A billing system is not the best or most efficient strategy for managing contacts.Greg Kosinski and Jennifer Loftin of Atlanta-based Bennett Thrasher PC know this because that’s the way they used to coordinate their firm’s contacts and key relationships — that is, until they decided to make the transition to a customer relationship management system, a tool that has effectively improved communications with their people, centralized a once-massive contact list and, in the little time they’ve been using it, already given them a return on their investment.

The idea began about five years ago when Kosinski, who serves as chief operating officer, and the upper echelons of Bennett Thrasher — the 11th largest CPA and business advisory firm in Atlanta with 130 associates and 16 partners — kicked around the idea of a different tool to help centralize the firm’s contacts with clients, referrals, alumni and vendors.

“We never really had a good marketing database that we could use,” Kosinski explained. “We’ve never had a consistent one-stop-shopping list of clients or referrals and we’ve never had a consistent list that was updated. Everybody had their own individual lists.”

MARKETING WITH CRM

When Loftin was hired as the firm’s first marketing director in 2005, the project started picking up speed. Loftin introduced the concept of CRM into the mix, and by January 2006, the initiative became one of the firm’s top priorities. A small group started meeting weekly to flesh out the goals of the project and to find the best software.

In addition to Kosinski, Loftin and an outside technology consultant, the firm’s information technology manager, Chris Gilligan, also joined the CRM team. The group also sought as-needed input from firm co-founder and shareholder Ken Thrasher.

Each person had a different role throughout the process.

“As the marketing manager, I brought in the view of how am I going to use this tool to capture leads and prospects and use it in a business development sense, as a tracking tool for marketing campaigns,” Loftin explained, “as well as pulling data back out to assist partners and managers with any information they need.”

“From an IT standpoint,” Kosinski added, “Chris’ part of the whole thing was to make sure the system was available, up and running and we didn’t have any issues. Because he touches all departments in the entire firm, he has a lot of input as far as what he sees the needs are in various departments. My role was to oversee the process and to help get the information that they needed from everybody in the firm.”

The objectives for the CRM system focused on creating a centralized data source for the firm that would be in essence a “relationship umbrella” — covering clients, contacts, referral sources, prospects, associates, alumni and vendors — for marketing correspondence, tracking leads and proposals, marketing campaigns, news alerts via e-mail blasts, relationship tracking and industry segmentation.

The project was divided into four phases, and it was determined that the core coordinating crew would be the pilot group and testers of the new system. But first the software had to be chosen.

Ultimately, Thrasher went with the on-premise version of Microsoft CRM because of its “easy learning curve,” and the system’s ability to integrate with Microsoft Outlook. “It looks just like a part of Outlook,” Kosinski said. “It’s so similar that there’s not a lot of training involved.”

“The main thing,” Loftin added, “was once we chose the software, because that was a process in itself, we then had to figure out how we wanted to use the software and customize it to our needs. That was a big piece and it took a lot of time.”

Collecting and cleaning up the data also took a lot of time — more than 18 months — a process coordinated by Gilligan. Sixteen shareholders and 35 managers were asked to sort their data into client, referral source, prospect or personal categories, which were later put into Excel for culling. When the group came across a personal contact, it was tossed to the side.

“Everybody was very different on how they kept their contact records,” Loftin explained. “Some were very precise and detailed, and for others it was a first name and a phone number. We had to eliminate duplicates. We did it by brute force and that’s what took the bulk of the time for the project.”

That work paid off: A list of approximately 20,000 entries was whittled down to 4,500 contacts, which were implemented into the system last October. At the same time the contacts were being cleaned and culled, the firm was getting its system customized to its specific needs.

“[CRM systems] are built as sales tools, so you could run a product lifecycle through it if you wanted to, but we didn’t have that kind of need,” Loftin said. “There were certain things we could shut off in the system, so visually you wouldn’t see it. We added services so we would know what kind of services they were interested in or receiving from us if they were a client or a prospect. We added industry areas where we can identify what industries prospects or clients are involved with. We had the flexibility of how referral sources were captured.”

After the customization and implementation processes, the trick now was to keep the CRM system updated as new relationships were added into Outlook throughout the firm. “We had a program written so anytime anyone goes into Outlook and either makes a change to something that is already in there or adds a new contact, it writes that change to a file that we can review and say, ‘Yes, we need to make that change into CRM,’” Kosinski said.

The firm is now straddling the second and third phases of the CRM rollout. Phase Two involves using the system for marketing correspondence, while continuing with customization and data cleaning. Relationships also have begun to be identified between contacts.

“One of the problems that we run into as a firm is, say a shareholder is out in the field and they’re speaking to someone about a potential job that we might consider. Right now it’s hard to know if other shareholders know something about his company,” explained Kosinski. “We don’t have a good way right now of identifying those relationships. But once we start setting them up in CRM, it’s as easy as a click.”

WORTH THE CHALLENGE

Andrew Boyd, chief research officer at Aberdeen Group in Boston, said that he has observed two primary challenges with implementing CRM in a professional services or accounting organization. First, the relationships that accountants have with their clients can be more complex than in a typical business-to-business sales environment.

“Is an individual a corporate client, an individual tax client or an influencer ... perhaps a board member of a charitable organization?” Boyd asked. “Tracking these interconnected relationships, but keeping them separated for managerial and billing purposes, can be quite a challenge. Secondly, in an accounting services firm, particularly a partnership, investments in IT systems need to have a very clear and demonstrable ROI within a short period of time.”

Since the CRM implementation, Bennett Thrasher is now able to send out e-mail blasts when necessary as an add-on service for their clients. “It was the first time we were able to do those things without putting a ton of effort into it, and I think the payback is going to be pretty short,” Kosinski said.

Phase Three is implementing the system past the pilot group to a few more select associates to see how they handle the tool. The pilot group will maintain control over who gets to see what information within the system.

“We’re thinking it’s going to stay at the shareholder/manager level, but some of [the uptake is based on] interest,” said Loftin. “If they are not technologically driven or savvy, if they don’t really want to deal with it, they’re not going to benefit from using it. You have to take it down to an individual level and see what their comfort and interest level is, as well.”

Eventually, in the final phase, the firm will be looking to integrate the CRM system into its other network applications, such as time and billing and phone systems.

“There is still a little bit of a learning curve in terms of what CRM is and what it can do, but I do believe the ones that understand it have seen the progress we’ve made,” Loftin said. “The feedback and reaction has been very, very positive.”

Both Loftin and Kosinski stressed the importance of having an outside technology consultant to guide the process, and also suggest having a full-time person working on the project.

“We did this and we all had to squeeze it into our regular schedules,” Kosinski said, adding that the firm spent about $60,000 in consulting fees. “It’s pretty all-encompassing and it takes a lot of time. That’s one of the reasons it’s gotten stretched out so long, because if you can get somebody in there full time, you could get this thing knocked out much quicker.”

Aside from leveraging top-level buy-in and thoroughly researching software systems before a final decision, Loftin suggested taking the overall process very slowly.

“Think through implementation, especially if you are a firm of 100-plus people,” she said. “It’s a learning curve and a complete different way of thinking about data and people. I think people try to roll it out too fast and try to implement it and they are going to have a hard time being successful, regardless if it’s the perfect fit and the right software.”

For more on CRM, see “Taking Full Advantage of CRM Software” in the May issue of Practical Accountant, available on WebCPA.com.

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