What are the top priorities for Professional Services firms in 2021?
Blog // 18-01-2021

What are the top priorities for Professional Services firms in 2021?

by Kevin Reed, Freelance journalist and consultant

They do say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that’s very much the case for professional services firms.

Now, that can be taken a couple of ways. It’s certainly the case in some firms that no matter how the world moves on around them, they fail to take note. They expect that doing the same things in the same way for the same people will be successful. But clients’ needs evolve, technological developments change the way in which work can be undertaken, and succession planning is rarely managed properly.

But there’s another way to think about that old adage. The one thing that won’t change – and is very much a positive – is that professional services are driven by great people serving other great people.

For professional services organisations in 2021, after a traumatic and unprecedented year for us all - whether socially, politically or economically – it means learning the lessons of the past 12 months and evolving to be fit for the future.

Clearly there will be a big focus on ‘close-as-possible’ support for clients post-Covid-19. Accountants spent much time providing crisis support, steering clients through the myriad of grants and loans offered by the UK Government. Engineers tried to keep projects moving despite supply chain issues or contract terminations. The future will include maintaining closer lines of communication with their client base, helping them to both surmount the hurdles ahead and then move on.

Lessons have been learned about communication. While it’s still all about people, it doesn’t always have to be face-to-face. And Advanced’s recent Annual Trends Survey found that 87 per cent of professional services organisations believe the pandemic has accelerated the shift to a digital-first mindset for the business. The role of professional services software in supporting their firm has never been clearer.

Expect to see further investment in online communication tools and in CRM software for professional services firms. In tandem, this will drive a greater flow of information between your clients and your business.

But where do your people fit into this? The Annual Trends Survey highlighted that 61 per cent of respondents believe their workforce needs greater flexibility. In my mind, without the use of professional services Cloud software / technology in each area of the firm – back office to client facing - building flexibility will be hampered by the location requirements of in-office servers and IT.

However, professional services firms are cautious of a world where their staff aren’t physically ‘in the office’. Consideration of resource management and project management software must also be made – in other words, who’s doing what, when, how long should it take and how long has it taken? Gauging productivity in a remote working world requires careful thought. As indeed does the management of your workforce’s personal performance and wellbeing in a more continuous manner meaning quarterly or annual check-ins become a thing of the past.

Earlier I referenced (a bit facetiously) how professional services firms don’t like embracing change. But another flick through Advanced’s professional services research finds cause for optimism.

Half (51 per cent) said Cloud software investment is a spending priority in the next 12 months, while 62 per cent have seen limitations in their current tech as a result of the changing working patterns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The professional services world generally takes on technology in fits and starts. Developments usually come about when the technology is too important to ignore, or regulatory / legal developments force change upon a firm – take HM Revenue & Customs’ inexorable shift towards a digital tax system and its impact on how advisers and clients now interact. Early adopters are usually outliers for many years until others catch up.

Some things take time to be embedded because they’re downright scary or disruptive. For example, there’s a huge opportunity for automation in the professional services world but many firms are petrified that such a move will put them out of business – rather than considering how great it would be to reduce data input and grunt work.

On this occasion it is the pandemic that is proving the catalyst. And as worrying and uncertain as the future is for many businesses, I foresee a new generation of digitally-driven professional services organisations leading the way through all professional services sectors, whether lawyers or architects.

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Kevin Reed

Kevin Reed

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Freelance journalist and consultant

Kevin Reed is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years' experience covering professional services. He is a former editor of both Accountancy Age and Financial Director, including a period covering accounting technology. Kevin has also written for the management consulting and financial services markets. Current roles include consultant for Foulger Underwood and chair of the Women in Accountancy and Finance Awards.

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