While "shoebox" clients - those who keep their financial data in the form of receipts in a shoebox - still exist, their numbers are declining as technology becomes more advanced and affordable, and CPAs are seizing that niche opportunity.In a May, a study by researcher NPD Group reported an 11 percent increase in IT spending from 2004 to 2005 for businesses with from five to 99 employees. Forrester Research analysts Liz Herbert and Michael Speyer found that 25 percent of businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees surveyed considered deploying or upgrading their accounting software an important initiative this year, with 49 percent looking to local or regional firms for implementing or integrating their software applications.

As business software and technology implementations have trickled down from the enterprise level to the small business sector, great opportunities have opened up for tech-savvy CPAs. Advising on accounting software is just one of the opportunities that CPAs can take advantage of to grow their book of business and help their clients keep more accurate financial data.

However, there must remain a line between being a trusted advisor and a salesman for a software provider.

"I say to firms across the country that you should be able to look at your A and B clients and be able to articulate quickly what the priorities are for these companies," said William Reeb, author and partner at Winters & Reeb PLLC, a small CPA and management consulting firm in Austin, Texas. "When they can't do that, they are not consulting, but just trying to sell stuff."

As resellers in Sage Software's Small Business Division Certified Consultants Program, a CPA, or any other consultant, can earn a percentage of a sale for referring a client to Sage products like Peachtree, depending on the cost and size of packages that the client purchases. Frank Stitley, a participant in the Sage program and a partner at Chantilly, Va.-based CPA firm Stitley & Karstetter PLLC, said that about one-third of his mark-up goes back into the business. "The more you sell, the more you're getting," said Stitley.

Some CPAs and accountants see such an opportunity in these advising programs that they quit practicing to become full-time pro advisors.

Ray White of Little Falls, N.J., was an accountant for 11 years, working on tax returns for individuals and partnerships, and helping small businesses schedule fees, when he became an advisor for the DOS version of QuickBooks in 1992. He then quit the accounting business and formed his own computer consulting company, Ray White Enterprises LLC, and was one of the first to join the official QuickBooks Pro Advisor team when it formed in 1997. Today, he advises on Sage products like Peachtree, and on MYOB and QuickBooks products. He works from home, and business is thriving, he said.

"I was an accountant at one point, but I had had enough of the private industry and corporate life, corporate politics and the political grapevine," said White. "I decided to do it on my own. I like working with these packages - and referrals are not a problem."

It's good to be a partner

Software advising programs like QuickBooks Pro Advisor, Sage Software Accountants Network or SAP's BusinessOne CPA Advisor Program all have some form of network either on or offline to help CPAs get the referrals they need.

QuickBooks has a search engine on its Web site to search for a Pro Advisor by zip code, area code or state and city. Sage Software customers can search a listing of Peachtree Certified Consultants on the Peachtree site by state or country. And SAP's BusinessOne CPA Advisor Program, though only a year old, is building a community of partners and accountants to have a mutually beneficial relationship.

"As part of the partner role, we have events, Webinars and seminars for CPAs and prospective [clients] to educate them on what SAP is offering and to see if there are any potential clients for them," said Scott McMahon, partner at Apollo Consulting in San Francisco. "We also have customers that ask us to refer them to CPAs, and we provide that as a part of the network."

Microsoft Business Solutions recently started a CPA network/pro advisor program for their newest accounting application, Small Business Accounting, which was released for public consumption in September. Unlike QuickBooks or Sage's programs, the new MBS network is free to join and includes free software for accountants, discounts on software for their clients, up to 27 continuing practice education credits, and two free tech support calls, as well as unlimited free installation support and business-critical support. MBS also offers free training on the SBA product for CPAs, and limited training on Office Small Business Management Edition - a program also released in September that combines SBA and the Windows operating system.

Like MBS, many software providers have free product offerings for accountants in their network. QuickBooks offers a wide array of products, from their QuickBooks accounting applications to the new QuickBooks Online Edition, point-of sale software for retailers and those in the service industry, and Simple Start accounting software for very small businesses that have just set up shop. SAP gives its CPA advisors a free license seat on their client's BusinessOne package, so they can view transactions as they happen. And Sage gives their advisors not-for-resale versions of their Peachtree product when they join the network.

Robert Lewis, senior marketing manager for accountant relations at MBS, stated that the accounting network program has ballooned to over 3,000 members in the six weeks that it has been offered. QuickBooks' program has the farthest-reaching network, with over 100,000 certified advisors nationwide, while Sage has about 14,000 members and SAP has a little over 100 participants.

However, White warned, consulting on accounting software is not as easy as it may sound. The packages built for small businesses are purposefully designed for easy use; therefore, clients using such easy-to-use software like QuickBooks are not long-lasting clients for pro advisors, said White.

"There's not much change from one upgrade to the next. You train someone in the program, the next time an upgrade comes up, you're not getting a call back, they are doing their own upgrades," cautions White. "I need to find new business each year."

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