Getting to Know Your Clients

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What happens when a client calls a firm and the partner isn't there to answer? At Kruggel, Lawton & Co., another employee handles the call and does so with much of the same knowledge that the partner can. That staffer can use Kruggel, Lawton's customer relationship management software to pull up what it terms a "living client file," which documents meetings that just took place and updates to-do lists, allowing everyone to be on the same page.

"If you don't know what stage something is at, that doesn't project the image to our clients that we want them to have," says partner Kurt Kruggel. "It's about serving the client and saying, 'You're No. 1 and we're taking care of you,' even if it's just to (provide) the status to (show) we have the finger on the pulse of what's going on."

Instead of forcing the client to wait until the partner returns, anyone using the CRM software at Kruggel, Lawton can provide service because they can all access that client's record.

Partner Insights

Call it customer or client relationship management, either way, it's about improving-and keeping-those relationships with customers by taking the private notes that often are floating around in partners' heads or personal Outlook folders and sharing them with others in the firm with some help from technology.

"Private companies are looking for a high level of touch with their accounting firm. They want to be connected with and know they have a good team working for them," says Kruggel. "CRM allows more than just one person to service that client, so the service level goes up tremendously. It makes the client feel they're very important and it's a firm approach, not an individual approach."

Kruggel's firm, which has 60 employees in its two separate Indiana offices in Elkhart and South Bend, began experimenting with Sage Software's SalesLogix mid-market CRM application in the summer of 2005. The goal was to consolidate all the information about clients gathered in disparate systems, spreadsheets and notebooks into one system that's accessible by everyone and provides a common view of the client with the most up-to-date information possible.

The firm invested in Soltis Consulting's CRM-4-CPAs, which is a version of SalesLogix CRM application for accounting practices. It is one of four specialized CRM packages from Topeka, Kan.-based Soltis, which also tailors SalesLogix for professional services, fleet management and third-party maintenance instead of making users do the customization for their industry's special needs.

The product suite includes Engagement Management and Client Matter Tracking for tracing and storing activities and notes on mini-projects and advanced Outlook integration. The system also integrates with Sage's CPA Practice Manager, so that invoice details, alerts and notes involved in the billing process still take place in Practice Manager but also are displayed in Engagement Management. Any changes made in one system automatically can be updated in the other. View Relationship provides a Relationship Tree that connects each contact to others in your database, like bankers or lawyers.

"This pulls together document management, engagement management, all our communication via email and integrates our time and billing system so when you come in the morning, your dashboard is pulling up all this information and that's your map of how you're going to serve your clients and interact with your associates," Kruggel says.

When a client called recently to check on the status of his 1040, Kruggel simply pulled up that file and emailed a PDF of the return to him, and a copy of that email was attached to his record in case he or the client forget when that correspondence took place.

Another partner in the firm who manages many of the relationships, but not the administrative tasks, makes use of Client Matter Tracking to see which projects are closed, which issues still need to be addressed and who last touched base with each client.

As more staff members start to use the system, "all of that is going to create a major gain in firm-wide efficiency," Kruggel says.

Although it's been nearly two years since Kruggel, Lawton began experimenting with CRM, only 10 employees are currently using the system because partners wanted to mold the system to firm needs and gather best practices, before rolling the software out to the rest of the firm, which is planned to occur by September.

The first 10 users range from senior staff to administrators and even a human resources person who uses CRM to manage executive searches. "We wanted to get everybody at all levels involved, pull everybody to get a great cross-section and not just people who are technically savvy," business development director Mindy Todd explains. "We want to find out how everybody is thinking, so you need to get different perspectives. It's a true time commitment, but it's what you're willing to give it. Time well spent on this is going to be very successful for you."

Sage continues to ramp up its online user training, which Todd and Kruggel note as particularly important as they encourage adoption.

"Our tagline for the year is 'train for gain.' We want to train our people to use our toolsets so we can provide a win-win for all of us in terms of how we serve our clients," Kruggel says. "We think that will make us more profitable, give us more (work-life) balance and result in greater financial success for all of us."

A Growing Family

CRM covers a wide range of applications, from the basic contact managers like those found in Outlook, to sales force automation all the way to more complex and traditionally more pricey products like Sage's SalesLogix and LexisNexis InterAction.

Sage, in particular, has a growth path starting with Act, which provides basic contact management and notes for individuals or small firms starting at $229.99 for the license. At the next level is SageCRM (the former Accpac CRM) and the Web-based SageCRM.com, which the company introduced in 2003 and is offered on a pay-as-you-go basis to lessen the burden of upfront costs beginning at $69 per user per month, compared to the $595 per user license. Those applications provide traditional CRM functionality such as sales and marketing automation and additional modules such as event management and time and billing.

SalesLogix expands that functionality for larger companies to include lead management, email campaign tracking, interactive dashboards and connection to back-end systems starting at $995 per user.

The Soltis CRM-4-CPAs package is one of a number of products designed for specific markets that is built on a more general CRM package. Other industry-specific packages have also been developed. For example, Templeton & Co., a CPA firm based in West Palm Beach, Fla., markets CRM for Professionals, which is built upon Microsoft CRM.

Similarly, InterAction has market-specific products, including versions for the accounting, financial services, legal, management consulting and professional services markets.

About five years ago, William F. Gurrie, a 40-person firm based in Oak Brook, Ill., that provides audit work and other services to state and local government agencies, implemented InterAction to improve internal communications by better documenting client communications.

It took about one month for InterAction to dedupe all the data to make sure only the most accurate updated contact information remained in a central repository, a process which LexisNexis calls "relationship intelligence." After that, a policy was set in which staff was required to enter all their communication notes in the system if they wanted those milestones to count toward their monthly goals.

"It was not only do it, but document it. If we don't document it, it's not of value to the firm," partner Tim Cole says. "The value of your firm is your good will. It's your relationships with your clients and you. If a partner gets hit by a truck or goes crazy, you still understand those relationships. It's prudent management to protect that value."

Before InterAction was acquired by LexisNexis three years ago, it was sold mostly to the 50 largest CPA firms. But since LexisNexis took over, it has seen interest by CPA firms of all sizes.

This is made possible by the ASP version of the product, which is allowing LexisNexis to push it further down market so that smaller firms can get started for as low as $65 per user per month with a three-year subscription.

Roughly two dozen accounting firms have signed on in the past three years, about 10 of them in the past year, and the company continues its push to attract more in 2007 and beyond.

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