QuickBooks Connect is in London this week and on the opening day, I had a strong sense of déjà vu as presenters talked about digital business, value pricing and marketing strategies for professional accountants.
Many (13) years ago, a few of us were talking about these topics to anyone who would listen. At the time, we were met with blank stares as firms could not envisage SaaS accounting, value pricing was a mystery and marketing was a dirty word. How things have changed in that time. Today, I saw crowds running into the hundreds soaking up the business focused messages from experts in the field.
For its part, QuickBooks used the event to launch QuickBooks (QB) Assistant the company describes as combining:
...data-driven insights and natural language processing to understand intent and identify context to uncover numerous financial data points – from tax obligations to expense tracking, cash flow, profitability and more – saving precious time and giving self-employed and small businesses the insights necessary to make informed financial decisions with confidence. Those that work for themselves can simply ask questions or state requests and access valuable business insights without the need to run reports or analyse data.
Plenty of buzzword compliant language but what does it mean? On stage, the company described a complementary assistant for practitioners that allows professional accountants to view client clusters to examine outliers or out of range performance as the starting point for advisory services.
Later, in conversation with Rich Preece, VP and Leader of the Accountant Segment at Intuit, I asked him to provide an example of how this might work.
We can take say restaurants in a specified location (as you might with a postcode) with similar revenue numbers and notice that two-thirds are showing payroll costs are within a range but that some of the remainder show much higher payroll costs. You might want to call up the client and suggest that costs need review.
I totally get the direction of travel in this narrative, but then the accountant's mind clicks in and asks whether those outliers are under-reporting revenue. In other words, while QuickBooks Online Assistant (QBOA) is certainly providing clues as to what is worth reviewing, care is always needed when considering the detail. Even so, it is a good idea and will be welcome among professionals looking to offer new services.
However, there are problems with this solution in the shape of GDPR compliance. QuickBooks says that when assembling data, it will anonymize the data and will proactively seek permission to process client data for professionals. I'm not convinced that will work. Rather, it will be the professional, in their position as trusted advisor, who will secure the permissions needed. I hope this knotty problem gets resolved because it is clear that the business value of aggregated data for both clients and practitioners is too high to ignore.
Think about this. HMRC has a long history of using aggregated data for the purpose of spotting anomalies in accounts that are submitted to it for the purposes of tax investigations (audits.) Should professionals and their clients be at a disadvantage by NOT having their own datasets? And all of that before we consider the business value of information for improving performance.
As always, we shall see how this plays out but in the meantime, it is good to see QuickBooks putting this type of service into the hands of professionals.
During the day, I asked random professionals why they were either using or considering QuickBooks. The answers were varied but they fell into several buckets:
- Professionals with long experience of QuickBooks who are satisfied with the brand and what the vendor is offering.
- Professionals that are responding to client pressure to reign in accounting fees.
- Professionals with technical knowledge who have checked out the other vendors in the accounting market and have decided that QuickBooks product and roadmap provides them with an advantage they can use in their developing business models.
None of those I spoke with were considering QuickBooks for practice management purposes, preferring to stick with their existing solutions such as CCH or IRIS. Not that it stopped them complaining about the cost of those solutions.
I also asked practitioners how they felt about QuickBooks integration with Taxfiler, a UK, cloud-based tax return and filing system for sole traders, partnerships and small limited companies. The QuickBooks/Taxfiler integration is seamless in the sense that there is a single screen experience.
In use, it doesn't look like you're punching out to another product. Most I spoke with see this as a step forward, a sentiment with which I agree because it allows QuickBooks to both modularize and commodify a large piece of the overall compliance regime at a time when the UK government is mandating online tax filing.
This time last year, I noted from a conversation with Preece who...
...argues that a combination of awareness raising through multi-channel advertising coupled with both fiscal incentives to professional accountants and a much improved product has led to a change in the perception of QuickBooks in the UK professional market. He also argues that having a clear pathway for customers along with both free bank feeds (rather than as a paid for add-on) and upsell opportunities for payroll and payments puts Intuit in a good position.
Today, Preece says that well-targeted advertising is doing the trick for the company with 160,000 customers in the UK. That must mean QuickBooks continues to burn cash in its UK cloud business but that is of less than concern than pushing for growth and capturing market share.
Based on what I saw today, QuickBooks UK continues to make good progress, delivering on what it promised last year while adding functionality that fits with the modern idiom. Tomorrow, we get to take the customer pulse and hear what they have to say.