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Updated: April 26, 2024

Accounting outlook for 2024: Insights on cybersecurity, expanding services, and adding payroll to the mix

Published By:

Jon Davis

In a recent OnPay survey, we polled more than 1,000 accounting professionals to get their perspective on what they see driving their practice growth, the evolving role of technology in their industry, and the trends they’ll be watching in 2024. To gather insights, we asked sample questions that ranged from how accountants feel about the increasing adoption of artificial intelligence, to keeping their client and company data safe from cybersecurity threats.

 

What follows is an overview of how this research came together, data that caught our attention, and insights that may be useful as you strategize your firm’s next chapter.

Survey methodology

Between September and October 2023, a diverse cross-section of accounting and bookkeeping professionals participated in our industry study. To cast a wide net, we queried respondents with varying degrees of experience. In the mix were both professionals with decades of experience, as well as entrepreneurs who have opened their doors within the last ten years.

 

Participant overview

More on the demographic details:

  • Bookkeepers were of all ages, with 64% between 25 and 44
  • 59% had less than 10 years of experience
  • 41% had 10+ years of experience
  • Decision-makers from solo firms to those with 100+ employees

 

 

 

Almost half of the participants identified with the title of Manager, and the results were split according to the size of the firm where they worked. Here’s how the numbers came together:

  • 34% worked at a small firm of nine employees or less
  • 36% worked at a medium-sized firm between 10 and 99 employees
  • 27% worked at a larger firm of 100+ employees

 

 

 

Why did we take this approach? Working with responses from a mostly even range of participants across age, years of experience, and firm size, the data was segmented to look for trends for each demographic and firm type. This made the information easier to digest, relevant, and, most importantly, valuable to firms across the spectrum.

 

The takeaway is that the goal of compiling the data below is to provide actionable insights for virtually any accounting practitioner, regardless of demographics, that’s looking to take their practice up a notch.

High-level findings

It should come as no surprise that both accountants and bookkeepers recognize that a key component of fostering growth is being proactive and diversifying their service offerings. In fact, in the year ahead many are looking to cement their status as trusted advisors for their clients. To do this, some are offering consultation beyond traditional bookkeeping, helping clients navigate the complexities of employee benefits programs, or getting more involved in business planning.

 

Here’s a glimpse of what we found:

  • Top priorities for 2024 are adding new clients and improving cybersecurity
  • 70% of accountants are looking to expand their offerings to their existing clients beyond traditional bookkeeping
  • If they had the resources, BenAdmin, business planning, and compensation analysis are top services that accountants wish they could expand into
  • Accountants are open-minded about what AI can do, but there are some reservations about how the technology could present roadblocks

 

 

With a broad overview of the responses under our belts, we discovered what’s on the minds of those in the accounting sector. Let’s review how they’re approaching the rise of AI, which services will allow them to stand out from the crowd, and additional insights that can be useful in the coming year.

What accounting professionals think about AI

First and foremost, let’s address the elephant in the room (or, at the very least, a topic that received a lot of attention in 2023): the advent of artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as “AI.” From content creation to saving time on mundane tasks, many tools, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Perplexity, and Claude, have found a home in website browsers.

 

On the topic of AI, most participants polled were generally optimistic about what it could mean for the accounting industry. For example, those who responded positively could see its use in cases where it will:

  • Better detect instances of fraud and reduce the risk of economic crime
  • Decrease repetitive data entry and tasks
  • Free up time that can be spent assisting clients

 

 

Those who were more skeptical about AI’s value felt it could have some less than ideal outcomes. For instance, some respondents expressed concern that it would increase fraud and possibly lead to job loss. Therefore, for the time being a subset of participants is keeping this technology at arm’s length. Here is some additional feedback from those still evaluating what AI means and why they aren’t yet sold on it:

  • Chance for fraud or misuse in the wrong hands
  • Lack of trust in AI and the belief that it needs more regulations
  • Not tested or proven
  • AI technology is advancing too quickly

 

 

Larger firms felt more positively about AI, with 65% of participants responding, whereas with smaller firms who answered,only 45% responded positively.

 

Those who were bullish about AI’s impact on the accounting industry expressed similar views, citing its ability to automate repetitive tasks and free up accountants to focus on more strategic activities. They also stated that AI would help reduce human errors, better detect fraud, and enable higher personalization of client services.

 

Interestingly, some saw both sides of the coin, and submitted both positive and negative responses, such as looking at the same topic but in a different light (efficiency saving them time versus taking their jobs).

 

Now that we better understand the big picture of how industry professionals are observing how AI influences their workflow, let’s briefly discuss traditional technology and how that fits into their operations.

Most practitioners are technology-proficient

In general, our data found that accounting professionals are savvy when implementing a tech stack. Over 85% are comfortable with adopting new technology, which syncs up with the idea of why so many in the bookkeeping sector are comfortable with AI as it becomes more mainstream.

 

 

Some firms take a hybrid approach, using more than one piece of software to keep operations running smoothly. Others have a one-size-fits-all platform to ensure that their systems run without hiccups.

 

 

Speaking of technology, let’s share some findings on how in the coming year those in the bookkeeping industry are prioritizing cyber safety.

Protecting client data is top of mind

These days, with most businesses using web-based technology to share information, it’s no surprise that accountants want to better understand how to keep their client’s data safe, secure, and out of the hands of cyber troublemakers.

 

Our research shows that most large accounting firms are taking the closest look at putting more safeguards in place to keep sensitive data under lock and key. Medium and smaller sized practices are also not letting this critical component fall by the wayside. All in all, we found that around 65% of participants listed cybersecurity protections at the top of their priority list.

 

 

This is also likely due in part to the Federal Trade Commission’s Standards for Safeguarding Customer Information, or FTC Safeguards Rule for short. In a nutshell, the rule provides guidelines for businesses on keeping safeguards in place that protect the security of customer information, and entities defined as “financial institutions” were supposed to have a security plan in place by July 2023. Want to learn more about the standards set by the FTC? PracticeProtect, OnPay’s cybersecurity partner, contributed a comprehensive guide covering the FTC safeguards rule.

 

Moving on from keeping online fraudsters at bay, let’s find out what else bookkeeping professionals hope to accomplish in the coming year.

Expand offerings with existing customers

In previous surveys, we’ve found that more than 85% of business owners hold the accounting firms they work with in high regard, considering them to be trusted advisors, and the professionals they look to for guidance beyond the books. To take this a step further, a majority of those who place this level of trust in their bookkeeper also want and expect their accountant to take more of these tasks off of their plates.

 

Why are we pointing this out? It’s likely music to the ears of those who took our most recent survey because in the next year, 70% of respondents want to offer more services to their existing clients.

 

 

For example, regarding new services or those that accountants wish to offer in the future, employee benefits administration is at the top of the list. Twenty-six percent of accountants want to offer this type of consultation, likely due to the intricacies involved. It can take time to understand the types of benefits employees want most and how to offer perks such as group health insurance or access to retirement savings plans, such as a 401(k).

 

Business and financial planning, tax credit assistance, and compensation analysis also scored higher than other categories as top services accountants would like to offer to their clients. Here is the full list of services those polled are thinking about:

  • Employee benefits administration 26%
  • Business and finance planning 23%
  • Compensation analysis 21%
  • Tax credit assistance 21%
  • HR support and guidance 20%
  • Consulting and strategic advisory 20%
  • Industry forecasting 20%
  • Tax compliance 16%
  • Labor law compliance 14%
  • Accounting or bookkeeping 10%

 

 

The bottom line? It’s likely that most of your current clients would be open to hearing about other services that you can take off their plates. It could be a perfect time to schedule a meeting to discuss several billable services you could be helping with.

 

Let’s talk about another service that many in the bookkeeping arena already offer, though by adding it there’s still a fair amount who can use it to their advantage.

Running payroll to generate revenue

A majority of survey respondents, 92%, shared that they help their clients with the heavy lifting that comes with paying employees. It came as no surprise that 68% of those who responded rely on payroll software to keep the numbers straight.

 

That said, it was eye-opening to find that 20% of the industry pros who handle this task in-house are doing it manually. Although they didn’t share how, it’s likely that they are using spreadsheets or crunching numbers by hand.

Did you know?

According to our survey data, 20% of accountants and bookkeepers calculate payroll manually or run it in-house.

In addition, it came as a surprise that the percentage of accountants were either outsourcing payroll to a third-party vendor or not managing payroll as a service. Why?

 

With so many professionals expressing a desire to provide more services to their client base in the coming year, why would they leave one off the list that they are more than qualified to offer?

 

As the saying goes, every cause has an effect. We found that there’s a slight disconnect between what accountants think about the energy and resources that need to be invested into managing payroll for customers, versus the actual time, commitment, and payoff it can have for their practice.

 

These “payroll myths” generally have much to do with hearsay and perception instead of actual experience of the nuts and bolts of managing payroll for clients. Here are some of the misconceptions floating around that participants shared:

 

 

Now that we have touched on some common misconceptions, it stands to reason that we dispel one or two, correct? For accountants who have been contemplating what additional services could mean for their bottom line — and have intentionally been keeping payroll off the list — below are a couple of responses from accounting professionals who are benefiting from this add-on (and could go a long way toward dispelling this myth).

78%

Of accountants who run payroll feel that it is a very or extremely important service for their clients

63%

Of accountants say it is easy or very easy to run payroll for clients

 

The takeaway is that for any accounting experts that want to increase revenue, by considering (or reconsidering) running payroll for businesses, they have an opportunity right at their fingertips. And many software payroll providers can make this an easy win.

Shop or stick around

In terms of how often those who crunch the numbers shop around, we found that once most firms get started with a provider, they usually make a decision they’re confident with, staying with that company for two to three years.

 

 

A significant drop in responses at the four-year mark suggests that the third year may be when firms start looking to see if there is any benefit to making a switch. This is when some reconsider their options, see what other value-added items other providers offer (for example, employee benefits administration or HR software tools), and decide whether to switch providers or stick with their current software.

Firms continue to evolve

Accounting and bookkeeping professionals are looking to do more than just keep pace as the new year begins and client needs continue to evolve. Many understand how important it is to take advantage of technology, position themselves as trusted advisors, and diversify their offerings so that they can create revenue opportunities beyond bookkeeping.

 

Best of luck in year ahead in growing your practice and building your client base.

Talk to us and see how easy it is to offer payroll services your way.

Jon Davis is the Sr. Content Marketing Manager at OnPay. He has over 15 years of experience writing for small and growing businesses. Jon lives and works in Atlanta.