If you ask many accountants about customer or client relationship management software, many of the answers will be something like, “We don’t need CRM, we have practice management.”

However, practice management and CRM, while they do have some core functions such as scheduling in common, are very different applications that are working toward very different goals.

Another frequent complaint is that CRM is for “salespeople.” While many accountants believe that the process of obtaining new clients, and providing existing clients with new services, is marketing or rainmaking, the bottom line is that whatever you call it, it’s sales.

Relationships are vital things to maintain in your practice. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the thing many existing and potential new clients most value from you isn’t providing financial statements or tax returns.

CRM is all about keeping your relationships strong, whether it be with a client who has been with the firm for years, or a hot new prospect. A good CRM system can provide you with critical reminders of promises that you’ve made, notes on previous conversations, and even background information on the client’s hobbies, likes and family.

To help you put CRM in the context of its application in the average accounting firm, and where it can provide you with concrete benefits, we surveyed six popular vendors of CRM software.


DIFFERENT ANIMALS

One of the primary questions we had for our vendor panel was: What are the major differentiators between CRM and practice management?

“Practice management applications don’t get deep into relationships,” said Jeffrey Pawlow, CEO of ABLE. “As we move from accountant to advisor and from compliance to consulting, practice management systems do a good job of capturing activity of the former while CRMs track activity needed to produce the latter. CRMs help practitioners monitor and interact with contacts in real time.”

Zoho product marketing manager Vibhav Vankayala added, “Practice management software for the accounting industry focuses mostly on keeping track of billing time. For example, who has worked on what customers, and how much of that time is billable. It might also focus on the day-to-day aspects of handling document workflow, etc. CRM software focuses on the relationship and the interactions between the practice and its customers — when was the last time we spoke with X, what sort of work has been done in the past, which projects materialized, and which ones didn’t. Both can be integrated.”

Andrew Staples, PR director for SugarCRM, explained, “All accounting professionals use some system to track their clients. Some may rely on spreadsheets or Outlook to store and organize customer data. CRM systems are a more advanced method of organizing all client data, communications and supporting documents. Once that data is in the system, the CRM acts as the catalyst for streamlined sales and client services.”

Customer relationship management apps can help client-facing organizations like accounting firms grow revenue by operationalizing all client-facing processes, from demand creation, including prospecting, bidding and acceptance, to managing client needs throughout the delivery of projects, said Microsoft’s Maria del Carmen Deans, product marketing manager for Microsoft Dynamics 365 for project service automation.

CRM is not just useful in obtaining new business. While obtaining a new engagement is important, so is maintaining the relationship with the client, new or otherwise. And CRM systems can provide data that supports this ongoing client relationship. As Michael Honig, senior account manager for Results CRM, put it, CRM can provide a centralized client record where all of the details about the client reside — what services they are using, and all of the touch points, including e-mails, areas of interest where new services can be offered, and even their level of interest.

Most CRM systems provide the ability to add notes and create records of client contact, making it easy to remember what was discussed in prior communications as well as to schedule follow-ups. Practice management systems often don’t provide this level or depth of transaction and interaction recording.

A CRM system can also help you optimize your relationship efforts. While no one would suggest that you ignore a client, or provide them with anything less than your best efforts, ABLE’s Pawlow pointed out that in many practices there are specific clients to whom you need to pay more attention. “Our product caters to individuals who find the bulk of their revenue is produced by a handful of clients,” he told us. “The Pareto Principle suggests that 20 percent of your top clients generate up to 80 percent of your business. By focusing efforts on those relationships, you position your firm to do more business with those clients.”

SugarCRM’s Staples agreed: “Accounting firms have a unique type of customer relationship. They must build up a personal connection and establish trust with clients. They also must learn the most effective retention tools for clients to keep them coming back year after year. It’s a bit of a myth that CRM is designed to help sales reps close deals. Instead, a modern CRM gives any organization all the tools and data they need to build better business relationships. Closing deals is a byproduct of having a solid relationship.”

Another benefit CRM software provides is history, according to Pawlow. “In an industry where firms are often siloed within, a CRM can do wonders. It allows teams to have a centralized location where the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Something as simple as looking at a prospect’s history in your database and seeing that they have a relationship with a colleague can help create new business.”


NOT JUST STANDING ALONE

Still, a CRM system must go beyond simply providing history and contact details. It also has to coexist with the other applications being used in your practice.

Several of the CRM vendors that we surveyed have applications that can interface with accounting systems. “SugarCRM can be customized with dozens of other front- and back-office software so it fits into any business,” Staples explained. “The platform integrates with numerous accounting-specific applications like QuickBooks. It also integrates with both Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail so e-mails to clients are recorded in the CRM system.”

Results CRM is another application that has accounting software integration. According to Honig, “Results integrates bi-directionally with QuickBooks (Desktop and Online). It also integrates with MS Outlook for sending and capturing e-mails, as well as Constant Contact for e-mail campaign management. For time-tracking and payroll, Results integrates with TSheets, and for cloud document management it ties in with both SmartVault and ShareFile.”

Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM platform is not only integrated with its Dynamics accounting and the vendor’s Office and Office 365 applications, but with a host of other applications as well. According to del Carmen Deans, “One of the benefits of all Microsoft Dynamics 365 is the out-of-box integration with the Microsoft Dynamics 365 Office suite, the global leading business productivity application suite used by most accounting practices. Integration comes on several other fronts as well, including Microsoft Project (client) which links MS Project with its robust project scheduling, resource management and project economics to help improve project estimation to completion process.”

Zoho is another vendor that has integrations both within its application product line and with applications from other vendors. According to Vankayala, Zoho CRM integrates with five accounting and finance apps, including Zoho Books, Zoho Invoice and Zoho Finance Suite. Zoho CRM also integrates with productivity apps like Microsoft Office 365, Google’s G Suite, Dropbox, Box, and Zoho Workplace. Microsoft Office productivity suite integration is supported by just about every vendor surveyed.


NOT ALL RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS

As with almost any application, CRM provides enough concrete benefits to be worth at least a hard look. At the same time, there are some pitfalls in adding another fairly complex application to your firm’s mix. Pawlow noted, “Just like any business, accountants might be disgruntled when they find out they have to learn how to use another application. Without an implementation plan in place, knowing your needs beforehand, and setting future goals, a new platform could go unused.” SugarCRM’s Staples added that too many firms buy CRM without a solid plan of how to train and engage employees with the new system.

Zoho’s Vankayala listed a few other considerations: “Accountants need to make sure a CRM can satisfy their specific needs. Most CRMs are designed around salespeople, keeping sales processes in mind, but that might not serve all the needs of accountants. So they need to customize it to suit their unique needs. Accountants use a variety of software for various purposes, and the CRM of their choice must be capable of integrating across all of those. Not just integrating — it should facilitate easy movement of data across these apps. Accountants also need to consider data security. Most financial data is highly sensitive and the CRM of their choice should be secure enough, and preferably support encryption so that their data stays safe always.”


ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER ADVANCE

We also asked our respondents how they thought CRM was going to evolve. And, with two advances firmly underlined, there were no surprises in their answers. One was mobility — almost every vendor surveyed is either completely cloud-based, or has a cloud version in addition to an in-house version of the application.

Staples explained their approach: “Sugar supports a wide variety of deployment options ranging from public, private and hybrid cloud options to on-premise. We don’t shoehorn you into a multi-tenant cloud offering; you can choose and you can change when your needs change in the future.”

Results CRM has a similar philosophy. “Results is a Windows-based application which can be delivered as a hosted system on the Abacus Private Cloud, or as an on-premises solution for companies that have users connected to a network,” Honig said. “It also has an optional web/mobile add-on that provides users access to the database from any device with a browser, including smartphones and tablets.” And while Zoho CRM is only available as a cloud-based application, they have a mobile app that also works offline if an Internet connection is not available.

The second area where the vendors agree technology will drive CRM forward is in ease of use and functionality. At some level, it will be less about the bells and whistles, and more about usability and adoption. Applications and systems that remove friction and create ease will thrive more than other systems loaded with features, said SugarCRM’s Staples.

And Results’ Honig feels that artificial intelligence will have a large impact on CRM: “AI has some big things in store for CRM. There are already early use cases of AI programs taking over appointment-setting and appointment follow-up, where a bot presenting as a human can e-mail and converse naturally with a client about changing or canceling their appointment, or walking them through a rate-and-review process after the fact.”

Staples agreed, but doesn’t think it’s going to be particularly dramatic. “CRM and enterprise software as a whole needs to evolve to meet the expectations of the modern workforce. Nowadays, everyone is so used to a fantastic digital experience with everything they want right at their fingertips. It seems unfair that we ask people to take a step back in time when they show up for work to use the CRM. So you’ll see big improvements in the user interface on both the desktop and mobile for CRM,” he said. “Regarding AI-related technologies like machine learning, we won’t wake up one day and be in an era of artificial intelligence. Instead, it will slowly creep into CRM. Adding AI to CRM will free up users from tasks like searching for and organizing data. These are things that machines are better at than humans. This will allow humans to focus on what they are best at, which is communicating with other humans. Accountants are busy people; they are going to love when AI frees them from the tasks they don’t like, and allows them to spend more time interfacing with clients.”

And as far as the future is concerned, HubSpot product marketing manager Ari Plaut had a final prediction: “With the desire for integrated tools, more CRM providers will expand into more categories of technology. We might see, for example, that CRMs will add marketing, accounting and services solutions. We’ve already seen this across a few of the larger CRMs, and we’ll continue to see this type of consolidation in the market moving forward.”

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Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.