9 key areas to automate as an accounting firm
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Automation is increasingly essential to stay competitive and improve your operations as an accounting firm.
As someone who consults accounting firms for a living, I see common use cases where automation has a significant return on investment (ROI).
In this post we’ll cover:
- Why automation is not here to replace accountants
- 9 key areas to automate for improved efficiency and client satisfaction
- Specific software tools to get started straight away
Is automation good for accounting?
Automation is critical for accounting, especially as the profession faces a talent shortage. For several years in a row, studies from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) among other institutions indicate a downward trend in the number of students graduating with accounting degrees. At the same time, the number of seasoned professionals retiring is on the rise.
Fewer people in. More people out. Growing needs for accounting services. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand how problematic this can become.
The idea that automation will replace accountants is laughable. At least in the short term. It isn’t about replacing people; it's about augmenting their capabilities and allowing them to operate at their highest potential.
Enhancing the efficiency of existing professionals with automation is the fastest, easiest way to start filling the growing gap of talent.
Let's get into the different areas you can start automating in your firm.
Area 1: Data entry and sync
Data entry, often seen as the most mundane and time-consuming tasks in accounting, is ripe for automation.
By automating data entry and data sync, firms can not only improve accuracy and efficiency but also ensure data is consistent across platforms, preventing people from having to juggle multiple apps to get the information they need.
Always explore if the apps you want to integrate have native connections first.
For custom data transfer needs, especially between various software platforms, Zapier is our go-to—although many promising alternatives are now available.
These tools allow you to create automated workflows that transfer data seamlessly between the tools you use every day.
Whether it's moving data from emails into a spreadsheet or syncing contacts between your CRM and accounting software, these can get it done.
There’s a lot more that can be done with it, including journal entries, automated notifications & alerts, client communications, and so much more. Automation options are only limited by your creativity.
Area 2: Invoice creation
Popular accounting software like Xero and QuickBooks Online have made invoice creation easier—but many users still need to log in to create them manually.
This process can be further streamlined by directly integrating proposal software, payment gateways, or other billing mechanisms with your accounting software.
Oftentimes, these tools may natively integrate with your accounting software with a simple setup. In other instances, you may need to use dedicated integration platforms like Zapier and Make to connect your apps together and customize your use case.
Another even simpler option is Ramp’s invoice generator which helps you create an invoice in seconds.
Common use cases include:
- Automated estimate creation for service inquiries: When a potential client inquires about services via your website or email, an automated system generates a detailed estimate based on the services they're interested in. Once the client confirms the services, the estimate is seamlessly converted into an invoice.
- E-commerce transaction receipts: For each completed sale on your e-commerce platform, a sales receipt is automatically generated detailing the purchased items, prices, taxes, and applicable discounts. This invoice is then sent to the customer's email and stored for your financial records.
- Sales pipeline management: When a potential deal in your Client Relationship Management (CRM) software is moved to the "Proposal" stage, the system automatically generates an invoice reflecting the discussed terms, services, or products the clients selected.
- Bulk invoice generation from spreadsheets: For businesses handling a large number of transactions at once, an option is to set up an automation that generates invoices in bulk based on data entered into a Google Sheets or Excel.
Creating invoices is a fundamental task for any finance department in a company. Technology simplifies it – and potentially automates it entirely.
Area 3: Engagement letter creation
Engagement letter creation has been traditionally a task that requires careful attention to detail and a significant time investment. However, with the advent of automation tools, this process has simplified and transformed.
Tools like Ignition (previously Practice Ignition) and GoProposal stand at the forefront of this transformation. Their software automates the process of creating, sending, and managing engagement letters.
With customizable templates and electronic signatures, what once took hours can now be completed in minutes. This not only speeds up the onboarding process but also enhances the client experience by providing a smooth, professional, and hassle-free start to your relationship.
Another powerful tool in this domain is PandaDoc, known for its customizable document generation and more affordable monthly subscriptions.
Several accounting firms we’ve connected with opt for PandaDoc when clients have several documents that need to be signed at the same time. Examples might include non-disclosure agreements, power of attorney forms, representation letters, and tax return authorization forms.
It streamlines the experience of the client as they don’t need to receive several documents separately.
Also, some practice management tools like TaxDome have introduced proposal and engagement letter features, although I personally can’t attest to the robustness of such features as they’re fairly new.
Area 4: Client appreciation
Once an engagement letter is accepted, the real magic of automation in client onboarding begins. This acceptance can trigger a series of orchestrated actions, each designed to enhance the client experience.
Firstly, a welcome email (or series of emails) can be automatically sent. Using a marketing automation platform, you can personalize communications based on the specific services the client has signed up for. This personal touch sets the tone for a relationship that's attentive and tailored to the client's needs.
In addition to digital communication, a personal appreciation gesture, such as a gift or welcome kit, can be automatically ordered and sent.
Services like Handwrytten or OnGoody integrate with your CRM or automation platform to send personalized gifts or cards directly to clients.
This helps your new and existing clients feel that you value and appreciate them, and it shows you are genuinely committed to their success.
Area 5: Work planning
The acceptance of the proposal or engagement letter can also trigger the creation of tasks associated with the deliverables promised to the client. This can include any work management tool, including universal alternatives (e.g., Asana, ClickUp, Teamwork) or industry-specific platforms (e.g., Karbon and Canopy).
You can automatically generate tasks, assign them to the appropriate team members, and set deadlines based on predefined timelines. This guarantees that everyone on the team knows what needs to be done and by when, right from the start.
Additionally, tools like Motion are integrating artificial intelligence (AI), traditional task management, and your calendar, allowing you and your team to plan your work on a regular basis.
This integration allows for scheduling work where and when it will get done – as well as easily reschedule priorities as emergencies show up.
Automation in this area provides a clear, visual representation of each individual’s day and makes sure that the firm's time is allocated efficiently. Not only does it guarantee a smooth workflow but also maximizes individual productivity and minimizes the risk of missed deadlines or overlooked responsibilities.
Area 6: Document collection
Document collection is a crucial yet often annoying process – both for clients and firms. Automation tools are changing the game by making this process more efficient and far less prone to errors.
ContentSnare is a tool that simplifies the way firms collect information and documents from clients. It automates the process of requesting and collecting documents, sending reminders, and collaborating with clients in the context of document requests.
Its user-friendly interface and customizable request templates make it easy for clients to understand exactly what's needed and upload their documents in a secure, organized fashion. This significantly reduces the time spent on follow-ups and the risk of lost or misplaced files.
For a more integrated approach, several practice management tools like Soraban and Keeper provide the ability to request documents from clients as well, while also having direct integrations with accounting and/or tax software.
Area 7: Tax planning
Taxes. The biggest expense of most individuals over their lifetime. Tax savings is one of the primary reasons people sought accounting firms to begin with.
As such, finding ways to provide valuable, forward-looking tax saving strategies is of high value to companies of all sizes. And as usual, technology can help.
One of the leading tools in this domain is Corvee. It offers a suite of features specifically designed for tax planning, including scenario analysis, strategy recommendations, and automated calculation of potential tax savings.
Automation in this area allows firms to provide personalized, strategic tax advice at scale.
It also allows you to show clients how much money you’re saving them, so they can keep your services’ ROI top of mind.
Area 8: Uncategorized transactions
Uncategorized transactions can be a significant pain point in accounting, leading to inaccuracies and inefficiencies. Recognizing and categorizing these transactions is crucial for accurate financial reporting and analysis. Automation tools are now available to tackle this challenge head-on, transforming a potentially error-prone process into a streamlined and accurate one.
QuickBooks Online offers features to help manage uncategorized transactions. Its bank rules and auto-categorization capabilities allow for transactions to be automatically categorized based on predefined criteria, significantly reducing the time spent on manual categorization.
For transactions that require additional context from clients, tools like Ramp or Uncat can help, whether your clients use QBO, QuickBooks Desktop, or Xero.
Traditionally, expenses are manually categorized in both an expense management system and then again in the core accounting system, leading to inefficiencies. Ramp’s solution automates this by seamlessly transferring detailed metadata and receipts and expenses directly into the accounting software, enabling automatic transaction categorization.
This integration not only reduces the time spent on manual categorization by half but also eliminates the need for back-and-forth communication with clients for expense review and corrections. The result is a highly efficient, time-saving approach to expense management that benefits any business.
It provides a streamlined interface for clients to provide the necessary details for uncategorized transactions, directly integrating their input into the accounting system. This not only speeds up the categorization process but also involves the client in a way that's manageable and efficient.
Area 9: Internal dashboards & KPI management
As expected, many accounting firm owners keep track of their financial metrics very closely. But financial numbers are not the only numbers needed to manage their firm.
That’s when effective internal dashboarding and monitoring of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) come in.
With the right automation tools, you can consolidate data into actionable dashboards that drive informed decision-making and strategic planning. Databox is one of such powerful tools.
With Databox, you can set goals, track performance, and get snapshots via email or Slack when there are significant changes or milestones achieved. Geckoboard and Klipfolio offer similar features.
Although such dashboard tools are more widely popular in the marketing community, they can integrate metrics from marketing, sales, finance, project management, and much more.
Modern accounting firms are embracing automation. Are you next?
We've explored nine key areas where automation can significantly impact your operations, from invoice processing to internal dashboarding.
However, the journey doesn't end here. As you move forward, remember that choosing the right tools is just the first step.
Successful implementation and integration requires a clear strategy, team training, and an ongoing commitment to improving your processes. Consider consulting with an automation firm who specializes in accounting firms to create a tailored plan that aligns with your firm's unique needs and goals.
In a profession falling short of talented people, automation offers a path to maintain standards, grow your client base, and build a firm that's resilient in the face of change.
The future of accounting is automated, and the time to embrace it is now.
Bonus area 10: Bill pay, expenses, and finance automation
Now that you've automated nine key areas of your business, it's time to do the same for your clients.
Ramp is designed to save time and money with its built-in spend controls. The advanced receipt-matching feature scans all transactions and automatically generates receipts for your client's purchases, simplifying the process of shopping for business essentials.
Ramp's offering includes advanced virtual cards, merchant and category rules, and accounting automation. It allows for comprehensive monitoring of expenses through a single, streamlined dashboard. With direct integrations to accounting software like QuickBooks, Xero, Sage, and NetSuite, Ramp enables you to close your books up to 5 days faster. Try Ramp for free.