Despite best intentions and good advice, accountants have long avoided or been mystified by the concept of customer relationship management practices and tools. to be fair, many in the pro-fession still barely understand what CRM is or can do for a CPA practice, but times are changing.

In 2011, our survey of the Top 100 Firms found that CRM was the most popular technology plan among those that were planning on implementing anything new that year.

Firms discovering the benefits of the latest CRM tools are doing so for the purposes of better communicating with their existing client base, marketing services, building practice areas, or as a key component to overall firm growth. Below is a small sample of the CRM solutions CPAs selected, how and why they chose them, and their overall experience of working with them.


The technology comes last

Firm: BDO USA / Chicago

Size: Approximately 2,600

Product: Microsoft Dynamics CRM

Commencement date: August 2011 (pilot, October 2010)

On record: Senior manager of IT Jeff Clark and national business development director Erica Yesko

Challenge/objective: Growing the client base, improved outreach to the existing client base and taking a collaborative approach to doing so.

Amount spent: Pricing was by seat. Due to firm size, cost was "seven figures with consulting and licensing."

Process: CRM had been on BDO's roadmap for many years, but lack of understanding of what a consolidated CRM system could offer a partnership slowed the process. Many partners in the firm had used other contact management systems, ranging from simple Excel files to Goldmine and ACT!

"I think what finally clicked for us was partners getting clear on the goals and strategy of the firm; technology needs to be the last piece of the puzzle," said Yesko. "This new system would involve anyone who touches the sales process and that was key to building momentum and adoption from partners, administrators and IT. We really spent the better part of a year before we even began the selection process."

In 2010, BDO asked for requests for proposal from CRM product finalists, and Clark pointed out that what stood out about Dynamics CRM was that it "looked and felt much like Outlook."

The product was piloted in a few offices in Octotber 2010, after which a firm-wide rollout occurred between May and August 2011, but there was much more work outside of just product installation.

"There is massive change management involved with something like this, and I can't underscore enough the importance of executive buy-in and partner involvement in decision-making that leads up to it," said Yesko.

"Once we set our objectives, it was clear who needed to be involved. From there we put together an adoption strategy, set expectations, then a communication and training strategy," Clark added. "We would go in an office, spend two days going through business process training, then system training, and followed up with the offices several weeks later with a shorter session to see where everyone was at. Then monthly calls with users who wanted to learn about specific topics."

The firm also has ongoing training sessions every month for anyone who wants to learn, as well as a CRM newsletter that goes out to update everyone.

Results/lessons learned: While it is still too soon to see specific financial results from using the system, approximately 800 employees -- including all partners, business development staff and select admins -- currently use Dynamics CRM, and that number is expected to grow. It is expected that by this time next year, some return on investment will be seen. "What we are seeing is an enhanced ability in making sure we are growing our client base and being more collaborative in doing so. We also built out additional processes so there is structure and accountability, and hired people who can support the process that the system represents," said Clark. "The investment doesn't end with licensing and consulting costs; you need to have the right people to support the system effectively and a growing understanding and willingness to work with the system."

Next steps: At press time, the firm was using Dynamics Version 4.0, but looking into using Dynamics CRM 2011, which has added mobility features, among many others. Clark, Yesko and their teams are also identifying what reports partners need.

"This is a multi-year effort; we planned for 24 to 36 months of realizing the full potential of this investment," said Clark. "If CRM is just another initiative brought to you by IT, it will fail miserably."


Not small for long

Firm: Hughes Accounting Services / Blissfield, Mich.

Size: Two staff

Product: Zoho CRM

Commencement date: September 2011

On record: Principal James Hughes

Challenge/objective: Marketing and building a client base quickly.

Amount spent: $24 a month, no set-up fee.

Process: Hughes started up his firm last fall, initially focusing on write-up, basic bookkeeping, complete tax work, tax planning, and business assessments. His main focus is on small, growing business, and he needed to grow his client base as quickly and efficiently as possible.

He engaged the services of a telemarketing firm, which recommended Zoho CRM -- a cloud-based system -- as a link between his office and their efforts.

"I found Zoho CRM to be very intuitive; there's nothing complicated about it," said Hughes. "I just sign in, it has a dashboard, it's a point-and-click. I don't put in any data and I use it to retrieve what is put in by my telemarketer."

Hughes picks an area to target marketing efforts, runs ads in a local paper, follows up with letters (direct mail), and then has his telemarketer follow with phone calls. He uses Zoho to keep track of where he had positive response and then follow up with them.

Results/lessons learned: Through the fourth quarter of 2011, Hughes added two new clients a month, plus four new ones in March and seven more coming in at press time. "My biggest challenge right now is keeping up with the workflow," he said.

Next steps: Hughes expects to reach 50 clients by this fall, at which time he plans to look into moving to a storefront, rather than a home office.

"The telemarketing piece of this equation is expensive, but effective, and Zoho CRM ties in nicely," he said. "I will likely augment what I'm currently doing with more networking and direct mail, and then have someone put data in when we get to that point."


Creating processes

Firm: WebsterRogers / Florence, S.C.

Size: 120 staff

Product: Results CRM

Commencement date: January 2012

On record: Director of practice development Tim Allen

Challenge/objective: Wanted better tracking and management of the sales processes across eight offices.

Amount spent: Five users for under $2,000. This was a one-time fee, plus extra customer care costs for one year, which includes upgrades.

Process: Allen was hired in June 2011 and was already speaking about CRM at a high level in different parts of the firm. Once he garnered partner buy-in on the idea of adopting a CRM system, he began researching them, demoed a few, and made a recommendation in September 2011.

"I had been tasked with managing the sales process; apart from keeping track of activities, we needed to manage that better. If we wanted to grow by $2.4 million, we need to bring in $200,000 worth of business each month, and without CRM we'd have no idea what's in the pipeline," said Allen. "It's an evolving activity in our firm. Many of our partners have little to no familiarity with CRM systems; some may have no idea what a CRM system is. I said we need to have this tool for the firm and was tasked by the executive committee to go out and research and make recommendations."

Results CRM was recommended by an outside IT consultant, and Allen, along with the firm's managing partner and client services manager, liked what they saw. Once approved, Results CRM, a cloud and on-premises-based system, was deployed in November 2011 as a pilot, and by January 2012 the firm started using it collectively.

"We really liked the ease of use, and compatibility with our existing [accounting and practice management] systems was also a key driver," said Allen. "It eventually came down to pricing, and it was one third to half the cost of the next logical CRM choice. Because we wanted to do it slowly, we wanted the system on our servers, but we will eventually move to the cloud."

Results/lessons learned: Allen admits that because of tax time, they are not currently using the system as much as he'd like. The current challenge is making certain all data entered into Results CRM system is "clean," meaning correct contact information, names and titles. This, he explained, is a large part of working differently throughout the firm.

"It's not something we've historically thought about - we never had to have the information in that manner," said Allen. "Having the system is not the be-all and end-all, there are growing pains as well as a cultural change, and they have to gather complete information on their prospects and clients; otherwise, this will not be effective. As much as I'd like it to be a revolution in the firm, it's turning out to be more of an evolution."

Next steps: The firm will likely have more active sales partners on the system after busy season, as well as education to help partners identify a "qualified prospect." Allen is not expecting immediate results.

"We have aggressive growth goals and we are sticking to them. We'd rather reach for the stars and fall short than be conservative and just hit numbers," he said. "This is going to be a long process; it's not something our partners have a lot of experience with. Partners and accountants in general are not used to a systematic approach to sales."


Getting everyone in

Firm: Bauerle & Co. / Denver

Size: 50 staff

Product: SugarCRM

Commencement date: October 2011

On record: Marketing specialist Monica Harris

Challenge/objective: Wanted to target existing clients by demographic and service area for cross-selling, as well as improve client communication and tracking referrals.

Amount spent: Free (Community Edition); paid for unique customizations.

Process: The firm's managing partner knew it needed CRM, as he had been hearing about different systems and their benefits through conferences and being a part of the PKF network of firms. When Harris was hired in 2010, obtaining and using a CRM system was part of her charge, as she already had database experience. Once a general plan for use and a budget were established, the firm's IT director researched the best possible CRM solutions and found that SugarCRM's Community Edition might be a viable choice, as it had a cloud-based option and there was no financial outlay outside of unique customizations from one of SugarCRM's area value-added resellers.

"Money was definitely a factor, and with some of the others we were seeing it became very expensive to pay per log-in, plus we needed some customizations, so Sugar made sense for us," said Harris. "Outside of the system itself, we really needed it to better track our referrals. We get 85 percent of our business from referrals, and need to make the most of our meetings with referral partners."

Harris and the IT team spent nearly a year to "get it off the ground," between training, constructing workflow, interviewing partners to see what they really needed to get out of the system, coding the right areas of the product, and inputting useful data. Harris also created "Sugar Sheets," formatted paper documents where employees could write down all of the data they needed and ultimately input into SugarCRM. There is also regular training on the system for all staff.

Results/lessons learned: While initial objectives have not yet been reached, Harris said that progress is being made. She found that many people in the firm were able to use SugarCRM with little difficulty, but there are still some who haven't logged on to it at all. Those that are using it found that it was much faster than many of the installed software programs, because it's Web-based. "I've got feedback from people that were glad they didn't have to search for 30 minutes through old e-mails or Google or other programs," said Harris. "SugarCRM has allowed us to obtain contact information from the system. It's beneficial for our referral partners, knowing what clients we have in common so we can continue to target them and leverage those relationships. As for the staff, they are just happy it's quick and they can use it from wherever they are."

Next steps: As part of summer projects, Harris plans to export some fields from the firm's current database into SugarCRM, adding the ability to sort by client revenue, for example. There are also plans to customize additional fields so users can update it themselves. "The goal is to get people in it every day, not just when they need a phone number or e-mail address, so by next tax season everyone can go in and update it themselves with notes and information," said Harris. "We want to leverage what each accountant has across the whole firm. If someone leaves, the client information doesn't leave with them."

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