Whether you are a top 100 firm or a small practice, adopting new technology is becoming more commonplace, yet getting everyone to buy into and properly use programs and services requires planning and a good pitch to the right people well before a purchase is made.
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Exactly how new technology is presented within a firm depends somewhat on size or who specifically is making decisions about technology. In the case of a small firm, it may just be one staffer or shareholder who decides what the firm will use and explains a product's use to the rest of the staff. For larger firms, there may be what some call a "champion" -- often an individual whose job it is to learn about new technology, make a case for its use to managing partners or key decision-makers within the firm, and even help set up training.
Technology consultant and NMGI president Randy Johnston explains that ultimately the right pitch comes down to knowing more than just products, but why a firm needs the new technology in the first place. "You need to get down to the things that a technology is supposed to do, then you get into time and ROI. The mistake firms make is they want to solve problems with technology that are not technology problems," said Johnston. "The hardest thing for a firm, especially a small firm, is to find out what's out there, and there's so many things that aren't right for the firm. [Arguments] that seem to work with partners is that we need to do this to serve our clients better, be competitive with other firms who offer similar services, and we need to continue to innovate before we go stale; that's the hardest thing to do."
Johnston also noted that many accounting firms have been doing things in a certain way for so long that change in and of itself becomes more difficult -- even if it will ultimately help the firm. Small firms like Conway, N.H.-based Gamwell, Caputo & Co., which has been in business for over 40 years, know that change needs to happen, but taking the first step toward doing so requires some evidence and persuasion.
When senior manager Brian Kelsch joined Gamwell Caputo a little over a year ago, he knew that there were some things about the firm that could be done better, but being a new staffer, he did not want to overstep his bounds. He began by making some simple suggestions about improving the firm's Web site to be "more modern," which he claims were well-received -- but he knew there was more work to be done.
For one, the firm had no document management system to speak of, and though it was only a 10-person practice, there was still a lot of paper to process and potentially time to be saved.
"I had been reading about the technology side of accounting for a while and seeing how firms are being proactive, so I went to the partners and asked if they thought about [a document management system]. They said yes, but they had been in business over 40 years and what they had been doing has worked so they needed some proof," explained Kelsch. "Basically their response was that they were not against it, but they want to see how the ROI is going to be and if it will make our lives better."
Kelsch presented the partners with a client portal service offered by the tax software company they use and essentially agreed "to be the guinea pig" though this tax season. He claims he's the only one in the firm using it and getting his clients on it, but he expects more staffers will sign on once he's able to prove how it works for him and his clients.
MEET MORE CHAMPIONS
Much like Kelsch in his firm, Pittsburgh-based Top 100 Firm Alpern Rosenthal has a technology champion in Tammy Clarke, who heads up the firm's health care and medical services group in the West Palm Beach, Fla., office. Clarke took a good look at how she and the staff there were working and becoming more mobile; she was a particular fan and early adopter of the iPad. Over time she noticed more of her co-workers were asking about the tablet's use, since she was often seen in meetings with it, and she decided to make a pitch to get them for the West Palm Beach office.
"The managing partner here has always been about technology, so that helped, but getting some of the other partners on board was a bit of a challenge," said Clarke. "The way we convinced other partners was that this was going to be a Christmas bonus. The concern of course was do they want it, but everyone was thrilled. We now go into meetings and most have the iPads - they also use them for client notes and presentations."
Clarke also noted that she personally helped set up iPad training for her office and shows colleagues how to use products like Dropbox, Evernote and Instapaper, which allows users to easily access all the Web resources they read.
Even more technology-forward firms like Top 100 Firm Freed Maxick recognize that not only does a firm need someone to champion technology adoption, but it should be part of the firm's culture. The firm has especially been recognized for its marketing efforts, and e-marketing communications specialist Emily Burns Perryman has been behind much of those efforts for Freed Maxick.
Burns Perryman notes that most of the firm's buy-in to technology was able to come from instilling it in most things the firm is and does -- its core values -- which she explains is an ongoing effort.
"We place a high value on new technology and have made it very much a part of our corporate culture to stay ahead of the curve. We have built a comfort level internally with the idea of embracing new technology, as it is understood that it can help us improve, creates new opportunities, helps us communicate more effectively and stay competitive in the marketplace as well," she said. "In my experience, I have found that often it's the accounting marketing and IT professionals who are charged with gaining buy-in from their management group or senior leadership in regard to new technology. Also, when the decision-makers have finally bought into a recommendation, it's up to those same people mentioned above to implement it, and see it through successfully."
Technology vendors that serve accounting firms play their role in getting buy-in as well, with many of them establishing CPA firm networks and programs to help educate firms and clients about their products and, of course, aid in their sale.
Joe Manzelli, a CPA recently hired as coordinator of outsourced workflow at XCM and their outsourced tax services firm Xpitax, is well aware of both sides of the aisle when it comes to pitching technology. Manzelli served for several years as director of operations at CPA firm The Fuoco Group and took on the informal role of learning about and pitching new technology for the firm to be both more efficient and better serve clients.
In Manzelli's view, gaining technology buy-in comes down to collaboration, leadership, trust and - most important -- change management.
"Change management is really what it all comes down to. Most people loathe change because it is hard," said Manzelli. "I believe that nothing worth having is easy. If the firm is truly looking to get buy-in, they need to recognize that change will be difficult and it may have some rough spots, but if all involved can trust the leadership, then they can work through anything to gain success."