Handling write-up work for McDonald’s franchises proved to be a super-sized hassle for Shirlene Small. The fast-food restaurant chain mandates its stores turn in monthly financial statements in a specifically structured format. The complex reporting language isn’t foreign to Small.
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Before starting her own consulting business, she handled financial reporting processes and business analysis for McDonald’s 1,500 company-owned American restaurants and also managed a multi-departmental systems conversion project for the chain’s International Accounting Group.
But most franchises she worked with in her own business used QuickBooks, requiring Small to export the data into Excel, format it and import it back into McDonald’s corporate package, which could take up to two hours.
“I needed to do something fast in order to keep pace with the growth of the business, but I couldn’t find a package to design my own financials,” she says.
Then, she learned about Write-up CS (then Creative Solutions), which indicated she could use templates or design her own reports to highlight important elements. She met with a salesperson who showed her how it was possible to create what she needed, and her reporting time was cut down to minutes.
Two years later, she moved back to Chicago from Michigan and formed Emerging Business Solutions Group with her sister, Doreena Towner. Today, the CPAs serve 200 individual and 150 business tax clients and do write-up work for about 80. Both segments have roughly doubled in the past three years.
“The main way we’ve built our write-up practice is to communicate with our clients. The first thing is to sell them on the idea of doing regular financial statements,” Small says.
While McDonald’s franchisees must supply regular reports to the corporation, no one mandates most private businesses must follow any reporting procedure. It’s up to the accountants to inform them of the benefits of doing routine reviews to understand what’s going on with their businesses when applying for bank loans, job bids or certain types of certifications, Small says.
“We still find they aren’t keeping accurate, meaningful timely financial statements. How can you run a business when you don’t know where you stand financially?” she asks.
Small’s goal is to move most of her clients to a monthly — or at least quarterly — compilation in order to have more of a pulse on what’s going on operationally.
Those who opt against more frequent service usually do so because they are too small to justify the cost. In those cases, Emerging Business Solutions provides them with pointers about what they should be doing to stay on top of their own finances throughout the year and encourages them to call if any major changes take place that would affect their end-of-year financials.
But Small suggests that accountants with clients who have more than $500,000 in receipts need to look at those businesses at least quarterly to help accelerate the end-of-year work, and explain to them that they cannot come in during the heart of busy season and expect their accountant to fix their work.
Oops–They Did It Again
That’s why many write-up products are making it harder for clients to introduce errors—like hitting the wrong key when attempting to enter a change in a prior period and ending up making it from two years prior.
For example, CCH’s ProSystem fx Write-up password-protects prior periods, while an audit trail logs changes.
The most widely used write-up package is QuickBooks Premier Accountant Edition, which Intuit introduced in 2001 with more than 150,000 users. Accountants can set closing dates after which clients cannot change data without the proper authority. Practitioners can also track changes made to transactions and quickly uncover errors through the audit trail and closing date exception reports, with the option of printing reports that list any changes to the prior period either by account or transaction date.
Giving control back to accountants is also the concept behind Accounting Relief by AccountantsWorld, which lets accountants customize the systems for each client, depending on how hands-on the accountant wants that particular client to be— whether it’s doing a majority of the data entry and payroll work or just writing checks and entering deposit slips.
On its Web site, the company acknowledges that Accounting Relief is “not for everyone.”
So who is it for?
“The right customer for Accounting Relief is an accountant who really is frustrated about the way the client accounting is done right now, is spending time with client transfers and doesn’t have all the features they need,” says Chandra Bhansali, cofounder and president of AccountantsWorld. “Early adopters have to be really passionate about taking full control of their accounting practice.”
They also should have excellent client relationships with whichever clients they conduct new or expanded services so that they can overcome any hiccups together without jeopardizing their trust, Bhansali suggests.
Convincing clients to give their accountants ongoing work is easy, especially when those accountants explain the kinds of services they will be providing instead of referring to it as write-up, Bhansali and others in the industry believe.
“Accountants who do this properly can add a lot of value because they are cutting down time entering checks and receipts,” he says. They can charge clients the same amount while keeping their financials up to date and helping them manage finances. For example, because practitioners gain complete access to what’s going on with clients’ budgets in real time, they can anticipate whether a cash-flow problem may arise later on and intervene instead of remedying the situation after it already occurred.
Dawn Evanoff, product manager for both ATX and TaxWise Client Write-up (part of CCH’s Small Firm Services), agrees, adding that practitioners could opt to charge clients less for tax preparation work if those clients agree to let them track their finances throughout the year.
Businesses that pay their own bills including payroll taxes, sales taxes and vendor expenses typically don’t pay them all on time, so simply showing them how much can be saved in late fees could win them over, Evanoff says.
“People are great at what they do (for a living) but not at keeping books. I started a bookkeeping service in New York two years ago and it exploded.” Finding people who want the service is easy, just look locally and in odd places like nonprofit museums, she says. “But the first place to look is your disorganized clients that give you fits at tax time because they’re a mess.
“Start with monthly bank reconciliation. Once they see you have control and they can save more time doing their business, it’s worth paying you,” she says.
And one of the biggest selling points write-up software vendors pitch to prospects is integration with their tax products. The reason for this is that if an accountant is doing write-up work for a client with a certain product and has the same vendor’s tax software, the financial information just moves over to the tax software and is ready to use at the end of the year instead of having to re-enter the data and possibly introduce errors.
Michael P. Fischer, a CPA in Simi Valley, Calif., uses all of CCH’s products even though they are pricier than others because he doesn’t have to worry about rekeying data. Small switched from Intuit’s ProSeries to Thomson’s UltraTax CS for the same reason. ATX, TaxWise and Drake all tout the suite approach as their sweet spot, typically targeting their own customers as opposed to trying to convince owners of competitive products to switch.
Owning a product suite also opens the door for practitioners to approach their current clients instead of starting from scratch, though there’s no consensus about which clients to target.
Bhansali suggests starting with businesses that don’t have complex situations or major issues, such as a consulting or services business that writes 20 to 40 checks per month.
Those using online banking also make good candidates, because they are in the habit of conducting financial transactions over the Web—Accounting Relief is a Web-based product and it integrates with bank accounts so neither the businesses nor the preparer have to re-enter checking information.
Meanwhile, Pat Bhatt, senior product manager for QuickBooks Accountant Edition, suggests choosing a portfolio of clients ranging from simple operations to complex corporations and to spread out the load among different staff members.