Accounting firms are finding that one of the biggest new value-adds they can offer clients is big data. The variety of tools they can employ to give clients insight into their business health and performance is becoming as expansive as the data they produce.

We talked to three firms about the business intelligence solutions they are using to offer clients help with everything from bank loans to sales performance.

 

SHARING THE WEALTH

Firm: Pocket Protector Bookkeeping

Product: LivePlan

Users: One (sole practitioner)

No. of clients served: Five

Commencement date: 2015

On record: Owner Billie Anne Grigg

Process: Grigg became one of business planning software LivePlan’s first expert advisors after investigating how she could add a financial insights service to her practice.

“Cash flow and budgeting are two of my passions in working with clients. Spreadsheets are OK but not efficient. Getting clients to look at spreadsheets is like giving a cat a bath — it’s not going to happen.”

Grigg went through training and passed an exam to become a LivePlan expert advisor, a certification which has attracted new clients, though moving existing clients to the solution has been “a little bit harder.”

Pocket Protector Bookkeeping offers three tiers of service to all clients, with the highest tier rolling LivePlan and its subscription costs into the package. Clients that choose LivePlan are given a four-week introductory period.

Advantages: During this implementation phase, clients decide which numbers they want to track, giving them essential ownership over the process, Grigg said. Of course, “everyone wants to focus on revenue, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that,” but LivePlan offers the opportunity to go beyond the bottom line and drill into how clients can trim expenses, for example. “[LivePlan] is a great benchmarking tool for sharing how you’re improving the business over time. We work to get you a little bit better, more healthy.”

When it comes to features, “what I really like, and clients particularly enjoy, is the scoreboard, a visual representation of how the numbers are shaping up … Humans are very visual.”

Challenges: New clients are more “gung ho” about using LivePlan, Grigg reports, though she’s discovering new ways to encourage the 13 or so of her clients not currently using the tool to consider it.

Next steps: While Grigg will continue onboarding new clients to LivePlan and introducing current users to different ways of manipulating the data, she is also considering making LivePlan a core offering instead of a tiered one. Or, at the very least, including the solution and her expert advisory services in the middle tier.

 

INSIGHTS AS INCENTIVE

Firm: Willis & Jurasek PC

Product: iDashboards

Users: One

No. of clients served: 15

Commencement date: December 2015

On record: Tom Jurasek, CPA staffer in CFO/controller services

Process: After discovering interactive data dashboard iDashboards at a June conference, Jurasek brought the solution to his firm, where they did the first proof of concept in September with a client, and made it more widely available in December.

That beta client was “tech-savvy, with a great database,” Jurasek explained, making them an ideal tester of iDashboards’ capabilities. The client is also in the manufacturing space, making them a helpful vanguard for the many other clients in that industry that Willis & Jurasek serve in southern Michigan.

As the firm adds more iDashboards users, the set-up becomes more streamlined. “The onboarding for new clients of ours is quicker and quicker, due to prior knowledge, and you can scale the more you do,” Jurasek noted.

Advantages: In January, Willis & Jurasek’s beta client started displaying iDashboards on television screens above the office bullpen where the company’s four salespeople sit. Every 30 seconds, the TVs cycle through five different dashboards displaying metrics like intake and sales, meant to motivate the sales team to improve their performance.

The biggest advantage of iDashboards is real-time information available anytime anywhere, according to Jurasek: “Everyone needs information, but they don’t need to be stuck behind a computer—it’s customizable.”

Challenges: The only downside to all that access are security concerns, with information technology departments reluctant to make iDashboards immediately available across all devices company-wide.

The firm’s beta client, for example, only has access to the solution on-site, but plans to get buy-in from their IT department within the next month. And while “the security risk is less than clicking on a [potential] virus in an e-mail,” Jurasek understands the caution.

Next steps: Once Willis & Jurasek’s beta client does have permission for mobile access, Jurasek anticipates iDashboards’ benefits will only grow.

The firm will continue bringing more clients on iDashboards, especially after tax season when they can “open the floodgates.” Jurasek expects their biggest referral source to be from clients’ peers. The firm will also be introducing the solution into new verticals beyond manufacturing, including professional services and retail.

 

DATA REPORTING HEROES

Firm: System Six Strategic Bookkeeping & Analysis

Product: Fathom

Users: 7-8

No. of clients served: 48

Commencement date: 2015

On record: Founding partner Jeremy Allen

Process: As a full-service bookkeeping and accounting firm, System Six serves most of its clients on a regular basis. For those clients the firm serves yearly or monthly, the onboarding process to management reporting and financial analysis tool Fathom is especially fast. System Six will add the clients’ QuickBooks data into Fathom, creating a new account and selecting how often to sync the two systems — typically a nightly update. Though QB desktop clients can take a little longer to set up, and can’t receive that daily update like QBO users can, all clients “really enjoy using the tool,” Allen reported.

Advantages: “One of the things I really love is that users don’t have to be really financially savvy,” Allen said, describing Fathom as a self-serve tool. “They can click on reports and trendlines, and it’s also deeply customizable.”

Those customizations have proven critical for certain clients, like a fitness company that needed to answer to specific key performance indicators as it expanded to multiple locations and took on new bank loans and investor equity. “For clients, because a banker says, ‘I need this,’ you can set it up in a Fathom dashboard, pull it up, save the PDF, and send,” Allen said. “The client says, ‘This is awesome!’ … It makes us look like we’re really great in our consulting, like data reporting heroes.”

One of System Six’s few “power user” clients is the chief operating officer at a software company that has since installed its own business intelligence system. While still using Fathom, though, the COO offered helpful feedback that Allen brought back to the company. “What I love about the Fathom team is that they listen to that feedback and slowly make those changes,” Allen noted.

Challenges: Other than tweaks that Allen feels comfortable bringing to Fathom’s attention, the tool’s other issues mainly stem from connected systems and a reliance on the cloud. When QuickBooks Online servers were down for a time, “I could easily see the client not knowing it’s a QuickBooks Online server issue and could see the client saying it sucks.”

Based on other client feedback, Allen is looking forward to Fathom’s forthcoming conversion from Flash to HTML 5, so iPad users can easily access their dashboards.

Next steps: “On our wish list is that I would love every client to have Fathom,” Allen said, explaining that the firm’s 48 client users have reached a pricing threshold but System Six plans to scale up that user base.

The firm will also be taking greater advantage of Fathom’s granular reporting capabilities in regular e-mail updates to clients.