With all of the discussion and questions still swirling around exactly how to move to the cloud, many firms are finding the answer in a service they have long provided: accounting work.

What has changed in recent history is exactly how this work is done, and CPA firms of all sizes are discovering that the latest cloud accounting tools are being used as a way to efficiently collaborate with clients and, in some cases, become the virtual accounting department and CFO that they need.

Below are a few firms that have selected cloud accounting products over the past 12 to 18 months to provide their clients with a necessary service and their practices with a revenue stream with high growth potential.

 

Finding the right fit

Firm: Chaney & Associates / Roseville, Calif.

Size: 10 staff

Product: Xero

Commencement date: February 2012

On record: Partner Steve Chaney

Challenge/objective: The firm needed a full cloud offering, finding it difficult to maintain and host software itself, and was even starting to lose clients because what it had was no longer scalable.

Amount spent: Free for accountants.

Process: The firm specializes in CFO and outsourced accounting services, primarily for faith-based nonprofit organizations, and has a few clients out of the country, as well. Chaney originally had created a hosted service and had to maintain everything from servers to data, which as the firm's clients grew became increasingly difficult to maintain.

Chaney first made the move to full-cloud accounting with another product and migrated them over to it. He found, however that it wasn't the best fit for all of his clients on price and functionality, and he had been hearing about Xero. After demoing the product, Chaney found it "easy to use" and decided it might be the right solution for some of his more price-conscious clients, among other things.

"Make no mistake, I like what I've been using, it's a great product, but pricing was definitely hard for some clients. [Xero] also blended in well with the kind of service we're offering," said Chaney. "Hosting simply wasn't the best option for us either - we're the trusted advisor so we can't afford to have any interruptions."

Chaney also noted that a Xero representative set up the system and uploaded what was needed over a weekend.

Results: Within the first year of using Xero, the firm has experienced "substantial client growth" and revenue has increased "significantly," though Chaney did not reveal final numbers. He also noted that cloud accounting has afforded him more personal time, even during his firm's busiest periods.

"For the first time in three years, I don't physically have to be in the office or, moreover, I don't have to take time off; I can work from where I am," said Chaney. He also noted that his firm is approaching more than 500 clients on Xero, versus 150 when he first started converting clients to the product.

Next steps: Chaney is looking to develop other verticals that the firm can use with Xero, and would also like to expand to universities, colleges and other areas where they can "benefit from an outsourced accounting model."

 

Effortless digital reach

Firm: Powerful Accounting LLC / Windham, Conn.

Size: 3 staff

Product: QuickBooks Online (Intuit)

Commencement date: May 2012

On record: Chief operating officer Dawn Brolin

Challenge/objective: The firm wanted to be able to conduct accounting work on any device, log into a client file, and pull up information from anywhere without extra steps.

Amount spent: $27 a month or $3,200 a year for all clients.

Process: Brolin is a self-proclaimed "desktop person;" while she was aware of QuickBooks Online well before officially starting to use it a year and a half ago, she required a great deal of persuading to make the switch. One factor was that she was building a virtual firm and had to consider what to do in case a staffer's laptop or computer broke down.

"If something like that happened, I'd want them to be able to use a mobile device or get to a terminal where they could use a browser," said Brolin. "I couldn't afford to stay down for too long - our client experience needs to be seamless."

Then in May 2012 she attended a conference where Jill Ward, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit's Accounting Professionals Division, issued a challenge to practitioners attending the event. She challenged those practitioners who hadn't visited or revisited the abilities of QBO to come back to the conference the following year having tried it out.

Brolin, who at the time was a sole practitioner, accepted the "challenge" and began staffing and using QBO. She also had some clients who worked on iPads, and the QBO iPad app also came out, making it easier for her to work with them. Having already demoed QBO, she did not find that it was difficult for her or her staff to learn. Convincing clients who were used to the desktop environment was a bit more of a challenge.

"Usually when we recommend, something, clients will do it, but they want to understand why and if you can explain it well it will work out," said Brolin. "Sometimes it's not the right fit, but for most clients it is. I find that helping clients get educated on how they can get into their account, look at a balance sheet and what it means is very beneficial. I've also found that QBO is easier to maneuver in than the desktop product."

Brolin said that she will typically invest an hour or two with a client who has not experienced the product, either over the phone or in GoToMeeting, as a non-billable charge and: "It pays dividends."

Results: At press time, Brolin had 18 clients on QuickBooks Online and was recommending it to many more. She is, however, currently "at capacity" with the amount of staff she has, serving 80 to 100 business owners overall. She is working to convert some existing clients who are on the desktop product over to QBO and is finding it easier for the startup businesses that her firm works with to introduce them to the product.

"We are also doing more contract-based work, so our efficiencies with QBO are helping us be more profitable," said Brolin. "It cuts our time from having to deal with transactions in the desktop world significantly."

Next steps: Brolin is ultimately looking to transition all of her firm's clients to QBO, and is analyzing each one to find out which are best to move. Since the firm also does tax work, she is looking forward to learning more about the integration between QBO and Intuit Tax Online.

 

No more jury-rigging

Firm: HintonBurdick / St. George, Utah

Size: 100 staff, 5 in BPO group

Product: Intacct

Commencement date: June 2012

On record: Partner Kevin Stephens

Challenge/objective: Wanted to run the outsourced accounting practice more efficiently, particularly with growth potential in certain verticals such as nonprofit clients.

Amount spent: $2,500 for an annual subscription, $50 monthly per user, free training.

Process: According to Stephens, the firm had an outsourced accounting practice for some time, but it was essentially like using "duct tape and bailing wire," though despite doing a good job he had always sensed that with technology they could deliver a better model.

"I had been thinking that, if I can push one button on my phone and find out where I need to go, why can't accounting be that simple?" said Stephens. "And the days of clients waiting 30 days or more for information is behind us, at least clients we want to serve."

Stephens discovered Intacct at the American Institute of CPAs' Practitioners Symposium and Tech + conference and decided to learn more about it; the more he did, the more he realized that it was likely the right fit for his firm's clients. The big challenge, however, would be convincing managing partners and others in the firm of his discovery.

"I remember driving back from Vegas and thinking about how I'm going to make it work to get buy-in, but I came up with a plan, got executive committee approval and explained why it would work," said Stephens. "It was slow at first, but we made a fairly significant investment in time and money, and admittedly approached it a bit wrong at first. We probably had too many on the system to start with, so a few months later we had to 'reset' things." Stephens explained that he needed to hire a full-time person to just focus on rolling out Intacct. He also noted that some of the difficulty with firm buy-in came from trying to have people use it that were "already busy with other things and couldn't devote enough time to it."

During the "reset," Stephens and the new hire had identified people at the firm who could devote more time to it and had clients that could immediately benefit from it.

Results: Although using Intacct as part of the BPO practice is still "in its infancy," Stephens claims the firm has "recouped our investment by multiples" and has several significant clients on it.

He also noted that approximately 10 to 15 percent of overall firm business is from outsourced accounting/BPO work.

Next steps: Stephens would like to increase the use of Intacct in the BPO practice and throughout the firm, "where it makes sense."

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