by Seth Fineberg

No one becomes an expert customer relationship management consultant or reseller overnight, but many who have found success in CRM, either recently or over many years, find that the rewards outweigh the risks.

Over the past year or so, CPAs in technology practices and non-CPA tech consultants alike have become well aware of a myriad of CRM products available to small and midsized businesses, yet many still struggle with exactly what’s involved in CRM selling or consulting.

Many experienced firms agree that it takes a serious investment of time and capital. But depending on levels of expertise and the nature of the product, return on investment can be realized quite quickly.

Mike Galloway, CPA and president of Bingham Farms, Mich.-based consultancy AappTech, didn’t always think about CRM.

His firm had carried Micro­soft Business Solutions’ Solo­mon accounting software for six years, but that product “no longer fit the direction the firm wanted to go,” and in 2001 it switched to application service provider NetSuite Inc. — the company formerly called Net­Ledger. NetSuite provides Internet hosting of several related business management software applications.

For Galloway’s firm, the technology consulting affiliate of the Mathews, Reich, Perna & Rottermond CPA firm, also of Bingham Farms, becoming a CRM consultant was more of a “trial by fire,” since CRM was part of a package of applications that NetSuite customers receive. Galloway said that because NetSuite CRM is hosted and its vendor provided strong support, his firm was able to ramp up quickly and break even on its investment within three sales.

  “We had been wanting to improve our operations and found our clients were asking for CRM, but didn’t really understand it,” Galloway said. “Even now we are understanding as much as we are implementing, but we find that CRM is driving new opportunities for us.”

Other firms are not so fortunate. Some must adjust their practices when taking on CRM, especially when they are only accustomed to handling back-office accounting. It typically involves hiring new staff and training existing consultants, which can take some time to realize a return on investment.

The CPA firm of Templeton & Co., in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., has resold Microsoft’s Solomon and Great Plains accounting products for six years. Three years ago it began reselling Siebel, a CRM product that was offered bundled with Great Plains.

CPA and CITP Chris Grys­kiewicz recalled that the firm had to experience “some down time” at first in order to hire and train the right people, but it did eventually pay off. Templeton & Co. now resells Micro­soft’s own CRM product, which was released last year, and it has a team of CRM consultants.

“It’s not easy to pay to train someone for six months, but it was worth it and, eventually, we did develop a team,” said Grys­kie­wicz. “There was a lot of down time at first, but after about a year and a half we started to see some ROI. Now we have an established presence in our area and there will continue to be good ROI.” But his advice to other firms looking for an ROI from entering into CRM is: “Don’t ever expect it to be immediate.”

As Gryskiewicz recalled, Templeton & Co. initially considered partnering with other firms that have more CRM experience. He thought that they could handle it. “The accounting side of our business initially had some problems. It’s sort of a left-brain, right-brain concept but, ultimately, it helped us change our culture and how we look at things,” he said.

For Accpac International reseller Synergy Plus Solutions Inc., of Ontario, Canada, one of their biggest challenges came in the type of customers they had to deal with. “We had been used to dealing with controllers — now it’s with sales and marketing departments,” said Joe Santoro, president of Synergy Plus. “To gain that experience internally was definitely a challenge, as was implementing [CRM]. We implemented internally first and gained an understanding of what a client would go through. That was key.”

Synergy Plus has sold Accpac accounting products since 1995 and, like a growing number of firms, began to feel the pressure to get into CRM as many of its colleagues and competitors had. In addition, its primary vendor this year made CRM a more important part of its business, so it was only a matter of time before Synergy Plus step­ped up to try out Accpac CRM.

Santoro’s firm took on the CRM product in June 2003, and claims that after six sales they broke even on their investment.

Another challenge that firms face is deciding whether to invest resources in certifying internal staff on CRM, or to hire so-called CRM experts, which can be very expensive. Even so, most feel the cost is necessary.

“Certification is important. Just like becoming a licensed CPA or taking CPE, there are several critical examples of how it works well,” said Dan Baker, principal at Greenville, S.C.-based Baker Consulting, a technology firm that, in early 2003, was spun off from the CPA firm of Elliott Davis & Co., in Green­ville. “In some ways, being in CRM is like being an auditor. Having certification is important; it’s just not always clear how it is applied.”

Baker has been implementing Best Software’s MAS accounting software products for over 10 years, and began reselling Best’s CRM product, Sales­Log­ix, in 2002. He stressed the importance of understanding the upfront costs of developing a CRM practice, outside of just hiring staff or getting them certified.

“You have marketing and branding costs to consider and it’s often difficult to put an amount on that,” Baker said. “You can’t brand yourself as just an accounting VAR. You have to figure out how to make it two successful practices, accounting and CRM,” he said.

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