Richard Cornelisse

Virtual personal assistant answers tax questions

In Audit Defense, Business Strategy, Indirect Tax Strategic Plan on 28/07/2014 at 12:00 pm

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Non-traditional competitors are entering the tax service provider market and capturing market share. Will technological innovation get an extra boost? What can we expect next? Will a virtual personal assistant answer all your tax questions immediately?

Market Strategy

If competitor benchmarking reveals that the traditional way of working is still successful and has growth potential, do you really need to change?

One answer might be that the scope of the benchmark exercise was too narrow, especially in cases where non-traditional competitors are targeting your market.

Is the impact of non-traditional competitors a realistic scenario?

The easiest way – without any further analysis – is simply to deny or ignore their existence. The obvious arguments include our strong brand name, our strong reputation and the strong position our company has achieved in the market traditionally. Companies have responded like this and subsequently gotten burned. Ignoring innovation, being too self-confident or underestimating technology developers is not a smart move.

What happens when you don’t ignore?

In the worst-case scenario, you can accept your position, reinvent yourself, set new strategic objectives and mobilize your company’s resources to realize new sources of income. The wrenching effect of the change is less extreme, of course, if the company adapts its strategy and is capable of spotting new opportunities and (re)positioning itself.

Internet, Search Engines And Social Media

Both Apple and Virgin entered new markets, captured market share and in some cases even market leadership.

Apple’s iTunes store is a good example. This store sells online music, applications (games and other third-party software) and books. With Apple TV you can purchase or rent movies and television series.

Simply download, watch, listen and/or read on all your Apple devices.

Who stood to lose their longtime control over the market?

The list is long but examples include: the (mobile) phone industry, music industry, gaming industry, printing industry, publishing, postal services, video rental industry, companies manufacturing DVDs/CDs, commercial radio and TV broadcasting, etc.

In the Netherlands, the Free Record Shop is closing its megastore and many other stores have probably already done so or will follow. When somebody wins, somebody else must lose.

People can connect with each other all over the world and talk face-to-face (including video conferencing). This is all ‘free of charge’ if you have access to wifi (e.g. via FaceTime / Skype). This was traditionally the home market of telephone companies. Social media have made the world much smaller: you can establish global reach without any investment. With the infrastructure provided free of charge, you can connect with people, build and maintain networks, set up groups, communicate and share information. Many service providers had invested considerable amounts of money in similar sophisticated infrastructures over the years.

Companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Facebook are hardly charities. They use these services to achieve their own objectives: getting more users, increasing their advertisement income and gathering data for market analysis. Recently I noticed a Big4 organization that followed the same strategy. You could download an iPad app for free and get the latest edition of a digital book containing the local tax regulation as a bonus. In the past, that book was sold at market value. When somebody wins, somebody else must lose.

Many companies in the service provider industry sell content-based knowhow. In the past, that system was closed. Only a few organizations had access to specific content – often gathered via their worldwide network of people. At that time and under those circumstances, the content still represented significant added value for the client and therefore market value.

The system evolved from closed to open due to internet innovations such as search engines, and more people started to contribute and share content. Information can be posted, forwarded, shared and communicated. This is all free of charge: all kinds of content can be searched, found quickly and is available 24/7 as long as you have internet access.

Let’s do an exercise. Look back 5-10 years ago and think about the basic content that clients were willing to pay for and that content providers are now providing free of charge. Use Google’s search engine and enter that same question. What do you see? Google probably already has the answer to your question.

The consequence is that prices are going down and that the life cycle for this kind of paid product is at an end. Everybody can search and find it himself. The current impact of Google and Wikipedia is already huge since, from a pricing perspective, much content has become less valuable or even worthless.

Will search engine functionality develop further? Will more content be available on the Internet?

Without doubt, the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

Is ‘Google’ The Adviser Of The Future?

I am following the developments of Apple’s Siri of and of Google in general with great interest. Siri is the speech recognition engine that Apple uses as a virtual personal assistant for their devices.

The software truly understands your questions, searches the web and provides you with answers immediately. Google’s has conceded that Siri could pose a “competitive threat” to the company’s core search business.

If that is the case, is it not realistic to assume that Google and/or other companies are going to invest a considerable amount of money in developing similar functionalities? Such competition between these powerhouses will boost technology improvement.

Will such technology in the end truly understand all your tax technical questions? Is a virtual personal tax assistant going to respond immediately? Is this science fiction or our near future?

I am aware that some people will argue that certain knowhow depends on individual skill sets and expertise. For the moment, they are right, but they might be proven wrong in the future.

Can this also be automated? What successful examples relate to strategic insight and decision-making?

  • Chess is a strategic game and relates on fact-based information (pieces on the chess board: relevant facts) and a number of possibilities (moves: calculation of the impact of various options combined with overall strategic insight).

If a chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, can beat world champion Gary Kasparov in a six-game match by two to one with three draws against, shouldn’t the automation of an adviser’s strategic decision-making also be possible?

  • Deep Blue’s successor – Watson – has beaten Jeopardy champions at their own game. What was needed to make that happen: “natural language processing, searching immense data sets and creating relationships among disparate sources of information to finally culminate in an answer.”

The good news is that the profession of tax service providing is a people business. We like to be connected to people. The success of social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace and all the dating sites has confirmed this as well.

Maybe the statement about automating the tax adviser is a bit too provocative, but I still believe a lot more can be automated than we can currently comprehend. Having an open mind is the message I want to get across.

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