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Influence 101: How to Drive Change in Your Tax and Accounting Firm

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that changing people’s minds and behavior is difficult. No one enjoys being told what to do or feeling powerless. How then can IT leaders in large tax and accounting firms best make their case for new technology?

“Getting people to change is a huge hurdle with firms. For most people in accounting firms, driving change, and leading people through change is not a natural skill set for them. They didn’t walk into this industry and say, “I’m really good at leading people and I do taxes on the side.” shared Will Hill, Customer Proposition Strategy Lead at Thomson Reuters, and host of the Pulse of the Practice podcast.

Processes for considering new technology have evolved in recent years, with IT leaders moving away from operating as order-takers for change and toward an active role in driving the firm’s evolution with new software tools. As this change in attitude is fairly recent, it shouldn’t be surprising that IT leaders may lack experience in change management.

If you’re the head of IT wondering, “How can I really help push our firm forward? How can I help us not be viewed as merely a necessary evil and an expense but show our true value to the organization?” – you must first understand what your stakeholders value. This is true no matter what kind of change you’re trying to drive – if you’re going to try to influence others, you must know what’s important to them.

Understand the values and motivations of your audience

Emotional intelligence skills can help you craft a proposal that anticipates concerns and highlights benefits. Reading body language, listening to tone, and watching the interplay between people will provide valuable insight on their feelings and priorities.

For example: If your audience values experience over things, you’d be wise not to focus on cool technology features. Highlighting the emotional benefits people are likely to experience due to the proposed change is more likely to be in line with your audience’s values, and therefore, more effective.

When you understand what stakeholders’ value, you’ll know how to position your change. In most large firms, there are two aspects of motivation to pay attention to: individual motivation and firm motivation.

Individuals want to know how change will impact their day to day. IT employees may be concerned that implementing new technology will cause an uptick in service requests, and auditors may fear their positions are being automated out of existence. It’s worthwhile to remember the uncertainty felt by many prior to the widespread adoption of cloud technology. The fear was – if this technology is implemented, will I lose my reason for being? That’s reasonable, but most people now realize that even if their firm became fully cloud native – IT concerns don’t go away.

When any new technology is widely implemented, fear of change is not unfounded. Instead of trying to minimize employee concerns, listen, validate, and offer answers as transparently as possible.

When interacting with the partners at your firm, take time to understand their motivation from both an individual and firm perspective. What are the firm’s strategic goals? Are they trying to grow in margin or clients? Is the firm staffing up to have the capacity for growth? What does firm growth mean in context?

For example: You propose a great technology idea to drive an estimated three hours of additional capacity per professional staff person and four hours per admin person per month. You submit a thorough proposal, with the change tied back to increased revenue.

Begin by addressing your change in the context of supporting firm goals, with firm connective arguments connected to the personal aspects in play. You might begin with the firm goals around accounting or advisory and follow up with information on how your change will drive margins as the firm goes forward. Your stakeholders will be drawn in when they see your presentation begin with the firm goals, touch on financial impact, and offer a clear path for implementation.

Understand the financial aspects of the change you’re driving

While no one enjoys talking about the financial aspects of change, it matters. A desire for material security is common to all human experience and feeling resourced-well-enough is documented to reduce stress and increase happiness.

When positioning your change, remember to come at it from the angles that matter to your stakeholders. If your proposed change will affect compensation, for example, with efficiency improvements affecting billable hours, or reducing overtime, you’re likely to encounter fierce, unconscious resistance to your project. When it comes to execution, understanding and addressing the financial concerns at play is key to success.

If the change you hope to make is only going to make your life easier, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has different and equally urgent priorities, so you must find a way to demonstrate that the change will benefit as many stakeholders as possible.

Understand your firm’s “Big Rocks”

In many mid-size and large firms, three distinct areas of concerns are developing.

“Another thing is to understand is what I call “the big rocks” for the firm.” Says Will Hill. “More and more businesses are offloading client accounting. Accounting firms are taking it on because they know it leads to other advisory opportunities.”

Firms are increasingly focused on answering:

  • What are we doing from a technology perspective with audits?
  • How are we growing our advisory services?
  • What are we doing with the client accounting systems?

Understanding your firms’ position on these items will allow you to position your change in context that resonates emotionally with your audience.

Critical levers to pull during your presentation

These issues affect the tax and accounting profession as a whole and can be positively impacted by the implementation of new tax technology. If you’re encountering these issues in your firm, connecting your change to an improvement in recruiting and retaining employees or providing a modern experience for clients could make it an easy sell.

  1. The entire profession is affected by a lack of talent. “Good technology helps retain talent,” says Will Hill, “They want to use good technology. They want to use the new stuff. If we tell a new employee, hey, we’ve got you’ve got all these different programs, but the graphics remind you of when you used to play Asteroid, then that’s probably not a good thing. I’ve seen and heard young talent in accounting firms saying, hey, they have cool technology. I like that. I wanted to work in accounting firm that had the latest technology. There are few enough people out there that actually want to work in an accounting firm. You can’t risk alienating the few that do.”
  2. The pandemic has changed expectations about how business is done. Clients now expect their tax and accounting firm to offer a portal as a baseline. Upgraded technology used to be a selling point, but COVID-19 made it a non-negotiable client expectation. “I remember talking to the managing partner of a firm in the top two hundred,” says Will, “he shared how the pandemic drove their Portal usage for clients up from 50 – 60% to 95%. And I said, but you guys had our portals for quite a while. He goes, oh, years and years, but no one ever really wanted to do it.” If people can’t do business with you the way they want to do business with you, they’re not going to do business with you. There are too many other options and no excuses.

Understand the past to influence the future

Accounting firms have historically run by chasing deadlines. Throw in the pandemic and the increased frequency of regulation change, and that urgency has only gotten worse. There is always more to do. Client always need care.

It’s essential to recognize that unless you make time to take stock, develop a strategic perspective and implement change, you’ll always be stuck in a cycle, trapped by the short term vision of the deadline in front of you. Pick your head up, acknowledge that change is necessary, uncomfortable, but fortunately brief, and choose a trusted partner like Thomson Reuters to help implement your long-term vision for change.

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