Becoming a Digital CPA Firm – Challenges to Staff

This blog was originally published on the AICPA’s subsidiary, CPA.com website. Maribel is a member of the Advisory Board for CPA.com and the AICPA Digital CPA Conference. As an advisory board member, Maribel helps empower CPAs and businesses for the digital age.


Attending the CPA.com and AICPA’s first Digital CPA Conference at the end of 2012 was a huge “Aha!” moment for me.   For years I knew that technology was advancing rapidly and that the processes we were using to service our clients could be replaced with much more efficient workflows.  During our internal team meetings we discussed increasing the efficiency of our processing of transactions to allow us to focus on being our clients’ advisors.  The Digital CPA Conference provided the context and platforms I thought existed but did not know how to bring together.  We jumped in the digital bandwagon and started the process of becoming a digital CPA firm.  This was over 18 months ago and even though we’ve come a long way, we have encountered several expected and unexpected challenges along the way.

Our first mistake was not being clear and specific about how these changes would affect each staff member. 

Making the decision was never a challenge since I hold the highest level of decision-making in the firm.  However, I needed to quickly get the buy-in from other leaders in the firm – I need a champion to echo my excitement and sense of urgency.  We were off to a good start after attending a two-day workshop that gave us sufficient compelling reasons to move in this direction.  It was on the way back from this workshop that we discussed how this new blueprint for servicing our clients would affect staff members and company culture.  We recognized this was going to be one of our immediate expected challenges.  The unexpected challenge was the blank expressions we faced during our quarterly firm meeting after showing a very detailed power point presentation of the changes we had in mind for the firm.

The Digital CPA model practically eliminates the need for data entry relying mostly on synchronization of data bases.  We knew that some of our more junior staff who had been trained in data entry would have difficulties resolving sync errors and creating csv files that could successfully upload into the new systems.  It was important to assess each staff member’s strengths and weaknesses, determine whether they would fit into the new model and have continuous conversations with them clarifying our expectations.  We identified among our staff several trail blazers who were bold enough to dive into one or several software and teach the rest of us.  We set up mentoring sessions to ensure that no one fell behind and made sure the message was consistent to each of them collectively and individually.  Most importantly, we maintained our sense of humor when things did not go well and as we stared at the same screen wondering how we can make sense of what we created.

During our transition, our staff suffered from “technology frustration” – that feeling that everything is so different that learning it is simply an added burden.  The question was often asked, “why are fixing something that is not broken?”   The systems are a tremendous improvement over the previous QuickBooks, Peachtree, Great Plains and MIP we’ve been using.  The new reporting capabilities are superior but more complex, and this translates to a steep learning curve, increased time, and frustration.  Never mind our unreasonable expectations that this superior, much more robust and capable system still has a few deficiencies!  We have to constantly remind ourselves that no matter the shortfalls, we were still way ahead in terms of technology and capabilities we can offer to clients.

One of the biggest lessons that has gotten us through this time is maintaining a culture of innovation and excitement within the firm.  Transitions are difficult and overwhelming, particularly when there is no visible light at the end of the tunnel.  However, the results are tangible and the growth is undeniable.