The Importance of Redefining ‘Bookkeeper’

May 10th 2016
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Today, if you Google “bookkeeper definition,” this is what you will find: A bookkeeper (or book­keeper) is a person who records the day-­to-­day financial transactions of a business. This individual is usually responsible for writing the daybooks, which contain records of purchases, sales, receipts, and payments. That definition is no longer correct.

Words change over time in any language based upon the use and understanding of the population using them. Take the word “nice,” for example. Long ago this word was synonymous with “silly” or “stupid,” as it comes from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant.

The New Bookkeeper Reality

The very definition of the term “bookkeeper” has changed dramatically in the last decade, due to the influence of new technologies and the shift toward cloud solutions. We are now experiencing some of the biggest changes in the accounting profession since Luca Pacioli, a colleague of Leonardo da Vinci, invented double entry bookkeeping over 500 years ago.

For as long as we can remember, bookkeepers have been the “bean counters.” Whether on paper or in software, we make sure that every transaction is recorded in the books, and then we verify through reconciliation that everything is correct.

If something is off, we go back into the detail and find the issue. Now… we have an app for that; many of them, in fact. We also have a handful of colleagues in denial about these changes.

They seem to think that if they continue to work harder doing the same routines they’ve been doing, things are bound to improve. More clients and more hours mean more money, right?

For me this brings to mind Daniel Quinn’s analogy, from his book Ishmael, about the aeronaut in the early airplane prototype: “We must have faith in our craft. After all, it has brought us this far in safety. What’s ahead isn’t doom, it’s just a little hump that we can clear if we all just pedal a little harder. Then we’ll soar into a glorious, endless future….”

If you “pedal harder” things have to improve, right? Wrong. The wind in your face is not from flying, it’s because your freefall has hit terminal velocity. Yes, you may be moving forward a little, but you’re losing altitude quickly.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Charging an hourly rate to do things in a way that technology has rendered obsolete is a losing battle, and no amount of “pedaling harder” will gain altitude at this point. Something needs to change, and, as a result, many bookkeepers have changed.

Embracing the Transition

While a number of accounting professionals resist the adoption of new technologies and the shift to the cloud, an overwhelming number of accountants and bookkeepers are readily adopting these advances, saving themselves and their clients quite a lot of time and money, and greatly increasing the value of the services they provide to their clients.

Bookkeeping is now a highly specialized profession that requires an amazing combination of tech-­savvy, business acumen, and people skills. The role of bookkeeper has gone from that of recorder and “bean counter” to a role of expert and trusted advisor.

While these changes make this an exciting and lucrative time to be a bookkeeper, there are also some difficulties inherent in this transition. Apart from the obvious challenge of keeping up with a staggering wealth of technological advances, bookkeepers are experiencing a sort of identity crisis.

The term “bookkeeper” has been diminished over the years, and it’s become a title that many have difficulty being proud of, as they feel it does not do justice to their professional skill and experience, not to mention the years of work it took to get there. Many see the bookkeeper as a “data entry technician,” arguing that it is an entry-­level position that anyone can do.

Others feel that the bookkeeper has been completely replaced by technology, following the Wall Street Journal article, “The New Bookkeeper is a Robot.” The generic term “bookkeeper” currently has a dictionary definition that no longer fits the profession as a whole. It follows us everywhere, and it is no longer working in our best interest or the interest of our clients.

In response, many bookkeeping professionals have started to claim other titles. Am I a bookkeeper? Am I a controller? A CFO? A consultant or coach?

The lines between many of these roles have started to blur, especially as entrepreneurs of smaller and smaller businesses have started to recognize the value of having a solid advisory team in their court, bringing on management accounting professionals that can help them with their business strategy, rather than just financial compliance.

Many accounting professionals have started to coin and use new terms for their services in an effort to differentiate and specialize, following the idea that the “riches are in the niches.”

How Do We Market Ourselves Now?

The problem we are now encountering is one of language in marketing. A change in terms is very confusing to our audience. I have a lot of friends who have chosen new names for themselves over the years, reinventing themselves each time they have a personal breakthrough.

If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, you can look it up in the Jaded Review‘s “Guide to Hippie Watching in North America.” While they put an amusing and satirical spin on the concept, it is a very real thing.

I have a heck of a time remembering the new chosen name of an acquaintance, as that person’s identity and the label that goes with them gets ingrained in my patterns. As a result, we can lose some of the connection we had in the transition.

Marketing is all about communication, and communication is about connecting with others, particularly our colleagues and our clients. While I love some of the wonderful new titles being bandied about, when it comes to our marketing, we have a bit of an issue adopting new language.

I hate to break it to you, but the owners of the SMBs that are looking for us aren’t searching on Google for “freelance CFO” or “cloud accountant.” They’re searching for “Bookkeeper.” If we leave “bookkeeper” behind, we also leave behind any potential client who didn’t get the Facebook update about our name change, and we risk alienating them.

The truth is we need both, at least for the time being. We need the generic term that can be accepted and understood across our profession as a whole, as well as specialist terms that differentiate each of our professional niches.

Without generally accepted terms across our profession, people have a difficult time understanding what we do and why. Those of us who have chosen to keep up with the technology and lead the revolution know that the bookkeeper is not going extinct. Quite the opposite: We are evolving.

Adapt and Evolve

Now a quick tangent; I have a confession to make. I don’t have a degree in accounting or business. My college degree is in biology, more specifically vertebrate zoology and animal behavior. Nonetheless, I have one of those brains that eats double­ entry bookkeeping for breakfast.

QuickBooks is my favorite video game, and I’m a bookkeeping nerd through and through. It is not, however, my only love. I really enjoy putting my cognitive paramours together in a room in my brain to see what discussions arise. This is where it gets really cool.

In Charles Darwin’s research on evolution, he discovered how the beak of Galapagos finches would change dramatically over just a couple of generations based upon the environmental conditions on the islands. As the finch changes and adapts to be able to crack nuts and seeds of different size and hardness, does that make it no longer a finch? No.

It is the same animal, evolved and specialized into new species or sub­species. In biology we call this Adaptive Radiation. Organisms can diversify from an ancestral species very rapidly when the environment changes. These changes create new niches based upon the resources and challenges now present.

Expanding Into New Niches

This is what has happened in the bookkeeping profession. We are all still bookkeepers, and we now have a beautiful diversity of niche skills to choose from.

While advances in software technology have replaced a myriad of tasks previously done by bookkeeping professionals, these “environmental” changes have created a variety of new opportunities in the profession. Business owners are experiencing new pain points and problems that they do not know how to troubleshoot on their own.

Enter the bookkeeping software expert, helping the business owner stay up to date on the tools that will help the company grow while troubleshooting and maintaining these elaborate systems. The software expert takes as many forms as there are software applications to choose from. With the thousands of apps and platforms available, it has already become impossible to keep up with them all.

My other favorite niche is that of the Profit Advisor. As compliance bookkeeping has become easier to automate, many of us have found ourselves focusing on deeper relationships with fewer clients, and the clients are loving it. We have the time to talk with them about the topics they want to talk about: their dreams, their success, and how to achieve them through strategic planning.

It is so nice to be able to discuss positive strategy with clients, rather than only contacting them when there is a question or a problem. These frequent positive interactions lead to a more positive relationship overall, and these professionals are finding that they can cultivate a more profitable practice because we offer the business more value at a fixed price. Everyone wins without “pedaling harder.”

As these niche specializations become more and better defined, we will continue to see important changes in our profession. The days when any untrained person can post an ad in the phone book under “bookkeeper” and get clients without any sort of qualification are coming to an end.

There is a rise in continuing education and certifications across the profession. While certifications are not currently required for the bookkeeping profession, educating our clients and colleagues about the changing business environment will raise the standards and value of the bookkeeping profession as a whole, and bookkeepers who can prove their skills through certifications and endorsements by professional associations will dominate the industry.

Redefining Our Label to Match Our New Identity

Niches and specialization also help us by removing the element of competition between colleagues from the equation. Rather than having all bookkeepers doing mostly the same things in the same ways, we now have a variety of software, strategies, and communication styles to choose from.

A client that is not a good fit for my business may be a perfect fit for yours, and by knowing you and referring that client your way, everyone benefits. It creates a supportive relationship among our peers, and we see it growing each day as new forums appear on social media and local professional networks are established to share education and ideas.

This is an exciting time to be a bookkeeper. As with any big change, this important evolutionary transition will be easiest to weather with preparation and education. The business world as a whole, our colleagues, clients, and potential clients need to be made aware that the very definition of the word “bookkeeper” has changed.

As leaders in our profession, it is our responsibility to inform those around us about this important change, redefining our label to match our new identity. Language evolves over time, and by redefining “bookkeeper” we can once again declare our profession with pride while having those around us know what it means.

Bookkeeper definition for today: A management accounting professional, often specializing in financial compliance, business strategy, technology setup, execution, and maintenance.

Everyone knows what a finch is. But what kind of finch are you?

The original post appeared on the Sleeter Group blog. Ingrid Edstrom will speaking at Accountex USA 2016 in November. AccountingWEB and Accountex have partnered to bring you this content as we share a belief in the furtherment of the profession through greater insights.​

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By [email protected]
May 17th 2016 15:47 EDT

I love the new definition of bookkeeper! Great article, thank you Ingrid.

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