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Report: Embracing Innovation, Valuing Human Expertise- Accountants Chart the Future with Generative AI

75% agree GenAI will radically transform profession within 5 years, yet 70% say human skills remain irreplaceable 

When Should I Hire an Accountant

In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, FreshBooks is not just observing but engaging with our community of small business owners and accountants to get their insights into the future and understand their beliefs on how their professions and industries will be impacted. 

To better understand what accounting professionals think about what’s on the tech horizon, FreshBooks surveyed close to 100 accounting professionals, the majority of whom work with small business clients. The survey’s aim was to benchmark accountants’ current usage or experimentation with Generative AI (GenAI) tools (such as ChatGPT) for work purposes, along with their expectations and attitudes toward this new technology.  

This report compares the findings with responses from a group of small business owners who provide professional services, surveyed by FreshBooks in the report Small Business Owners Embrace the Future – Majority Say They Will Adopt Generative AI,  completed in May, 2023. Together, these results paint a comprehensive picture of how the small business accounting services industry perceives GenAI. 

Generative AI Usage and Experimentation

While only 13% of accounting professionals said they are currently using GenAI in their practices, 27% said they are actively experimenting with it. That’s twice the rate of experimentation of other service-based small business owners surveyed by FreshBooks in May, signaling a recognition of GenAI’s potential and a proactive approach to exploring new technology within the accounting profession. 

Among those accountants who are not currently using or experimenting with GenAI for work, about two-thirds say they plan to try the technology professionally within the next 12 months. This aligns with the sentiments of small business owners in our broader AI study, where two-thirds of small business owners said they planned to try the technology for work purposes within the same timeframe.

While only a fraction of accountants said they are currently using GenAI in their practices, it’s clear that many are curious and determined to explore its potential. Some leaders in the industry say they are already harnessing the technology in their teams, in particular to boost productivity. 

“If you look at how software has changed the accounting industry—even before AI—it was to help accounting professionals spend less time on the mundane tasks by automating them,” says Brian Clare, CEO and founder of Blueprint Accounting, and member of FreshBooks’ Partner Advisory Council (FreshPAC).  “Now, with the proliferation of so many AI tools, we’re able to automate even more tasks that may not have been easily automated.”

Brian takes the push to leverage AI in accounting to enhance output a step further, saying “if you don’t start using AI, you will be replaced by accountants that do. [That’s because] it’s never been easier to get things done because of the help of AI.” 

Transformation on the Horizon

Nearly all those accounting professionals surveyed –  75% – said they foresee GenAI as a game-changer in their industry within the next 5 years. However, they’re not convinced that AI is equal to their expertise just yet: 70% of respondents believe that today’s GenAI tools cannot match the nuanced skills of a human accountant. In contrast, small business owners said they were less confident about the role of GenAI in their industries. Only 48% said they expect a significant impact within the same 5-year timeframe. This difference of opinion may stem from different needs and expectations from AI in their respective fields.

Within FreshBooks’ community of accountants, industry leaders are feeling enthusiastic rather than threatened over AI’s potential impact. Kenji Kuramoto, founder of cloud accounting and online bookkeeping firm Acuity and member of FreshPAC, shares his optimistic perspective:

“Having a powerful tool in our hands like AI has dramatically sparked our creativity,”says Kenji. “The applications of ChatGPT are enormous, and new use cases pop up on a daily basis—so experimenting with it has allowed us to better imagine where the future of the accounting profession can go.”

“[For example], will we be able to train our own AI to give immediate, real-time financial insights to all of our clients? Can we serve non-English speaking markets by enabling AI auto-translation? Can we use AI to create real-time financial forecasting and scenario planning? These are just a few of the questions that such a powerful tool has us thinking through as we imagine the future of accounting.”

Areas of Transformation

While most accounting professionals recognize the transformative potential of GenAI, this sentiment isn’t evenly spread across all areas of their practice. When asked which areas of accounting they expect GenAI to have a significant impact, 65% of respondents chose non-core accounting functions like sales and marketing. 59% believe that GenAI will heavily influence customer communications, potentially automating responses and personalizing interactions.

However, respondents were less convinced of GenAI’s ability to effectively perform core accounting functions. Only 36% anticipate a substantial impact on tax preparation, and 32% expect impacts on accounting advisory services. 

“In a world racing to adapt to this new technology, we’re hearing accountants say: sure, let’s leverage this to automate our workflows, but let’s not lose the human touch that defines our profession,” says Twyla Verhelst, CPA and Head of FreshBooks’ Accountant Channel. “While AI can correlate large amounts of data efficiently, it can’t yet navigate the complexities of a client’s unique financial situation or provide the empathy and strategic, real-world experience and insight that a real accountant can.”

Hiring Impact

When it comes to hiring in the future, or replacing accountants with GenAI altogether, the survey revealed that 57% of accounting professionals disagree with the idea that fewer people will be needed in the accounting profession in the future. 

However, 38% of respondents said they anticipate they will hire fewer people because of AI. This is relatively consistent with small business owners in FreshBooks’ previous survey, where 44% said they believe they’ll be able to hire fewer people in the future due to GenAI’s capabilities. 

A slight majority, 53% of accounting professionals, agree that AI will alter the relationships between accountants and their clients, while 47% disagree. Here, the profession is divided, with half of the respondents believing that AI cannot, and may never be capable of replicating a ‘human touch’ in the way accounting services are delivered. 

Moving Forward with AI 

Overall, our surveys of small business owners and accounting professionals reveal that accountants seem to be leading the way in experimentation with GenAI compared to other small business owners offering professional services, showing both a keen interest in its possibilities while maintaining an understanding of its limitations in their field of expertise. 

“From the data we’ve collected and conversations we’re having with our accountant community, we see that accounting professionals are not just simply adapting to GenAI, but shaping how it aligns with their unique expertise and the value they bring to clients,” says Twyla. “Moving forward, I think it’s clear that accountants will strive to maintain the core values of the profession, as they embrace the evolution of technology.”

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