Best Practices for Accounting Firms: Leveraging ChatGPT Effectively and Efficiently

The AI has shown itself capable of composing everything from college essays to copywriting. ChatGPT waxes philosophical in intriguing user exchanges and has even won art contests. In finance and accounting, early adopters have seen the potential of language-based AI interfaces to create scripts and formulas and draft responses to clients. ChatGPT is the culmination of recent advances that put powerful new AI tools into the hands of general users. Image-generating AI can create images in multiple styles, responding to users’ prompts. There are comparable services that focus on audio, text, and video. OpenAI, the organization behind the GPT model used by ChatGPT, created many such innovations. For example, unorganized information like addresses or phone numbers that have been messily condensed into columns in Excel is tough to work with. A general, human-language spreadsheet description could be enough for ChatGPT to produce an Excel macro that can remedy the problem by automatically sorting and splitting the data into separate columns. Because of ChatGPT’s written communications capabilities, many professionals use it to speed up creating drafts for formulaic emails. ChatGPT can write and rewrite, and it is often worth doing so to get the right tone for a particular message. Similarly, ChatGPT can produce copywriting and content writing, which could improve an agency’s marketing efforts. The details or style of current marketing materials can be modified through ChatGPT and translated to speak to a new audience. Generative AI, like ChatGPT, has critical weaknesses for all these uses. Most egregiously, it can be confidently incorrect. That should concern CPAs planning on using AI to generate client-facing content. Anything ChatGPT-generated must be carefully vetted for accuracy. The system is generally good at creating code or instructions for Excel, Python, and other products and programming languages. But ChatGPT can also pose a security risk. OpenAI can use data that users input to ChatGPT to improve future language models per the end user agreement. With the many questions clients direct at CPA firms, simply pointing an AI at a firm’s practice management system and having it answer them seems like an exciting use for generative AI in the not-too-distant future. Advances in AI in the next decade or so will likely lead to serious upgrades in the internal tools at a firm’s disposal. For now, ChatGPT and similar models remain accessible largely in limited prototypes or proof-of-concept versions. This is why accounting agencies should proceed carefully. While ChatGPT may be convenient, the bottom line is that it isn’t always accurate. AI builds off user interactions to build a database, which means it’s always learning. Remembering the security risks behind that function should keep accountants from blindly dumping swaths of text containing confidential information in ChatGPT. Vet ChatGPT like you would any third-party and with the same scrutiny you would use for any other technology for security and privacy. Consider going further and establishing an agency-wide acceptable usage policy for generative AI. Ensure that employees are aware of the public-sourced nature of ChatGPT and encourage them to withhold private information to keep it from entering the public database. The best course of action is cautious experimentation with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t be afraid to be imaginative; who knows what kind of Excel macro you could come up with? Some of ChatGPT’s best uses are yet to be discovered, and its relevance to accounting, like all fields, will continue changing.