WCOA 2018: Changing role of accountants - WCOA Sydney 2018 | The Best Accounting Conference

International Convention Centre, Sydney Australia  |  5-8 November 2018

More than just numbers

Accountants need to help their clients overcome hurdles, even mental illness, writes Vanessa Lim.

Having to deal with client mental health issues is another way the “trusted adviser” role is being redefined.

That’s the view of the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA) CEO Professor Andrew Conway, who told WCOA delegates that accountants need to communicate with their clients about “more than just numbers”.

“The work we do is about the people we interact with,” Conway said. “We haven’t designed our education programs historically about [mental health] and dealing with that.

“Never before has the issue of mental health in our profession, and certainly in relation to small business, ever been raised in the World Congress of Accountants.”

Conway said accountancy’s professional challenge is to “change the conversation” beyond compliance issues. “Seventy per cent of small business owners in Australia claimed they were anxious, stressed or depressed,” Conway said. “Of that, 70 per cent claimed they were experiencing these issues due to their small business. This raises concerns on how to combat this problem.

“We, of course, don’t have clinical backgrounds. That’s why we rely on specialists that have the training or expertise to inform the design.”

He said IPA had started mental health first-aid programs for their employees to help tackle the issue. “We do first-aid programs for physical first aid, but we’re taking it one step further and offering mental health first-aid programs for accountants who have the conversation.”

During the WCOA session, Conway asked how many delegates had experience with clients showing signs of mental illness. The majority raised their hands.

“They very reason clients come to you is because you are trusted,” Conway said. “Nine out of 10 times, the data shows small business owners will turn to their accountant before anyone else.

“The frameworks … about client engagement, about the triggers [for] thinking about client engagement differently, is absolutely fundamental to social trust.”

That is why, Conway said, trusted accountants need to be a source of support for small business owners and operators suffering mental health issues.

WCOA 2018: Changing role of accountants

Another WCOA speaker supporting the concept accountancy is more than just numbers is “behavioural economist” Bri Williams, founder of People Patterns.

Williams said accountants need to maintain the important human aspect when dealing with businesses and clients.

“If your work can be replaced by an algorithm, and unfortunately a large portion of accounting can be, that means our future performance depends on it,” she said. “We’re still concentrating a lot on the technical expertise of accountants – we’re not skilling our finance professions on being what they need to be.”

Williams told delegates business is about getting people from “point A to point B”. Point A is what they’re currently doing, and point B is what you would like them to do.

“You’re working with your clients [and staff] to change their behaviour,” she said.

Williams suggested some strategies to help organisations dealing more effectively with clients.

“If we give people a start, they’re much more likely to continue,” she said. “Often when we’re dealing with clients, we think we’re starting them from scratch. What we need to do is signal we’ve already done the hard work – that this is just about doing a little more.”

Williams said you “can’t normalise an undesirable action” to get people interested. Instead, you need to normalise what you would like them to do right away.

“If we’re talking to our clients always about a future benefit, that’s not enough to get them interested in the now – so they are going to assist you. Always think about ‘what’s the good news for them now?'”

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