Virtual tax accountant
Virtual tax accountant

How to reinvent yourself for the AI-driven world

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Late last year, I had the awesome opportunity to share a personal story with about 75 members of the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA) in a short 12-minute “TED Style” Talk. The MACPA recorded the presentation if you would like to watch it, but here’s a summary of what I covered.


Jasen Stine wife and mother-in-lawMy mother-in-law, Merri, is a master seamstress. Here she is in a photo with my beautiful wife, Stephanie.

A master seamstress is different than a hobbyist. Merri spent her entire career perfecting her craft to achieve a mastery of needle and thread. She worked for Patagonia for many years, producing high-quality sports and outdoor gear. About four years ago, Merri was laid off from her job; at the time, her role was redundant to what could be accomplished by machines. She was still just a bit too young to retire and had an older husband who had a series of strokes right around the same time she was laid off. She also took care of her mentally handicapped brother.

Her profession was disrupted several times, first by the invention of the sewing machine, followed by the assembly line, and then automated robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. She and others like her have had to transcend these disruptions. At age 62, Merri had to reinvent herself by leaning in to the very technology that disrupted her role. Others like her have had to embrace the same change and transform themselves, and embracing change means reinventing their skills.

So, you might be wondering what my mother-in-law has to do with the accounting profession, or AI for that matter. Replace the words “needle and thread” earlier in this article with “numbers and financials.” The textiles industry is not one transformed by technological advancement. Take our profession right now!

AI is the talk of the town these days. You know what AI is, right? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the Terminator, but it is an augmentation of you. Its application to the tax and accounting profession means automating tasks that we are accustomed to billing for by the hour or form.

Does this mean your job is going away? Not necessarily, but it could if your sole focus is built entirely around the things that are being automated. There’s no doubt that certain tasks will go away, and you’ll need to reinvent yourself as a traditional tax and accounting firm. It’s not because you, as a person, will be obsolete; it’s because your clients need more than the numbers you give them.

There are three key skills you’ll want to start building right now to propel you into the future:

  1. Building a vision and strategy for your firm, as well as helping your clients do the same for their businesses.
  2. Becoming a personal business coach, leveraging your vast experience and the data you have access to as your clients’ tax and accounting professional.
  3. Thinking differently about client relationship management.

Strategic thinking: create a vision and strategy for your firm

Your vision/strategy is your desired destination, and your plan is your roadmap to get there. Step back and ask how you’re going to move forward as a firm.

A previous boss once had a catchphrase that always stuck with me: Hope is not a strategy. Just wishing your firm, or even wanting your firm, to transform won’t get you there. You have to have a compelling and clear vision captured in writing, along with a strategy and, ultimately, a step-by-step plan, to achieve it.

Three tips for creating vision and strategy include the following:

  1. Bring in thought partners: trusted clients, staff, mentors and key contacts.
  2. Think “ideal state” first.
  3. Balance ambiguity and specificity

To illustrate, if I wanted to win some son-in-law points and help Merri, I might build her a strategy that looks something like this:

AI Example with Border

Notice that it’s simple, concise and aspiring, yet also achievable and relevant to her specific industry, and what she might want to achieve in life and business.

Coaching using data insights

The difference between a compliance client and an advisory client is that the compliance client is simply not in jail. Well, the advisory client isn’t either, but this client has a vision for the future that you can help shape and monitor for results.

To coach, you are using all of the elements available to you to offer guidance, including data from their financials, experience working with other similar and not-so-similar clients, the tax and accounting profession, and technology. This starts with building your own capabilities around developing a vision, strategy and plan for your own firm to help your clients build one for theirs, and then continue to evolve it as you learn and grow.

Use the tools and technology to help you gain data insights, pair that with your expertise and coach your clients to success. One recent example of technology that helps with this is the new QuickBooks® Online Accountant Business Performance Dashboard.

Client relationship management

Your clients’ mindsets are evolving. Convenience is king, so ask yourself if they want to come see you via in-person meetings. Perhaps they might do better with video calls. The best part about this approach is that if they don’t show up to the video call, record it as a video and send it to them to listen to at their convenience.

You’ll want to move away from giving tax advice with the tax return, to giving advice at the point of need, letting the tax return become more of an “afterthought,” if you will. Think about it; the return is simply a report on the history of the year. Leading tax professionals know their clients rely on their counsel when delivered proactively – not after it’s all already done.

Now think about the cadence in which you meet with these clients. Once or twice a year is not enough. You can’t possibly have an ongoing coaching relationship with them if it’s not at least monthly, bi-weekly or even weekly.

It all starts with establishing the clients’ goals, hopes and dreams, which feeds your strategy. Then, help them build a plan to get there. After that, meet regularly to review how they are performing against that plan. Hold them accountable to the steps you both agreed to in the creation of the plan, or adjust the strategy based on what might have changed since you built it.

Use regular meetings to ensure they are adhering to budgets, and that business performance is trending in the right direction. This is what they really want and need. They know it. They just don’t typically have the internal discipline to actually do it – that’s where you come in.

Back to Merri

Merri’s skills were different than the three skills – vision/strategy, client relationship management and coaching using data insights – for tax and accounting professionals. She had to leverage her skills as a seamstress, and lean into design and product creation. Merri had to learn about mass production and distribution, as well as new markets.

I’m glad to say that Merri is doing well today; her focus is now around design. She uses her knowledge and expertise, along with sales data and customer behavior, to offer new and creative ideas to her current company in a more consultative role. She then works collaboratively with her team to bring these new designs to market. Merri is still learning, but she loves her job more than she could have imagined.

If it’s possible for Merri, at 62 years young, to reinvent herself for this new world, then it’s possible for you, too. If you’re going to do it, now is the time. It’s what leading firms are focusing on! Who knows … you might just find, like Merri, that you love the new way you work more than you imagined. Start building these skills today.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in Accounting Today, is a follow up to Jasen Stine’s previous article about artificial intelligence.

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