Customer relationship management systems -- more commonly known as CRM systems -- are increasingly stepping into the limelight, proving to be an invaluable tool for many accounting firms.

They help reduce costs and increase profitability by organizing and automating business development processes. CRM can provide firms with a 360-degree view of existing clients, track and manage sales opportunities, and help firms craft targeted marketing campaigns to enhance sales.


A single system

Firm: Cohen & Co. / Cleveland

Size: 250

Product/service: Microsoft Dynamics CRM

Commencement date: January 2008

On record: Chief information officer Mark Danczak and marketing director Holly Price

Challenge/objective: Prior to implementing Dynamics CRM, the various business units in the firm were using different systems. To get a 360-degree view of the client, the firm wanted to centralize the various databases.

Amount spent: Roughly $100,000, plus licensing costs for each user.

Process: The process started with the aligning of the different views, needs and common threads throughout the business units in the firm, and selecting a solution. The firm knew it wanted to adopt a Microsoft platform, so Dynamics CRM was a natural fit.

The firm then began customizing the solution to reflect its workflow and processes, and then worked to convert the data. Given its various data sources and the complexity of the existing data, the conversion was one of the most challenging tasks. Data had to be cleaned and consolidated, then transformed in order to match the new database structure.

Cohen & Co. took a phased approach, rolling out the new system by business unit, working its way down from senior management to staff. After a year, every employee within the firm had access to the solution.

Results: Today, the firm has greater client visibility than it did five years ago. Everyone within the firm, from partners to first-year staffers, can view the same client data. Dynamics CRM is driving a good deal of business intelligence, such as marketing opportunities, for the firm.

Next steps: With the business intelligence that is now available, the firm is able to analyze data and make more informed business decisions. It is also looking at other processes within the business, such as incorporating its client on-boarding process.


People challenges

Firm: Access Accounting and Payroll / Boynton Beach, Fla.

Size: 4

Product/services: Zoho CRM

Commencement date: September 2013

On record: Marketing/client services manager Brianna Pollard

Challenge/objective: To provide the firm with more automation and implement a system that would allow associates to manage clients in a systemized fashion.

Amount spent: Initial purchase price of $80, with $60 monthly fee.

Process: To get up and running, the firm's owner imported existing client data from e-mail into the Zoho system.

Pollard said that one of the greatest challenges has been getting everyone within the firm used to using the new system. Constantly reminding associates of the importance of the system and encouraging them to input client data has been key. "On the people end is where we have the challenges," she said.

Results: The firm is more efficient and is enjoying the convenience of the mobile app, which enables them to access client data from the palm of their hand while in the field.

"We do a lot of paperwork and also do a lot of business start-ups, so being able to upload those things [to client folders within Zoho is beneficial]," Pollard said, adding that the system "has helped us keep our clients' information organized and easy to access, in turn providing our clients quick, responsive customer service." The firm also uses the system to assign tasks. Once a task is assigned to an associate, an e-mail alert is sent to them. The task can then be tracked throughout the workflow process.

Next steps: Going forward, the firm is looking to leverage the system to develop marketing efforts that target specific groups. Pollard noted that the firm could also make better use of such features as e-mail and logging phone calls.


Keeping prospects in line

Firm: Payroll Vault / Littleton, Colo.

Size: 30 users

Product/service: FranConnect

Commencement date: December 2013

On record: Vice president of business development Malvina Messler

Challenge/objective: The firm wanted to systematize its client follow-up and sales process and improve efficiencies.

Amount spent: The CRM module was $4,500, plus a setup fee of $1,500. The cost just for the CRM and no other modules is roughly $75 for up to five users.

Process: Founded from the roots of an accounting practice, Payroll Vault was separately branded and launched in 2008. In 2012, the company decided to start offering Payroll Vault as a franchise. Messler said that the tool is important because, between accounting and payroll sales, clients often need more education on their service options. "The CRM helps us stay in touch with prospects [that are] not ready to come on board but are still interested," he said.

Before selecting FranConnect, the company spent six months researching products, including online research, scheduling demos, and speaking with businesses that had similar needs to see which solutions they use.

"I don't think you can avoid challenges with CRM. It is an amazing tool and is robust [but] you need to have a dedicated person who can oversee the process," Messler said. The firm had one person working with them and the operational team to gather and share feedback. "That person was our bridge between the CRM provider and our team."

One of the biggest challenges the firm has encountered was getting the staff accustomed to using the new system.

While FranConnect is a franchise solution, Messler said that the system is highly customizable and can benefit accounting firms with multiple locations.

Results: It has improved communication between management and sales associates. The CRM tracking and reporting allows staff to stay informed and up to speed on prospective clients, the sales team's efforts and ROI.

Next steps: The firm is working to maximize all of the tools within the solution and continues to work on developing more marketing campaigns. The firm is working toward leveraging the system to target and market to specific groups and build bigger campaigns that can be tracked. "It is almost like having a third employee and we are able to stay in touch with less engaged prospects," said Messler. "We can educate them and re-engage them when they are more prepared to make a decision."


Tracking time

Firm: Profitable Accounting / Phoenix

Size: 3

Product/service: Results CRM

Commencement date: April 2009

On record: Owner and president Michelle Stephens

Challenge/objective: The firm needed to be able to track client contract hours accurately.

Amount spent: $2,000 to $3,000.

Process: The firm offers accounting, bookkeeping and QuickBooks support and its billing structure is unique - for each client, it establishes a monthly or quarterly contract that outlines a maximum amount of hours that will be spent on that particular client. If the firm exceeds the maximum hours in the contract, then additional fees will apply. Given this billing structure, it is critical that the firm be able to accurately track those hours.

"We have to track ahead of time if we're going to go over those hours," said Stephens. "A good portion of my administrator's job is to keep track of everything." She noted that, at any given time, it could have roughly 40 monthly or quarterly client contracts to handle.

With an IT background and a degree in computing, Stephens knew what she wanted in a CRM solution. Armed with a list of requirements, she began talking with the Results CRM sales team and was impressed with the solution's functionality and the vendor's customer service.

Stephens worked closely with the sales staff during implementation and also listened to several webinars the vendor held weekly. It wasn't long before the firm was up and running on Results CRM.

Results: "It works really good for us. They are constantly doing new improvements," Stephens said.

With Results CRM, she said that the firm rarely gives away billable time without intending to - a feat that can prove challenging without the proper system in place.

She noted that Profitable Accounting also tracks - but doesn't bill for - quick phone calls or e-mails. "That goes into Results," she said. "When they get their monthly invoice, it shows every time we worked on their account ... The most valuable thing you can do to keep a client is to make sure they know what you do [to provide value]."

Next steps: Stephens said that the firm currently makes use of such features as contacts, calendar, time and expense, and export to QuickBooks. Going forward, however, the firm may increase its use of the system's e-mail functionality, versus using Outlook.

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