Accounting Today: Software Survey: CRM systems in 2021

By: Ted Needleman, Contributing Editor, Accounting Today

This past year has not only forced many changes in the way we work, but also in the way we interact with staff, clients and potential clients. With the hours everyone is working varying greatly, practice management and due-date software proved their worth. But while practice management, calendars and due-date monitoring are all important capabilities to have, they aren’t precisely the same thing as a client relationship management system.

CRM software can duplicate many of the functions of those other applications, but then goes beyond any of them when it comes to gaining new business or conducting mail or email campaigns. One of the best-known precursors of the modern-day CRM is the Farley File. Developed by Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager, James Farley, the Farley File was a comprehensive set of records detailing political and personal facts on people FDR and he met or were supposed to meet. Using it, people that FDR met were impressed by his “recall” of facts about their family and what they were doing professionally and politically.

And the familiar Rolodex, also developed early on, can still be found on many a desktop. But modern CRM applications go far beyond just keeping facts about clients and potential clients, though there’s still considerable value in that. CRM software compiles information from numerous sources of transactional data, including the practice’s website, inquiries, telephone and email, and other instances of contact with clients or potential clients into one or more central databases. This is then analyzed and used to help the practice improve its client relationships, as well as providing a good foundation for marketing campaigns and reminders to your clients to make appointments for services like tax prep and audit.

There are substantial benefits to implementing CRM in your practice, which may be why many firms have already embraced it. How these practices are benefiting, and what the systems are being primarily used for covers a lot of ground. “Accounting organizations are typically leveraging CRM software … to manage their customer relationships, drive sales, and marketing activities,” said Austin Caldwell, senior product marketing manager for Oracle NetSuite. “A CRM solution provides a complete view of your customers while providing a seamless flow of information across the entire customer life cycle — from lead all the way through opportunity, sales order, service, renewal, cross-sell and support.”

Brandy Asplundh, senior product manager of the HubSpot QuickBooks integration at HubSpot, put it a bit more succinctly: “There are three main ways we see accountants using CRM software today: storing all customer touch points in one place, streamlining customer data from their CRM into their accounting system, and reducing back-and-forth communication with their sales teams. Having a single source of truth in a CRM saves time and ensures that all of the teams within an organization have the context they need to better serve their customers.”

“Accounting firms are increasingly more than just people doing numbers,” said Doug Beard, CRM principal at Sage North America. “Operating as advisors to different parts of a customer’s business, these multifaceted experts need to be ‘across’ their customers’ complete business. Using a CRM system helps show the complete view to these accountants — who they know, records of conversations, managing future engagements, capturing time and billing, plus automating processes to achieve time and compliance targets.”

Robert Lorenzen, director of product marketing for Sales Cloud at Salesforce, listed some of the ways that accounting practices use CRM and why. “The most prevalent use for a CRM always starts with the customer relationship. With a CRM, accountants can track customer engagements, recall past interactions, and understand the needs of each individual customer, so you’re always in a position to add value to your clients. This is particularly important in a world where fewer engagements are face to face … and accounting interactions will continue to be a digital-first experience even as the world begins to reopen. A next-level CRM will help ensure you’re reaching out in a personalized, tailored way, increasing customer engagement both in person and on digital channels as we enter this new post-pandemic, hybrid world.”

But at its most basic, CRM is still about relationships. “Typically, accounting firms rely on CRM software for managing client contact information, tracking client leads, and organizing complex client projects,” said James Harper, senior product marketing manager at SugarCRM. “Today, this is evolving to where a growing number of firms are starting to use CRM software to nurture relationships with prospective customers, and to simplify the process of selling other services into existing clients, such as wealth management, audit and assurance, or payroll.”

Making CRM pay for itself

All this sounds great, but what are the real payoffs? As Val Steed, director accountants at Zoho, pointed out, “A major benefit in an accounting practice adopting CRM touches on all three areas of the customer life cycle, right from attracting the right prospects, to identifying who among them are best suited and ensuring they turn into customers tomorrow. CRM can play a pivotal role in helping accountants grow their business. Not just that, but CRM can play an important role with retaining customers and turning them into advocates as well. Firms can also significantly gain ground by using CRM to manage potential relationships that now just exist as emails, business cards on a desk or in a drawer, or an Excel spreadsheet.”

Lisa Erickson, a product manager at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting North America, noted the evolving nature of many firms’ practices. “It is becoming more critical for CPAs to be their clients’ trusted advisor and not just a tax preparer,” she said. “This means anticipating their clients’ needs. The accounting firm has some of the most important information to inform this guidance — tax returns, financials and other pertinent information. Having a centralized database of client information gives accountants a 360-degree view into all aspects of the client relationship so they can provide the level of premier client service that clients are increasingly expecting.”

Hubspot’s Asplundh added, “There are a couple of ways that adopting a CRM can benefit accounting. First, it removes the friction that comes from duplicating data entry across multiple systems. It also ensures that all of the teams within an organization have one unified view of the customer, which leads to a better customer experience. Lastly, being able to pull revenue data from an accounting system into a CRM allows accounting teams to see an actual return on investment for the company’s marketing, sales and service efforts. Those insights can be incredibly powerful.”

Not all rainbows and unicorns

As much as practices may benefit from adopting at least some basic CRM systems, the application is not without its pitfalls. There are some things that accountants need to consider before adopting CRM.

Asplundh said, “First and foremost, anyone, regardless of industry or function, should make sure they understand how their CRM integration is set up, what control they have over the integration and flow of data, and how they can customize the integration to meet their needs. It’s also important to make sure that anyone using the CRM has the correct permissions when viewing accounting data. For larger organizations, that could mean modifying permissions to ensure that the data is available to all teams but only editable by a few.”

Choosing the right software is also a concern, as Wolters Kluwer’s Erickson noted: “Commercial-grade CRM systems can sometimes be overkill for firms that may only have a few hundred clients or less. Often, the benefits of a full-featured CRM can be accomplished using client-focused features already available in the firm’s existing software. Another pitfall is that if the CRM is not a natural part of the everyday process, the staff won’t use it or update it.”

Timothy Keith, accounting industry lead for Introhive, added, “CRM is inanimate and doesn’t come to life without participation and accountability. However, a firm must strike the appropriate balance between participation and facilitation. Remember, the professionals from whom you need data were not hired to spend time with CRM. When CRM is deployed in a way that it is easy to use … there will be less resistance to changing the cultural aspects of using a CRM consistently.”

And Jeff Pawlow, managing director at The Growth Partnership and ABLE, pointed out, “In order to function in an advisory-oriented fashion, firms need to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. As client relationships become more sophisticated, and include more varied service offerings, CRM systems will enable firms to maintain ‘line of sight’ across that increasing complexity.”

Another cautionary thought comes from Oracle NetSuite’s Caldwell: “Accountants should be wary of adding CRM software that isn’t closely tied with their financials and professional services automation applications. If a CRM isn’t tied into these other business applications, then they are likely manually entering or batch importing this data across systems, which leads to delays and errors with processing new sales orders, invoicing, creating service jobs, and recognizing project revenue.”

Getting the most out of CRM

PracticePro 365’s CEO, Steven Templeton, said, “CRM data, if a component of the practice management system, can be easily combined with financial data for the firm to gain deep analytical insights across its clients and prospects. The CRM is just a component of what a firm needs. What we are seeing now is a digital transformation coming to the financial services space. Having a complete practice management tool that can combine the CRM with workflows, financial data, performance metrics, marketing and business development is crucial. Firms are seeing that moving to the cloud and having real-time answers to their pressing daily questions is imperative.”

And Oracle NetSuite’s Caldwell said, “Accounting firms can improve efficiencies by incorporating sales force automation into their CRM strategies. Too often, sales activities are only tracked when a client signed and there isn’t much foresight into what’s coming down the pipeline for the accounting consulting team. [Sales force automation] lets you automate repetitive business processes like automatically applying standardized rates to quotes, converting quotes to approved sales orders, and processing invoices with back-office financials. By managing opportunities and utilizing weighted probability forecasting, accounting firm owners and practitioners can accurately predict recurring revenue projections and coordinate with their sales reps to adjust variances.”

“One area in which we’ll see CRM evolution is in predictive forecasting made possible by AI,” said
SugarCRM’s Harper. “Business forecasting is one of the most challenging tasks organizations grapple with each reporting period and is often inaccurate because forecasting models are too simplistic and don’t take into account variables, such as human bias, that can significantly impact business forecasts and outcomes. Predictive forecasting analyzes historical sales data using AI to evaluate each deal in a firm’s pipeline compared to historical performance, industry, company size and other criteria. This approach helps remove individual biases and creates more accurate forecasts that firms can use to make business-critical decisions.”

Better tomorrow than today

As with most computer applications, you can expect that CRM will continue to evolve and provide more features, better usability, and deeper insights into the critical data that’s necessary for firms to serve their clients and potential clients. “I see more integrations between systems,” Pawlow said. “More practice management systems will be replaced by more robust technology, allowing for more CRM capabilities. Legacy practice management programs don’t have open APIs, which means they can’t easily connect to third-party applications. As more firms use modern systems, more opportunities will come available with integrations and AI.”

AI and machine learning seem to be a common answer among our vendors. Introhive’s Keith felt very much the same and said that he expects “AI, automation, increased integration with the tools which facilitate remote communications both internally as well as with clients. We are already starting to see the implications of AI in terms of data automation for CRM.

Oracle NetSuite’s Caldwell sees CRM helping to overcome the lack of face-to-face interaction. “As customers grow more tech-savvy and accustomed to doing more of their daily activities online, customer interactions will be less face to face,” he said. “However, customers will still crave personalized engagements with their accounting firms and expect instant gratification of their needs. To accommodate changing customer behavior, CRM systems must adapt with live chat capabilities that allow accountants to communicate with clients in real time. Instead of manually logging live chat or meeting notes, it will be easier for accountants to use transcription tools to automatically summarize conversations or even upload video conference recordings.”

Finally, Zoho’s Steed sees CRM becoming more integrated into other practice systems. “Over the next several years, I see CRM being integrated into the entire enterprise reporting system and becoming the control point or dashboard of enterprise,” he said. “AI will continue to provide deeper slices into enterprise data but the evolution of CRM as a controlling application will be significant and effective. All allowed (based on security rights) company information would be available from the dashboard either as graphics or drill-down reports. Self-service capabilities are an emerging area that most customers seem to be preferring today, and we can see that coming to the world of CRM.”

This article was published in Accounting Today on May 27, 2021.