Business intelligence tools have long offered the promise of more actionable information on a firm's functions or a client's competitive and financial outlook, but until relatively recently they have remained financially and technologically out of reach.

In many cases, firms interested in gaining such information have turned to Excel spreadsheets or loading the IT department with specific, often time-consuming directives, only to have them yield the need for additional information.

All of these factors have contributed to firms simply not wanting to get involved in business intelligence work, or doing it on a limited basis. But with the increased availability of comparatively affordable, easier-to-use BI solutions, accounting firms of all sizes are discovering that their use is bringing them better insight on their own practices, as well as their clients' competitive landscape and financial standing. Below, four firms describe their use of a variety of BI tools and how they are benefiting their businesses and bottom lines.

 

INTELLIGENT FOR OTHERS

Firm: SolomonEdwardsGroup / Wayne, Pa.

Size: 500+ staff / 7 offices

Product: Adaptive Planning

Commencement date: Jan. 1, 2012

On record: Principal Bryan D. Rogers

Challenge/objective: Wanted a new service area to do budgeting/forecasting for clients, building off of existing CFO advisory and technical accounting work.

Amount spent: Depends on clients' needs, can range from $10,000 to $25,000 in licensing fees.

Process: When Rogers joined the firm, he brought with him his existing Adaptive Planning knowledge and book of consulting business. He was finding that his clients, as well as some of SolomonEdwards', were outgrowing using Excel spreadsheets and needed to gain more intelligence about their business with a better solution without spending a lot on a high-end BI tool.

His team of consultants began building resources in all of the firm's offices to help support Adaptive Planning engagements and ultimately pitch the service to clients. Rogers claims that it can take two to three months, depending on the size of the client and the complexity of the models, to get everything set up for a client. Typically the target market for the product is a midsized company with revenues between $50 million and $500 million. Once running, the Web-based Adaptive Planning can be updated or appended in many ways utilizing Excel or an automated interface to the GL system.

"I'm a finance guy, not an IT guy, and without having to reprogram anything, I can go to the Web and get it going. Also, I have a team to keep up on several projects simultaneously, which helps," said Rogers. "There's a whole lot better way to look at your business when you have the right tools to do the job. The key is to not simply replicate your general ledger system in this planning solution, but rather tailor-make [AP] to have key performance indicators that help drive your business, as opposed to having a dozen disconnected spreadsheets to do the work."

Results: Though Rogers did not reveal the monetary impact on the firm, his team has conducted a dozen implementations with Adaptive Panning, including Enterprise Holdings, Gramercy Insurance and several other companies that were set to officially sign on at press time.

"Our services are great because we are there to be a part of a client's team. We can get the design and implementation work done while they are busy running their own business," said Rogers. "You can get even newly acquired businesses from our clients up and running on this quickly, while keeping the daily work flowing."

Next steps: The firm plans to develop partnerships with other firms that do ERP and accounting system consulting and implementation.

 

INTELLIGENT FOR THEMSELVES

Firm: Sax Macy Fromm & Co. / Clifton, N.J.

Size: 108 staff

Product: CCH Practice Intelligence (CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business)

Commencement date: April 2011

On record: Managing partner Bob Paz

Challenge/objective: Needed more timely information about the firm's outstanding account payments and to improve turnaround on work in progress and accounts receivable in general, ultimately improving cash flow, especially during busy time, and minimizing the money that the firm was borrowing from its line of credit.

Amount spent: $10,500 for five users.

Process: The firm mainly focuses on tax, wealth management, estate planning, and consulting to the midmarket. Paz was finding that with many of his clients, accounts receivable were lagging, especially during busier times. The firm was already using other CCH products and was introduced to Practice Intelligence. He found that implementation was "relatively quick," and the interface with his existing practice management system was "immediate." After a short Webinar on how to use it, Paz was up and running, as were his controller, another partner, an office manager and one person from IT.

After some brief use, Paz found he could drill into things like AR and work in progress and measure how the firm was doing against its goals with daily snapshots.

He had originally offered it for use for all the partners in the firm and was looking to buy 20 seats, but there was limited interest in so many partners using it, so he decided on just the five seats.

"As a managing partner, I like to manage by the numbers. I used to have to wait on KPIs at the end of every month, wait for the controller to get reports together, and I needed more timely information," said Paz. "There's lots of graphics in the tool; I share them in our weekly internal bulletin to reinforce the message to the firm on more timely billing, better time-keeping, better collection; it all ties into our strategic goals. I don't have to create the graphs; everyone here down to receptionists and file clerks knows what our goals are. Everyone here plays a role."

Results: Since using Practice Intelligence, the firm has improved outstanding AR by 13 days and increased cash flow by $1 million compared to last year.

"What's more is we didn't have to borrow any money from the bank; we eliminated borrowing costs and increased distributions to partners," said Paz. "Now we can respond to things more quickly, do a current AR aging, look at specific partners to see whose days outstanding don't match up, see where client money is outstanding, and then shoot an e-mail to a partner and see what to do."

Next Steps: "I had a three-year goal [with Practice Intelligence]; I didn't expect to transform overnight like we did. We are hitting numbers for this year, so it's two more years of driving AR [time and billings] down," said Paz "We will continue to use it to communicate with partners and the rest of the firm on results. The next big initiative is driving up billable hours by employee, and I think the tool will help aid that."

 

SET UP AND GO

Firm: Vermeulen & Co. / Ripon, Calif.

Size: 8 staff

Product: ProfitCents (Sageworks)

Commencement date: Fall 2011

On record: MP Tom Vermeulen

Challenge/objective: The firm wanted to do more for clients than simple tax returns and financial reporting, particularly for smaller businesses.

Amount spent: $1,800-$2,000, with another $500 for extra support.

Process: Vermeulen had known about ProfitCents for a while and decided it might be time for his firm to expand client services. He was already conducting some basic business coaching for his client base, looking at their financials monthly, quarterly and annually, and advising them on where to go. He had a financial projection tool, but it had "limitations." For him, using ProfitCents was not difficult; it was more a matter of setting up work plans for his entire office to use when clients come in.

"It didn't take too long, but I set up everything from making an appointment with the receptionist, getting GL compilation work, setting up reports that I want and how I want to see them. Plus ProfitCents comes with supporting work papers ready to sign," said Vermeulen. "All I have to do is look at it and sign it. The work plan starts with getting data into the system and getting a report to my desk. I then try to understand the top three to five dynamics of the business, what works and what doesn't. Sageworks has strong support, and if I call them anytime they respond."

He also noted that ProfitCents has a Counselor tool that projects financial results and what can be changed in a business over time. The firm then lays out base plans for clients to use as a foundation to build goals for them.

"I will have a laptop and log on, show the tool to a company's board so they see incomes and cash flows right on screen. Clients can come in my office too and sit down and look at a big screen and see financial projections and 'what-if' scenarios," said Vermeulen. "I'm not always waiting for my clients to come to me; I'll do an analysis at no charge just to get them on board with where they are and help save them from themselves."

Results: Vermeulen is finding that this is cementing relationships with current clients, with a minimum meeting every quarter now. Quarterly business performance analysis currently adds $150,000 a year to the firm's bottom line. The firm is currently a $1.5 million business.

He also recalled a case whereby he saved a client $3 million in payments, by simply pointing out there was no way to save the struggling business and by finding a way to reduce their deficit.

"ProfitCents has also proven to be a tremendous marketing tool; I can send a letter saying, 'Here's your industry specifics, how do you compare? If you'd like to discuss please call,'" said Vermeulen. "We're taking business in from other accounting firms who will just do returns. We had been primarily bringing current clients in [for BI work], but now we are getting this kind of business. Referral business is heating up too."

Next steps: Veremeulen wants to expand the program and offer it to more clients, as well as conduct training and attend seminars where certain industry groups are represented so he can show off what the product can do.

 

TIME IS MONEY

Firm: Allred Jackson / North Logan, Utah

Size: 35 (includes 5 shareholders)/2 offices

Product: iLumen

Commencement date: Late 2010

On record: Managing shareholder D. Scott Jackson

Challenge/objective: To offer business intelligence as a value-added service to clients, using a cost-effective, less-time-consuming option over self-creation.

Amount spent: $175 per year per client (five-user minimum). Cost passed on to clients (firm charges at cost). Revenue generated through service.

Process: The firm had been working towards a process of business intelligence with clients since 2001 and had used different tools, many of which were time-consuming. Jackson claims that he had likely seen an ad for iLumen and became interested in what they could do. Those in the firm who were interested in testing out the product signed up for it, went through training and were able to begin using it within two hours, especially since there was no installation, as it is a Web-based product.

"All we did was sign up, get trained, upload our trial balances and we were using it and navigating around very well. We found we could easily build dashboards to show our clients and now there are five or six of us that use it every day," said Jackson. "A lot of our clients are concerned about resource allocation and we looked at numerous solutions, but [they] seemed to be too much for the majority of our clients, many of whom are more closely held businesses with limited resources. With iLumen, they don't have to spend much time building anything at all, and we can use the dashboards in it in a very collaborative way."

Results: The product saved the firm "hours of time" previously spent setting up dashboards for client BI work, but Jackson explained that the benefits of the tool were far greater than money made or time saved.

"It has allowed us to have a conversation with clients about their business on an ongoing basis and in the natural course of what we do. In the past, it was all about sending us financials, and we do an analysis; it was more of a structured process," said Jackson. "With iLumen, information is uploaded and we see it immediately, we don't have to ask for data. This has changed the communication with us and the clients. They also ask us better questions and we can really consult with them on what their business is doing. We're not even going out and directly selling them anything."

Use of iLumen has had an impact on the firm's bottom line, though Jackson admits that it has been difficult to quantify on a revenue basis. That said, he noted that the number of projects on a per-client basis has increased by 50 percent. In addition, tax season was "smoother," in that the firm already knew 90 percent of the information it needed at tax time from clients on iLumen.

Next steps: Currently, the firm has 20 percent of its small-business clients on iLumen; by 2013, it would like all of them on it.

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