Knowledge Is Power

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Bic Wood knew the accountants at his Austin firm didn’t want to call themselves sales people. But he needed a way to track leads in order to decide which services would be most suited to prospects. So he gave them the tools they needed to help him accomplish that task, one step at a time.

Wood Johnson Heath is a “360-degree accounting firm” with 13 employees, providing a smorgasbord of menu items, explains Wood, the firm’s director of business development and technology. Staff resell Intacct’s Web-based accounting software, prepare taxes, serve as a full-service accounting department and everything in between.

Those variables change the sales cycle and sales tasks.

Partner Insights

“In the old way of doing business, you qualify leads by meeting with them and deciding if you want their business, and they decide they want your business, frankly, because you look professional and know what you’re talking about and you give them a fee estimate and they decide whether they can afford it,” Wood says. “Now we’re talking about a deal when you have to explain and educate people about the services, implement the services, close the sale, convert the data, and implement over time. We not only needed the tool that would enable us to do the work, but the tool that would help us track the sales process.”


The first tool is Intacct; the second is Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management, or CRM system, only Wood dares not call it that.

“Our trick is we don’t call it CRM. We call it lead tracking-they understand what that means,” says Wood, noting that he didn’t throw his staff right into the software system, either.

First he needed to illustrate that it would work. When they attended networking events, he handed them cards that fit into their business card folder with spaces for the names, emails and phone numbers of those they met, along with check boxes about services desired. There was room on the back to jot down notes.

When the staff returned to the office, a clerical person entered the information in a common database and Wood evaluated the opportunities.

“You want people to think sales when they’re in that environment, and they don’t,” Wood says. “[This is] a method of remembering to write it down and bring it back—that’s how we started tracking things.”

One of Wood’s goals was to demonstrate the firm generated many leads at such event. The question was what to do with them.

“In a CPA firm, typically the leads are pretty good. If you tell someone you’re a CPA, they’re not going to keep talking to you unless they have a problem to solve,” Wood argues. “If they keep talking to you and ask a few questions, all of the sudden they’re qualifying themselves for you right there. All you have to do is capture a little information and then call them and talk to them.”

Initially, Wood did most of the sales talk himself, but as staffers got excited and started to feel more comfortable, he allowed them to do some selling, too.

“When do you reach the point where you hire a full-blown, commission-based, meat-eating sales person? We have not been comfortable doing that yet,” Wood says. “We’re growing our own, taking our people and teaching them sales skills and that’s working, but we’re also trying not to step on their CPA skills.”

One accountant liked how the tracking in Salesforce.com works so much that he inquired why the staff doesn’t similarly track more client-related work so they can remember previous conversations—a question Wood is evaluating.

One of the biggest arguments for not investing in a CRM system is accountants see it as a sales tool, and they don’t want to sell.

That’s why Customer Effective, a Greenville, S.C.-based Microsoft Certified Gold Partner, developed a version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM for accounting firms. The product contains much of the out-of-the-box functionality, but is configured using language accountants are familiar with.

“When you say CRM, they don’t respond to that,” says Scott Millwood, president of Customer Effective. “They say, ‘I wish I could chart and manage these contacts more easily and see what everyone in my company is doing with these customers,” which is what the system does.

Templeton & Co. and Soltis Consulting developed similar offerings based on the Microsoft CRM and SalesLogix platforms, respectively.

Regardless of the term, senior-level partners know they need to sell engagements and serve clients well, Millwood says.

Still, to appease partners, there’s no label called “Sales.” It’s practice management, accounts, prospects, opportunities, new deals, engagements and projects.

“There’s no in-your-face sales force automation. We let them manage accounts and it all ties back into Outlook, especially because that’s where they do a lot of communication,” says Millwood.

Outlook Accolades

Because Microsoft CRM works with Office, user adoption issues are much lower, Millwood says. And it helps that people know and trust the Microsoft name.

“We give Outlook the ability to do collaboration group-based work, sharing their information through Microsoft CRM,” he says.

Outlook integration was one of the reasons Linda Forbes, director of marketing for Macias Gini and O’Connell, chose to implement Microsoft Dynamics CRM in her seven-office firm.

But getting partner buy-in was far from an overnight process.

Forbes became the firm’s marketing director three years ago when it realized the business needed to move to a sales and marketing model. CRM was high on her list of priorities, but she knew MGO needed a cultural shift before partners would allow her to invest. So she started demonstrating how using the system could make things easier.

The firm was celebrating its 20th anniversary and she needed to assemble a marketing list to invite clients. She showed partners how long it was taking her to cobble together the contacts through emailing and phoning partners and studying previous mailing lists. Using a CRM system, she told them, could take 10 percent of that time.

She also needed to notify certain clients in mid-2007 after MGO acquired another company.

“I always hit [partners] up for lists of who they want to reach out to. I would say, ‘When CRM is there, I could give you a list of people instead of hunting you down,’ and it could list the last piece of correspondence we sent [those clients] so we don’t spam them [with too much information too often],” Forbes says.

The firm does pipeline tracking in Excel, which does not allow for much competitive analysis or seeing at a glance what different business lines are doing, Forbes explains.

“With an Excel pipeline, it’s hit or miss getting people to fill [data] in. CRM marketing is going to be the central gatekeeper so I could say, ‘I see there’s no competitor listed. Who else is in the mix?”

MGO was investing in several other software initiatives, including HR and CPE tracking systems, so the partners’ mindset was on cleaning up technology.

Selecting Microsoft’s product was a bonus because the staff could work with tools they were already familiar with, and there are plenty of resellers and consultants available for assisting them, Forbes says, adding that the firm spent about $20,000 for initial installation costs including hardware, licenses and training.

Unfortunately, the first consultant to come onboard did not work out as well as Forbes had hoped, so she is doing much of the customization work and learning on her own, with some assistance from her IT staffer, who pulled the firm’s contact information from its time and billing system and tax database and helped scrub the data early on in the process.

Forbes also started a Microsoft CRM user group with 15 members of the Association for Accounting Marketing, with whom she holds hourly conference calls three to four times per week. They share training materials and coach each other through problems, and others are invited to join. In fact, it is marketing people such as these who are educating firms about the need for CRM.

What’s important to remember is that simply installing technology won’t change behavior.

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