By: Ted Needleman, Contributing Editor, Accounting Today
Consider your practice, and the resources you have available to conduct business. There’s your office space, whether it be a physical location or the place in your home that you now work from. Then, of course, there is your staff, even if it might be just you. Don’t forget the computers and other technology resources you require to conduct your business.
What’s missing from this list? The most important thing at all — your clients. Without them, you have no practice. Without minimizing the importance of applications such as write-up, tax prep, and office suites, the most important and profitable application you should have in your arsenal should in some way help you serve your clients and provide an excellent client experience.
One component of this approach is CRM software. CRM is usually an abbreviation for customer relationship manager, but accountants don’t have customers, they have clients.
Still, the underlying principle is the same. You want the people that you deal with to know that you value the relationship — that they and their businesses are important to you and that you will do a terrific job of serving them. How to go about maximizing your choice of applications is something we asked in surveying eight vendors of CRM software.
What’s the difference?
When it comes to CRM, accounting practices are somewhat different from other types of businesses. Many CRM applications focus on making sales. While you will certainly value any increased business you get from existing and new clients, in an accounting practice, keeping your clients happy and engaged is a primary focus.
“Accounting firms sell services and expertise and need a way to develop and nurture relationships. CRMs are now a staple in a service-based business, allowing you to keep track of potential clients, while also ensuring that your current clients are happy,” said Rod Martinez, product marketing manager at SugarCRM. “In the case of an accounting practice, the ability to sell a project that will take a certain amount of hours, and to track what jobs and the number of hours have been sold in the past, and what is currently in process, is critical in servicing the customer and providing an ideal customer experience. The sales cycle at an accounting practice may involve several discovery meetings and interactions with multiple people within the buying organization. All meetings must be scheduled and all documents securely exchanged must be tracked before the sale is complete. It’s integral that processes such as these are defined within the CRM to ensure everyone involved in the sale gets notifications when appropriate, and can revisit documented interactions down the road.”
Vibhav Vankayala, head of product marketing for Zoho CRM, agreed: “Accounting practices have unique workflows and processes that set them apart from most businesses. For one, they don’t follow a typical sales model or deliver services that are ongoing, and they are able to build deeper relationships with their clients than most companies can.”
Introhive’s director of enterprise solutions, M. Danny Estrada, pointed out, “The process of identifying and bringing in new work from existing clients or new clients in an accounting firm is one that is traditionally more personal and dependent on a certain level of relationship. The people responsible for bringing in the work are also responsible for managing others, domain expertise in their given specialty, doing billable work, and leading and mentoring others. With all these competing forces, that are all necessary in order to be successful, CRM can be a struggle or a challenge when the process of using and populating a CRM database is not simple and easy. The benefit of CRM for accounting firms, like any professional services firm, is that it can provide structure and organization and visibility of potential revenues to the firm. Combined with good process, which many accounting practices are known for, CRM can be the catalyst for growth.”
Pam Kelley, product manager at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting North America, noted that not every practice needs a dedicated CRM application. “Accountants have a unique relationship with their clients, based on trust rather than products. Accountants are entrusted with their clients’ most confidential information. Because of this unique relationship, most firms don’t need or may not want a commercial-grade CRM system,” she said. “Our CCH Axcess practice management solution focuses on connecting clients’ information to the firm’s core work and expertise, while keeping confidential data only where it’s needed. That means the client database is integrated into the firm’s tax, financial prep, document management, workflow, billing and other core systems. This common client database helps to keep the client at the center of a firm’s processes at all times.”
Not by CRM alone
While the core of CRM is staying current with your clients and potential clients, it is just part of the overall solution. It’s important that the CRM system share data with other applications in use within the practice, and that in most cases, this flow of data be bidirectional.
According to James Gilbert, senior director of strategic partnerships at HubSpot, the CRM system offers 21 different accounting integrations including Xero, QuickBooks Online (both a HubSpot-built integration and one powered by PieSync), FreshBooks, Chargebee, Paycove, SaaSOptics, QuickBooks Advanced Automation, Fusebill, Freee, Akaunting, Younium, Sage Financials, InvoiceNinja, Sage Accounting, Recurly, Wave, Bill.com, Easybill, and Botkeeper. “These apps are designed to integrate seamlessly with the HubSpot platform — ease of use is paramount across all of our tools,” he said. “Customers can browse our app marketplace to find the right apps for their business needs.”
Zoho prides itself on providing a plethora of cloud-based applications, most of which integrate with its CRM software. Vankayala pointed out that the greatest advantage when one vendor owns the entire tech stack is the ability to offer a seamless experience for the end user without having to compromise on functionality. The apps are contextually integrated, which allows estimates and invoices, expenses and purchase information to move across the system with ease, making it simple enough to allow accountants to focus on their core responsibilities without software being a hiccup.
That said, Zoho’s CRM does not integrate only with the vendor’s other applications. The availability of third-party apps in the Zoho Marketplace ensures that users have access to over 300-plus CRM extensions like QuickBooks, Xero, DocuSign, PayPal, Shopify and FedEx that help complete their sales cycle. Across various categories, the marketplace has a collection of over 1,000 apps with which customers can choose to integrate. Zoho CRM also integrates with productivity apps like Microsoft Office 365, G Suite, Dropbox, Box, and Zoho Workplace, Zoho’s productivity suite.
Some software vendors take an alternate route. Wolters Kluwer, for instance, offers an API that speeds integration with applications that can take advantage of this technology. And, according to Robert Wells, chief executive officer of PracticePro 365, their solution has been developed to take advantage of the Microsoft Dynamics CRM framework and utilizes the cloud hosting infrastructure provided by Microsoft’s Azure Cloud.
“MS Dynamics has hundreds of pre-built integrations with other systems,” he said. “If the unified multiple core features of our product are not enough, the Dynamics infrastructure and ease of extensibility allows PracticePro 365 to integrate with other popular systems including document management, e-signature workflow, automation, MS Office, payment processors, and more.”
Why take the leap?
Implementing a CRM application, especially one that integrates with the other applications used in the practice, is a fairly major job. But, unsurprisingly, our vendors fervently believe the effort will pay off.
“Having client information readily at hand is essential in a trust-based profession,” Wolters Kluwer’s Kelley said. “A CRM system gives accountants enhanced visibility into all aspects of the client relationship, so they can serve their clients more effectively.”
Jeff Pawlow, CEO of ABLE, added, “CRM provides an accounting practice a strong foundation to transition to more advisory services. As we’ve seen business change drastically this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become evident business owners are relying on their accounting professionals more and more to navigate these complex and difficult times. CPAs have to demonstrate their value beyond technical excellence and provide their clients with what they need — knowledgeable advisors. Practitioners must establish strong relationships, position themselves as thought leaders, and communicate with their colleagues so that client service is cohesive. A well-adopted CRM, with the right features, will help a firm achieve just that.”
Not all wine and roses
Of course, no major undertaking, such as implementing a CRM system, is without its risks. A number of our respondents pointed out some of the pitfalls that might lie in wait for an unprepared practice.
Austin Caldwell, product marketing manager for commerce & services at Oracle NetSuite, said, “The biggest pitfall to adding any new technology is fostering user adoption amongst the entire company. Implementing a new technology system can be disruptive. That’s why organizations must help employees successfully navigate through the transition. Accounting firms must identify their implementation goals and develop a project plan to provide structure throughout this transitional period. By empowering employees to enter and leverage CRM data, they create ownership that lasts over time. Once you’ve successfully transitioned to a CRM, you must address additional changes as your business grows or else employees may drift away from standard business processes.”
And HubSpot’s Gilbert noted another pitfall: “Overthinking it and then overcomplicating it. At the first point they often need to just put one foot in front of the other and get started. CRM is often people’s first step in digitizing their company, and that can be daunting. But you just need to get started, find a basic use case that you are trying to address and build out from there. That is where the second pitfall comes into play. You don’t want to try to automate/digitalize overly complicated processes. Before you do this, think through all the steps and try to find ways to simplify the process.”
Zoho’s Vankayala suggested an approach that might help bypass some of these potholes on the road to implementation: “Accountants may find themselves inundated with possibilities on where to take their fully customized CRM system. Accountants should consider focusing on mapping out a comprehensive yet flexible workflow for their business and client interactions, then work on translating that workflow into a CRM system that works well for them. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple and grow the system as your business grows, instead of trying to customize everything all at once.”
An evolving solution
As with most computer applications, it’s a pretty sure bet that tomorrow’s CRM solutions won’t look the same as today’s.
Wolter Kluwer’s Kelley shares her vision of where things might go: “In the near term, CRMs can use advanced technology like predictive intelligence to help surface additional revenue opportunities and provide elevated levels of service. Further in the future, leveraging customer intelligence is key— utilizing the information the accounting firm already knows about the client from their tax returns, financials and other client attributes to proactively provide insights and guidance in order to solidify and exceed their clients’ expectations. But beyond that, CRMs must help the accounting practice move to predictive insights and intelligence — i.e., not just where the customer is now, but where will they be next year? In five years? And what will their needs be at that time so the CPA firm can plan and adjust services accordingly to provide the expert guidance their clients need?”
And ABLE’s Pawlow sees the application becoming more focused on the user. “I see accounting CRMs becoming more and more nuanced for their audience,” he said. “Firms are going to want a specific type of system to fit a specific user need. The CRM will be the hub of a CPA’s advisory suite of services. The platform will need to bend to the use case of a particular user over a one-size-fits-all approach. As cross-platform integrations become more and more available and advanced, the importance of the CRM will not only grow, but how and what each user will need from that CRM will change as well.”
This article was published in Accounting Today on November 2, 2020.