Client accounting services in 2019
For the two firms featured this year, client accounting services has a lot to do with finding the right clients — those that want to grow, learn and fully realize the benefits of outsourcing their accounting and sometimes CFO needs.
Tonneson + Co., based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, believes the future of CAS is in service, not software. And indeed it’s the value the accountants bring to the client that will dictate everything, from the number of billable hours spent to the software they choose to deploy the necessary services. Based in Salem, Indiana, the small firm Steven Brewer & Co. finds that without the “advisory” piece, CAS isn’t a satisfactory service for clients. While the central accounting platform is an important piece in delivering CAS, so are the peripheral software apps and services the firm provides.
Designing an approach
Firm: Tonneson + Co.
Firm size: 76 staff
Software: QuickBooks Online
On record: Client services manager Stephanie Howard
On CAS: To Stephanie Howard, client accounting services is defined by what the client needs. Many clients require only simple payables and bookkeeping, but others need full accounting management and reporting. Tonneson also provides advisory services, internal control reviews and software assessment as part of its CAS offering — as Howard said, “The role of CAS has really grown.”
Howard came to Tonneson this year from the private sector. Her experience there showed her that a lot of companies are looking to outsource certain tasks because it saves money and time. “Especially if you go to a CPA firm, you get a lot of expertise at a lower cost than you would hiring in-house,” she said.
Software: Tonneson uses QuickBooks Desktop and QuickBooks Online as its software of choice to deliver CAS. The firm is trying to move most of its clients over to QBO because it is cloud-based, which offers visibility and access from anywhere, and a lot of integrations with other apps. But, she added, “I don’t know, with where CAS is going, that there really is just one solution. With internal control reviews and so on, larger companies may already be using a software that would make more sense. I think there’s a lot of movement right now in trying to define what’s best for specific clients.”
Indeed, some of Tonneson’s larger clients use Xero, which is also cloud-based, and also offers integrations with a range of apps. Bill.com is a favorite app the firm uses with both QuickBooks and Xero.
Tonneson serves clients in a range of industries: nonprofit, technology and life sciences, retail and restaurant, professional services, manufacturing, construction, and distribution and logistics.
Challenges: The biggest challenge Tonneson faces in delivering CAS is not with the software, but with streamlining clients into the software. Moving from desktop to online is a challenge for some clients who find it difficult to change.
Future: “In the future, it may not be one system that hits everything with regards to systems and services,” Howard said. “It’ll be about designing our approach based on needs and what the most cost-effective way to do that is.”
Firm: Steven Brewer & Co. CPAs
Firm size: 7 staff
On record: Owner Steven Brewer
On CAS: “We think of client accounting services as heavy on bookkeeping and payroll-type services,” said Steven Brewer. “That’s a base, but I think CAS should be spelled CAAS — client accounting and advisory services. We’ve had to get into advisor mode to make CAS a satisfying service, and it’s really what a client needs.”
Software: A decade ago, Salem, Indiana-based Steven Brewer & Co. was doing some in-house payroll for certain clients, and trying to “build a bit of a payroll practice,” Brewer recalled. So the firm partnered with a large payroll company, but after a couple of months, the firm realized it wanted more control in the process. For instance, Brewer wanted to be able to print checks on the spot, instead of sending payroll in and waiting for the payroll provider to mail checks. That’s when he came across AccountantsWorld’s Payroll Relief product.
“We read the reviews, and it looked like a system that would meet our needs,” Brewer said. “They have a nice trial period and pricing.”
Brewer & Co. tried it for a year, liked it, and decided to stay with the product. Over time, the firm transitioned from the other accounting software it was using to AccountantsWorld as well, to bring costs down, and to have the firm on one software that did everything they needed.
“We’ve had AccountantsWorld now for about eight years, and it’s really addressed all of our needs that we’ve had,” Brewer said.
As a side note, to serve remote clients, Brewer also uses Liscio, a file-sharing and messaging hub for accountants. The firm has clients across 21 states.
Implementation: Brewer said he performed the software implementation himself. He feels very in tune with the software because of this.
“The problem was getting staff to buy into it,” Brewer said. “They were used to [the former product we were using]. To get them to try a new piece of software was very difficult. We’d gone through three different sets of staff since that point, just getting the right people in. We tried to move people out who had trouble buying in, and got people who wanted to work the way we wanted to work.”
Highlights: With Steven Brewer & Co.’s previous software, the firm would have to sometimes pull data out, and place it in a different program to create financial reports, which is an important function when a firm is acting as an outsourced accounting department or CFO for a client. AccountantsWorld’s Accounting Power allows Brewer to create those financial statements right in the software.
“Sometimes the basic financial statements we give clients, they can’t read,” Brewer explained. “I can make a more readable set of financials that the client can understand. I can group expenses into categories, as it’s somewhat customizable. For instance, maybe I want to break off advertising and marketing costs — I can group those together on the profit and loss statement.”
Brewer also called out Payroll Relief’s high level of automation: “It’s nice because there’s so much automation with ACH and e-filing. Colleagues that do payroll in other ways have to go in and do Electronic Federal Tax Payment System payments, transactions and so on — this is all built into Payroll Relief. We set it up, it performs all the tasks in the background, we don’t have to do it.”
Challenges: While Payroll Relief has been “very good on the federal side,” there are some “limitations on the state side when it comes to integrating with state unemployment and sometimes local tax offices,” Brewer said. The firm has to perform some workarounds to connect to those local tax authorities.
Future: “We’re definitely always in growth mode,” Brewer said. “What we’re looking for is the proper client — they recognize the value we bring, they want us to be able to work with them and work alongside them to grow that business.”
Brewer makes use of social media to put the firm out there as experts in certain areas, and finds good leads off that sort of marketing. He aims to start providing more benchmarking services and industry-specific information for clients, giving them goals to shoot for, like annual budgets.