may not have adopted cloud-based technologies for various reasons became way more motivated to do so.
Many firms who had been pursuing a more virtualized bookkeeping supply chain, which is what Botkeeper is, sped up their pursuit pretty radically.
Botkeeper got the positive feedback they had hoped for!
“We heard a pretty similar story from a few different firms,” said Chris. “CPAs had been through it all with their clients: the tech bubble in the early aughts, Black Friday, other ups and downs. They’ve never had as much time to actually work with their clients as they do right now because they knew that they could rely on the accuracy of the financials—the fundamental, operational part of the business. This allowed them to focus on coaching their clients through. It was a very powerful confirmation of the viability of the platform.”
If you want to hear more from Byron, listen to him every Tuesday on CPA Academy, where you can catch pearls of his wisdom and get those CPE credits.