CPA firms, for the most part, are still learning what customer relationship management and the products that help with that process are all about, yet they are finding that marketing, business development and lead generation are becoming more of a priority.

As such, there is an increase in curiosity about what CRM is and what the tools can do for even a small firm. Moreover, experimentation with CRM practices and products are on the rise and the firms that are doing so realize that what they need is far beyond what a contact management system can provide.

Below are four firms that are in the process of discovering how to use the right products correctly and -- in some cases -- making CRM a part of the firm's culture.


A cultural challenge

Firm: Blum Shapiro / West Hartford, Conn.

Size: 365

Product: Microsoft Dynamics CRM (Microsoft Corp.)

Commencement date: June 2012

On record: Chief marketing officer Tom DeVitto

Challenge/objective: Wanted the firm to be more business-development oriented.

Amount spent: Approx. $80,000

Process: CRM had been used in the past by the firm as more of a list management tool in marketing, but as they began moving toward becoming more focused on business development, DeVitto and the partners knew they needed a tool to help toward that goal. The main challenge there was that while technology was "the underpinning" of its initiative, evolving the firm's culture and the way it works was the greater challenge.

"One of the biggest challenges is that often [CRM] is attacked as a technology project and it's not, it's a cultural transformation," said DeVitto. "There were a number of tactical initiatives put in place [before the CRM system]; we had a number or Excel sheets and marketing plans. I think having the organization comply with those really helped; if we went right into CRM then we would have had little to no buy-in."

The firm has a business development committee that was able to work through the details of a CRM initiative prior to presenting the plan to the partners. DeVitto said that the tactical initiatives started two years ago, the findings of which were then evaluated and presented to the partners, with the CRM plan being put into motion approximately 18 months ago.

Also, since the firm was a Microsoft Gold Partner, there was already some familiarity with Dynamics CRM, but the firm still conducted its due diligence with other products, with Dynamics CRM "winning out from a cost and functionality perspective."

"You need dedicated and focused resources to do this. We did go through outside consultants [Templeton & Co.] to help with some of the processes, and complemented that with our in-house [technology] department," said DeVitto. "One thing I insisted was to have dedicated resources, so I hired someone just to handle training for Dynamics CRM. They had to build out training guides and training models, support docs, serve as a support desk and be actively involved in day-to-day operations."

Results/lessons learned: By press time, the firm had roughly 139 managers and partners on the CRM system, with 35 more expected after tax season. DeVitto also noted a 71 percent compliance rate based on active users and, more important, the product is being used to manage the business and is "creating a lot of value in helping us understand the value to clients," he said.

Next steps: The firm continues to look for items where they can integrate other systems into Dynamics CRM, with full integration and a single system of record being a longer-term goal.


Follow the Chatter

Firm: AKT CPAs / Salem, Ore.

Size: 250 staff


Commencement date: July 2010

On record: Director of marketing Peggy Kitzmiller

Challenge/objective: The firm had no business pipeline tracking or process, plus it needed one central database of clients, prospective clients and referral sources.

Amount spent: Initially $624 per person (some flexible pricing is possible).

Process: The firm never had a formal CRM system in place before, and once it was decided they should have one, a "pilot group" was established, comprising one individual from each of the niche service areas that the firm covered.

Kitzmiller used in other organizations, but still conducted a full analysis of other systems that could be a good fit for the firm. It looked for systems that were easy to use, deployable, and affordable. Salesforce won out on all fronts compared to other products considered, but Kitzmiller particularly liked the product's relatively new Chatter function, which allows other departments to communicate with each other in a social-media-like format.

The pilot group spent a year using Salesforce and reported what worked best and what did not, prior to rolling it out to more of the firm -- particularly everyone who had business development responsibilities or regular client interaction.

"Communication was a big issue for us; we needed other niche areas talking to each other about what they were working on," said Kitzmiller. "When you are a small firm and you need to talk about your clients in person it's easy, but when you get larger it's harder to share everything that you are doing. We had to train everyone to go to Salesforce even before they went on an engagement or a meeting."

Results/lessons learned: At press time, there were 58 users on Salesforce with "good adoption" among those, according to Kitzmiller. There was also a dashboard created for each industry vertical leader, which gives a quick view of how they are doing with client outreach and prospects. The firm's employee benefits group in particular has a meeting every two weeks and can go through the Salesforce dashboard for every meeting.

"We have a saying here that, 'If it wasn't in Salesforce it didn't happen,'" said Kitzmiller. "In fact, a strategy came out of a partners' meeting where we identify the top 10 clients, five potential best clients, and five referral sources. Salesforce can get overwhelming, so we help them focus using this approach and we created a custom field for each user on who their '10-5-5' is. Now we are very focused on who these individuals are."

Another lesson the firm learned was to engage the people who weren't going to be full-time users of the product by encouraging them to just follow activities in Chatter, where everyone can see how a client was helped or news was written about a client or the firm.

Next steps: The firm is looking for more back-office system integration with Salesforce, as there are currently multiple systems where similar information is being keyed in.


Warm calling

Firm: Global Tax Management / Radnor, Pa.

Size: 90 staff

Product: SugarCRM

Commencement date: July 2012

On record: Marketing manager Lance Wade

Challenge/objective: The firm needed better lead generation. In addition, since many of its professionals are widespread, they needed a good internal communication tool to provide insight on client status.

Amount spent: Basic pricing can range from $35-$100 per user, per month, billed on an annual basis.

Process: The firm does not have a sales department and only recently established a marketing department, consisting of two individuals. Since entering a "cold call" scenario for its professionals would be difficult, the firm wanted to create a "warm call" environment, according to Wade.

The firm had another CRM tool that was apparently not used to its fullest capacity, and there was no formalized process for using it. "We needed something that was not daunting for professionals to use and they could use it in the best way," said Wade. "I had personal experience with two CRM implementations with another tool in the 1,000-plus seat range, but when I looked into what we needed here, I found that SugarCRM was very responsive to our size and needs. With two people in a marketing department, the last thing you need is lack of support and technology issues."

Wade said that he has been aware of SugarCRM for several years, but it was never a fit for any of the companies he had worked at before. When it was decided the firm should switch to SugarCRM, Wade stressed that the firm needed licenses for all directors and managers and certain access for staff managers so they could better learn how to use it.

"People on the sidelines have no idea what can be accomplished [with a CRM product]; you have to get in and use it and find out what you can ask it and want it to do," said Wade. "One issue was that when we first started, it was compared to what we had before. We had a system for three years and never ran a report on it, so the first priority was to educate on the value of the tool - it's not just an information repository and it can assist in sales and client tracking, as well as lead generation."

Wade also noted that some of the data fields in the system needed to be automated and certain customizations were made by an outside vendor who also assisted with best practices, training and integration.

"I think in the end what pleased me the most was the support," he said. "We never got billed anything above and beyond what we were told and support has not wavered."

Results/lessons learned: The firm, at press time, had 40 users on SugarCRM and it took approximately three to five months for everyone to use it regularly. Wade noted that user acceptance was largely driven by fellow directors who had success on the product.

"We have had people step up and had successes, which has come largely from finding information we didn't know we had," said Wade. "People were going to meetings where the information we needed on those clients was in the system and that warmed the meeting to the point where a full 80 percent of the time when we sat down to talk with the potential client we got the engagement."

Next steps: Wade said that the firm is "60 percent of the way there," with his goals for using SugarCRM and education is ongoing.


Looking professional

Firm: Randy Clark CPA Inc. / Renton, Wash.

Size: Sole practitioner

Product: Zoho CRM

Commencement date: January 2013

On record: Owner Randy Clark

Challenge/objective: Clark's is a new firm, and he wanted his messaging to potential clients to "look professional" and personal, and make better use of his existing database to make them aware of his services.

Amount spent: $12 a month

Process: Clark's firm was established in November 2012. He had been a CPA for 15 years, starting at a Big Four firm, and the idea of what CRM products can do were not top of mind for him. However, after seeing what some of his clients were doing with the products, he decided to learn more about them. Once he started his own firm, he found that simply working in Outlook was not the best tool for him.

"When you start a new business, it's all about how you are viewed and recognized by your interested parties, so it was important to me that when I send out something I have the tools to make it look professional and keep track of who I spoke to and when," he said.

He tried out a few other CRM systems before Zoho CRM. The first was through a free, one-year trial, but he found it was not the right tool for a sole practitioner. There was another product that he found integrated well with QuickBooks, which he used, but he found it was "clunky and slow" and didn't work well as a marketing tool.

He then discovered Zoho CRM after meeting with a friend who mentioned Zoho after hearing about Clark's experiences with other CRM products. Clark found the product "very easy" to use and was able to begin using it within a few hours after transferring his lists into the product and checking them to the best of his ability.

"I'm not yet using everything you can do in the system and there were some challenges in making sure the right information was in the right fields, but I got running on it pretty quickly," he said. "Also if I had a referral, I needed to track that and I can customize views in Zoho. I send newsletters and other communications to them."

Results/lessons learned: Clark now has a lead list in the Activities tab of the product, which "shows who I need to talk to and the whole string of the communications over time; you can't really get that in Outlook," he said. "If I'm not working, I'm not making money, and as a profession we don't really advertise in the way other services do. What we need to do is stay in touch with our clients and have something pop up like a special occasion and reach out to them at that time. That's the real value of a system like this."

Next steps: Clark is still working on converting leads to clients, and wants to be able to do that within Zoho CRM, which he admits is a process. "Once you have a lead and convert it, now you have multiple lists, so I need to work on that and defining what kind of prospect someone is."

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