Companies that have integrated customer relationship management applications define the tool as a mix of strategy and technology."Certainly, those that have a well-thought-through CRM strategy and executive buy-in have the best chance of successfully implementing their strategies," said John McDonnell, vice president and general manager at information and workflow solutions provider LexisNexis. "Relationship intelligence, and all of the contacts and relationships that company professionals have in the marketplace, gives you the ability to really leverage that information to put together much more focused and targeted business development and marketing initiatives."

CRM applications, which comprise both front- and back-office functions, generally encompass a company's marketing, sales, distribution and support units, and allow each to reference and share customer data.

The rising interest in relationship intelligence springs from clients demanding more out of their customer service experience, say experts.

According to a recent study by Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based think tank, 60 percent of senior executives at 176 companies surveyed felt that improving the customer experience was "critical."

In 2008, domestic CRM-related revenues are projected to increase 9 percent, to $9 billion, and by 2010, global revenues are expected to reach $11 billion.

"Customers are empowered now," said Danny Estrada, CRM practice director for Net@Work, a New York-based business technology consultant and reseller. "Today's world of CRM really is what we call operational CRM, which is once information is captured, everybody has access to it. Customers now know we have systems that capture a lot of data, and there's just a level of expectation, that no matter how small the company is or how big they are, that when I call, you have all my information."

Companies' needs are also becoming more specific, and they want systems that match their specific industry, according to Mini Peiris, vice president of product management for San Mateo, Calif.-based NetSuite, which offers the Web-based NetSuite CRM and NetSuite CRM+.

"The current trends we've seen gaining momentum are catering to the vertical markets," Peiris said about users. "Basically, customers don't want a generic CRM system anymore. They want one that speaks to the kind of business they are."

ARE CPAS SLOW TO CRM?

"Financial services firms are some of the leading adopters of CRM, and it goes beyond installing a piece of software," said Chris Reich, Sage Software's director of product management for CRM solutions. "It goes to really putting customer management as a leading initiative ... . They [say], 'I want to know more about this customer, I want to know more about this client of mine, I want to have a history. I want to have records so if a salesperson leaves, they don't take all this knowledge with them.'"

Sage Software offers a variety of CRM applications, including its entry-level Act! by Sage; a mid-tier product, SageCRM; and its marquee SalesLogix, which allows user customization, while its newest version, 7.2, allows for integration into mobile devices. The company also offers SageCRM.com, an online product.

Though most financial services firms have implemented a CRM application, CPA firms, specifically, are low in adoption, according to Net@Work's Estrada. He said that of 20 accounting firms he has talked with over the last year, just one had installed a CRM package. Instead, CPA firms are still using Microsoft Outlook calendars and spreadsheets to manage contacts.

"Midsized firms continue to come to my seminars and we're continuing to talk about it," Estrada said. "In the entire time that I've been doing this, until last year, I was never getting called into accounting firms."

Estrada said, however, that CPA firms are facing a higher client turnover rate, and more firms are creating business development plans as an alternative to partners being solely responsible for maintaining client relationships.

"We're seeing a lot of professional services that are actually seeing a much more transitory account base," Estrada said. "Historically, all the partners have always done sales all the time; that's their world. Now we're actually seeing formal business development practices created within accounting firms that go out and acquire business and they have to do it with all the partners. How do you do that without a CRM?"

Joe Bergera, senior vice president and general manager for Sage Software Global CRM Solutions, agreed that those who offer professional services have been slower to adopt, but that accountants can help their clients discover CRM applications.

"I think that accountants are in a really great position now to help direct their clients to the appropriate CRM solution," he said. "What we're finding in virtually all industries, companies of surprisingly good size are really managing their relationships with Rolodexes."

Peiris said that she has seen accounting firms expand their marketing strategies through the use of CRM applications.

"We see accounting firms and other service firms starting to adopt 'keyword' marketing, by purchasing ad words through Google and also leveraging e-mail campaign capabilities for things like newsletters," she said. "That gets to be pretty important. Keeping in touch in an automated fashion can really help deliver a personalized message to your clients."

TANGIBLE RESULTS

A year ago, when New York-based Marks Paneth & Shron LLP upgraded from Act! by Sage, which was used primarily by its marketing department, to LexisNexis' InterAction, the firm began to take on a whole new approach to managing its relationships.

"The approach is different because instead of it being centralized, the access to it is dispersed," said Sara Walsh, the firm's managing director of marketing and communications. "We've given it to all the partners and directors, and are slowly expanding to senior managers. This is a fundamental shift, because we're saying this is a tool for the business, not solely a tool for marketing."

What drew the firm to InterAction is its ability to integrate with Microsoft Outlook, which allowed employees to continue to work from a program with which they were familiar. The other is its ability to do "relationship mapping."

"What it allows you to do is uncover new business opportunities and the best referral path to obtain an introduction to a prospect by uncovering the shared connections," Walsh explained. "The connections could be through a peer, a colleague, a nonprofit or a board membership. It's the notion of six degrees of separation."

Matthew Boyle, a partner and chief marketing and sales officer at the Tewksbury, Mass.-based firm of Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico, said that when his firm started using Cole Valley Software's ContactEase product, the impact was immediate. "We have 10 partners and we could operate as 10 different small businesses, but we don't," he said. "The CRM helps us in that regard."

Aside from an increase in efficiency, Boyle said that clients have noticed a difference in their communications with the firm, but don't necessarily know why. "They don't say it's because of your CRM, but definitely they notice we're more on the ball," he said. "When we have to invite them to something, we are inviting the right people. We're not forgetting a firm. We're not sending two copies of something. All those little things that can really have a negative impact on your business are eliminated. It can increase your professionalism."

Walsh and Boyle point out the importance of support from everyone in the firm, and of dedication in following through with the implementation.

"Separate from the product they decide is right for their firm, they need to make sure that they've got senior management commitment, and that the senior management appreciates that this isn't something that in 60 or 90 days you're going to look at it and say, 'We're done, right?'" Walsh said. "So they really have to understand it's an ongoing process and they're going to stick with it."

Boyle added that his firm coordinated "lunch-and-learns" where staff members got together for about an hour and a half over a four- or five-week period to learn the new system incrementally, in an effort to avoid overwhelming people.

"It's very much a cultural thing, and a lot of the time, for instance, [people think] if the CRM fails, that it's related to technology, and a lot of times it isn't," Boyle said. "You need to have the buy-in from the top for it to fully work. Once you have it in place, when you look back at the time you didn't have it, you won't believe how you survived without it."

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