The idea of using financial data to help a business forecast or see how they compare with like companies in their area was not regularly seen as something an accountant would do. However, new and comparatively affordable business intelligence tools are allowing firms of all sizes that regularly work with financial data to, quite simply, do more with the information they have.

Such products are also allowing firms to look deeper into their own performance and make proactive decisions that affect productivity and efficiency. Below, a few firms share their experiences with the products they selected and show how they may fit into their own future.

KNOW THYSELF

Firm: HMWC CPAs / Tustin, Calif.

Size: 45 staff

Product: CCH Practice Intelligence (CCH)

Commencement date: 2010

On record: Managing partner Steve Wiliams

Challenge/objective: Williams and others wanted to make better use of data inside the firm's practice management system.

Amount spent: Initial investment of approximately $10,000.

Process: The firm had CCH Practice Management for the past 10 years and had amassed countless points of data. When Williams came on as managing partner in 2008, he "inherited" some reports that the prior managing partner used to help manage the firm, and realized that he wanted different reports and, moreover, a better way to get the data he needed.

The firm was introduced to CCH Practice Intelligence through an Integra conference, where they viewed a product demo from CCH. When Williams saw what Practice Intelligence could do, he had the firm's chief operating officer pursue it further. They viewed an online demo and decided it was something they needed for the firm.

Williams explained that initially only he, the COO and a couple of other managers used it, so they were the ones who went through training. He also noted that they were "up and running on it fully" within a few weeks. "It's pretty intuitive. I was able to figure it out pretty quickly and I'm not an IT guy at all," said Williams.

Results/lessons learned: "For one, on a quarterly basis I need to review partner stats. The data is right there on the screen, so I can go in and look at partners as a group, look at billable hours -- it breaks it out by a variety of pieces so I can see employees or partners, billable and non-billable time by month, and combine any number of months I want," said Williams, who also noted that even with a firm the size of his, there are a number of departments and he looks for profitability in each of them. He's able to meet with the department heads monthly to go over stats with them. He can pull up reports by department and see how they are doing.

"I can also say that it doesn't answer all of my questions, but helps me to ask necessary questions," said Williams. "One key thing it shows is invoiced hourly rate and how much you can bill out. With one department I'm able to bill out $140 an hour, and with another I can bill out $100 per hour delivering the same services. So, one department was able to realize $40 per hour more. It helps you to ask why or what can we be doing better."

Next steps: Williams would to like have more of his department heads use Practice Intelligence, so they can have the same information to help them better manage their departments and "answer things before it gets to my desk."

 

DEEP, BUT NOT TOO DEEP

Firm: Anderson ZurMuehlen / Missoula, Mont.

Size: 300 staff

Product: iLumen with Client Connect

Commencement date: August 2009

On record: Principal Carol Jaeger

Challenge/objective: Firm conducts a fair amount of consulting for its clients and wanted to focus more time on consulting than on running reports to present to clients.

Amount spent: Initial investment of $15,000-$20,000 (averaging $200-$300 per client).

Process: The firm's audit department was the first to identify the product, as they wanted a more efficient way of producing audit reports than having to work with spreadsheets and analytics. When the consulting team, and Jaeger in particular, saw that they had the possibility of placing data they were collecting into a system to turn out reports to present to clients, they also became interested in using it.

"We needed enough information to show clients but not overwhelm them with data ... . The price was right and it showed what we needed on the audit side," said Jaeger. "For the consulting side, we saw it could possibly give us in-depth reports and we could get what we needed without too much explanation to the client. We wanted it to be enough to stimulate conversations for how we could help; we needed a chance to get face-to-face time, rather than give them a 50-page report and ask if they had any questions."

Jaeger said buy-in was very quick, as were getting data in the system and training. Problems unfortunately arose when data from the firm's engagement system was being transferred into iLumen, mostly -- according to Jaeger -- relating to how itemswere mapped, and not anything to do with the product.

Jaeger took over the project, helped fix the issues and introduce the product to shareholders that had not seen it and reintroduce it to those who had and explain that it is now working as expected.

Results/lessons learned: The firm is currently able to show more clients and partners what it can do and is having success in winning clients. More consultants than auditors are using it at the firm and are able to engage clients and "have different conversations," leaving clients impressed with the reports and information they are seeing.

"I can say the time I've saved and conversations I've had with my clients have been huge," said Jaeger. "We're still working through issues with other principals who were turned off because of the problems we ran into, but it's not the software's fault. I'm a huge fan, I'd recommend it to any CPA firm doing consulting work or wanting to."

Next steps: Jaeger is now looking for more buy-in from senior partners and showing how well it works. The firm also just renewed its software contract for one more year and plans to prove what it can do.

 

TRENDS OVER TIME

Firm: W. Kirby Burnett CPA / Simpsonville, S.C.

Size: 5 staff

Product: ProfitCents (Sageworks Inc.)

Commencement date: 2010/2013

On record: Kirby Burnett

Challenge/objective: Looking for ways to differentiate the practice and do more with accounting clients.

Amount spent: $1,500

Process: Five years ago, Burnett decided he wanted to take some steps to do more with the data he was seeing from his clients, particularly helping them look at trends and possibilities for their business: "I also thought, if I can have a way to graphically show that, I'd like to have a tool that can do that."

Burnett read an article on business intelligence tools that mentioned ProfitCents. He researched it and decided that could be the right tool for him, since it also had QuickBooks integration and would not cost as much as other add-on tools. He worked with Sageworks on getting trained, using the product and placing client data in the system. He was able to place about 20 clients into ProfitCents, but his problem was "every time I went to use it, I would get torn away to do something else, and as a result of my focus it took five years to get all of the clients I wanted. It shouldn't have taken that long - I love the product and it's very easy to understand, but I kept getting busy with other things."

Results/lessons learned: Burnett has five years' worth of client data on over 25 clients into ProfitCents, with more on the way, and he is ready to begin showing them reports and using the product as an added service.

"I've made a commitment to make a change and I'm ready now," said Burnett. "I'm calling them to talk about their business. I can show about reducing risk and shortening inventory cycles and show them the overall value of their business with graphs and documentations. You can use it to give business valuation, and I'm able to do practice development as well. We're doing things other firms aren't and I feel good about that."

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