Consulting Opens The Door

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When John Seale launched a consulting practice for RBSK Partners in the late 1980s, he was helping clients migrate paper-based accounting to One-Write Plus, a small-business accounting software formerly offered by Sage Software. That initial consulting client, a furniture retailer, had become backed up with accounting paperwork and needed help switching to a more automated system.

"They had receivables backed up out the wazoo," Seale recalls. "So we automated them on One-Write Plus and got their receivables down."

One-Write Plus is gone, discontinued by Sage, and in the early part of this decade RBSK began concentrating on the Client Bookkeeping Solution from Creative Solutions because of the integration it offered with other applications in the CSI line.

Partner Insights

Ringstrom: Building More Lucrative Engagements

David Ringstrom, a CPA and president of the four-person Atlanta firm Accounting Advisor, specializes in helping clients who run into unusual problems while using low-cost accounting software like QuickBooks and Peachtree.

For example, there was the retailer who had trouble managing all the daily orders that it was receiving from Amazon.com and eBay.com.

Accounting Advisor customized an Excel spreadsheet to manage orders from multiple Web-site partners into a QuickBooks file, freeing the retail client from re-keying orders into its accounting software.

For another Peachtree client, Ringstrom built a customized report that calculated sales commissions for each of 15 sale reps and integrated the results into Peachtree, saving the client hours of calculation and providing it with a happier workforce.

Consulting also opens doors for accountants in other ways. Terri D. Taylor, a sole proprietor at TDT Consulting in Novi, Mich., has leveraged her expertise in both accounting and software technology to solve problems on behalf of CPA firms as well as for her client base of Peachtree and QuickBooks users.

"The biggest opportunity with small and mid-sized clients is helping them set up their software and getting their information into the system," says Taylor, who advises CPA firms as a member of an IT committee of the Michigan Association of CPAs. "If they're having problems, I show them how to turn things around."

One of the biggest problems she solves for clients, Taylor says, is reconciling inventory and sales.

A common mistake occurs when a business records a sale in its accounting software before it has actually received the inventory that it has sold. That causes incorrect postings to the general ledger, leaving the accountant to try and figure out what happened.

In that case, she may teach a client how to set up business rules in Peachtree to record an estimated cost of inventory based on the original purchase order.

"So, if the client sells a product before receiving it and the supplier's invoice, at least the accounting software will show an estimated cost," Taylor says. "When the supplier's invoice arrives, they can just go in and adjust the figure if it's different."

Providing consulting services to small businesses, with low-cost accounting software as a major tool, is a growing part of the business of the Greensburg, Ind.-based CPA firm.

To this day, deploying and using low-cost accounting software can be a tricky affair for small-business owners, who are likely to be more interested in selling shoes, designing architectural plans, or tending to sick patients than in dealing with numbers, general ledgers, and software application integration.

As a result, their attempts at using low-cost software can produce inaccurate books, calling ainto question the true financial health of their business. That's why firms such as RBSK often operate such consulting operations out of their accounting departments, not out of their technology units.

"Many small-business clients don't have the accounting theory to set up a proper chart of accounts," says Seale, the managing partner, who is based in the firm's Brookville, Ind., office.

That's why small-business software is good business for accountants who can provide consulting services to help these owners produce sound financial records while keeping their eye on what they do best-serving their customers.

Developing a strong consulting practice can take years of relationship-building with tax and accounting clients, but the payoff can be a steady stream of revenue and cross-selling opportunities for both general practitioners and those who focus on niche markets.

"Our consulting services for low-cost accounting software have the potential to be one of our fastest-growing practice areas," says Seale. He notes that growth doesn't mean just adding clients; it means developing growing clients into customers who can produce increasing revenue for the firm.

"Not every client may want this because they're too small, but as they grow we have the expertise to offer them," Seale says. "And it's easy to turn a small $20-per-month bookkeeping client into a $3,000-a-year client because of these services."

Plans at RBSK call for annual revenue growth of 7 percent to 8 percent in three main practice areas: small business services, business valuations, and services related to uncovering and preventing financial fraud.

But the firm is ramping up for steeper growth on the software side.

Seale and partner Robert Blankman, who heads the firm's small business services division, plan to expand to increase the number of staff accountants trained as software consultants from two to five.

RBSK has about 30 clients on CBS, with more on the way, but it's also finding several ways to build more lucrative client engagements, Seale says.

CBS has checkwriting and bookkeeping in modules that can be used separately, and some of RBSK's clients start out using only the check-writing module-a small-fee engagement, but one that can lead to bigger things.

"These are generally tax clients also, and this could be the first extra service we provide to them," Seale says. "But it can also be a way to make them more comfortable using accounting software."

A basic engagement that starts out at $20 per month for a CBS module can lead to a broader engagement that adds a $225 monthly bookkeeping fee to that $20 fee, Seale says.

As the client relationship matures, RBSK may introduce financial analysis services, through the use of CSI's Financial Analysis CS, that can involve partner-level meetings with clients billed at about $150 per hour.

"If we weren't consulting, we couldn't build up these extra bookkeeping and analysis services," Seale says, noting that RBSK has migrated as many as 200 clients from manual accounting systems into software and consulting engagements.

Vendors Recruit Accountants by the Thousands

One measure of the importance vendors place on the accountant's role in this market is the effort that manufacturers have made to set up programs for them.

Vendor-sponsored networks and programs provide resources and opportunities ranging from Internet-based tools for locating certified advisors, to customized newsletters, to speaking engagements at local chambers of commerce. Such programs also offer opportunities to earn certified professional education credits.

Intuit's QuickBooks ProAdvisor program, which has more than 30,000 member accountants, supports the advisors' efforts through demo material, customizable newsletters, and networking opportunities.

A new ProAdvisor effort is arranging for QuickBooks consultants to give demonstrations of software in major retail stores that sell office supplies, such as Staples, OfficeMax, and Office Depot.

"We're finding that more accountants are looking to specialize as advisors, such as by focusing on retail clients," says Intuit's Leslie Merson, adding that consulting specialists and CPAs with the ProAdvisor program often refer business to one another. Membership costs $449 for the first year, then $399 each subsequent year. It comes with thousands of dollars worth of software and the opportunity to purchase additional software at discounts of up to 20 percent.

Accountants working with Peachtree software can join the Sage Software Accountants Network, which involves 13 Sage products. The program has about 16,000 member accounting firms. Membership costs $399 for the first year and $299 for annual renewals. Participants get a wide range of information about best practices and product updates.

SSAN members also have access to the Sage Small Business Division's Certified Consultant Program, offering training on Peachtree and other Sage applications.

The Microsoft Professional Accountants Network offers free membership and claims several thousand members. Along with accessing literature in print and on the Web, members can use a toll-free hotline for technical assistance, along with attending in-person and online events and discussion groups for sharing information with peers and Microsoft employees. For $299 a year, they can also receive the Microsoft Action Pack of 10 Small Business Accounting licenses.

Creative Solutions provides accountants working with Client Bookkeeping Solution free marketing materials, including brochures, PowerPoint presentations, and the CBS Marketing Handbook. The company also offers its NetClient CS that provides portals through which end users can access data in the CBS software that is maintained by the accountants. Clients can retrieve financial documents, enter payroll data, and access communication tools provided through the portals.

Some engagements are unexpected, he adds. One long-term retailer client, who initially had avoided consulting fees, started demanding more financial advice after his business grew to four stores.

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