[IMGCAP(1)] In a recent column, I explored how to find your practice’s niche. With 35 percent of buyers ranking specialized expertise as their top decision-making factor when choosing an accounting or professional services firm, there are real business advantages for developing a firm specialty.

Once you know where you will be focusing, you’ll need to go through the process of selecting the right supporting technology to turn your vision into a reality. Here is a step-by-step guide you can use to navigate this process.

1. Gather your requirements
Many firm leaders are (rightly) very focused on business development, and therefore not as well-versed in day-to-day business operations. Developing a deeper understanding of internal processes and practices, however, is key to selecting the right technology.

Sit with your staff to understand how they interact with clients and go about their business. Look, for example, at how team members gather client information. Is piecemeal data collected manually via email or is there a cloud-based database where clients can upload documents and trigger an automatic notification for accountants? Asking these types of questions can help identify redundancies in workflow and project management.

2. Write down your priorities
Make a list of all the inefficiencies identified in step 1 and determine whether there is a corresponding technology solution. If there isn’t, take it off the list. Once you’ve made this determination, circulate the list with your team to determine priorities.

It’s important to understand that, just like most things in life, you’re not going to get everything you want all at once. When asking your team to rank priorities, have them consider what they can and can’t live without. While, in theory, you will repeat this process every few years, the goal for now is to identify the top three most pressing issues.

3. Develop an RFP and demo the product
Once you have a list of priority issues, you can set out to find the right technology solution.

Depending on what you are looking for, there are likely several vendors that offer similar services. Based on product reviews and peer recommendations, begin to narrow down the choices to three to five vendors. Weighing too many options requires a significant time investment and considering too few means you might miss out on the right solution.

Once you have your short list, reach out to the vendors to schedule a demo. Rather than requesting a general product overview, however, leverage your audit findings and share the specific problems you are trying to solve for. This will save time during the demo and ensure you find the right product to address your needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all fix.

4. Calculate return on investment
Unfortunately, technology solutions are not free. Most vary in price based on their suite of capabilities and how much access you require. As a result, firms must determine how much they are willing to pay.

To help determine a product’s value, weigh the return on investment. Start by calculating how much the product itself will actually cost. Is there a monthly subscription fee? What is the implementation cost? How much does each “chair” or log-in cost?

Now look at the original problem you are trying to address. How much is the status-quo costing you? If you’re looking to help streamline how client information is collected, per the original example above, figure out how much that process currently costs you. Factor in elements like duplication costs and lost time, not just how many hours a project takes and associated billing rates.

Once you have these two numbers, compare and contrast in order to determine the total cost of ownership and value. Be advised that in many cases, savings are only accrued over time, as there are often a number of up-front investments that firms have to make in order to get the solution up and running.

5. Check references
It goes without saying, but do your due diligence, beyond cost comparison, when selecting a new solution.

In addition to following up on vendor-provided references, connect with your colleagues at other firms to see if they use the technology. Ask whether it is reliable. How is their customer service? Did it provide the lift they were looking for?

You can also check out product reviews online. Sites like ZDNet, for example, provide comprehensive reviews and can help guide you through the reference process.

6. Score and select
With specific needs and cost variables in mind, it’s time to make a decision. When selecting the final solution, remember that cost isn’t everything. In certain cases, a more expensive solution might provide more value in the long-run than a cheaper option.

Over time, you’ll need to repeat this process again, likely every 2-3 years. However, making the right up-front technology decisions can help move the niche advisory needle.

Amy Vetter is the global vice president of education and head of accounting, USA, for Xero.


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