by Seth Fineberg

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF. — Accountants, QuickBooks consultants and former product advisory council members are, for the most part, optimistic about Intuit Inc.’s recent decision to consolidate its accountant-focused advisory councils.

In late April, Intuit announced the creation of the Accountant and Advisor Executive Council, a 16-member advisory board that would essentially replace a trio of former councils: the Customer Advisory Council for QuickBooks Professional Advisors, the Customer Advisory Council for Payroll, and the Customer Advisory Council for QuickBooks Financial Software.

Those groups had eight to 16 members each. The new council will have eight to 10 new members and six to eight returning members representing various product groups.

A call for applications for the new council also went out at the time of the announcement, encouraging existing members to re-apply. Intuit expects to select the members of the new council by the end of May and hold its first conference call at the end of June.

For over six years, the tax and accounting product maker has made efforts to make accountants a central part of its product decisions, a strategy that has, in some cases, garnered mixed reviews.

Intuit claimed that the new council’s objectives are to create a forum and build relationships with accountants on an ongoing basis, as well as to collect input regarding the direction of the company’s product development, programs and services for accountants and their clients. They also hope it will give Intuit the ability to test concepts, including specific features and functions of new and existing programs, products and services for accountants.

Its latest move to have one executive advisory board, rather than three separate groups, could add needed focus and accomplish more than the previous three product councils, some sources said.

“The old council was unclear in the beginning and didn’t initially get the attention we deserved. We also never communicated with the other councils very well,” said Laura Madeira, an accountant and head of Plantation, Fla.-based software implementer and tax preparer ACS Inc. “This new council is exactly what we need. There are lots of misconceptions about [Intuit’s] different products, and being able to clear those up so an accountant or advisor can see the need for a client and be able to offer a solution is essential.”

Madeira recently served on the Customer Advisory Council for QuickBooks Professional Advisors. This council, along with the other two, existed from June 2002 until the end of last year. She said that her council did eventually accomplish some key initiatives, such as creating online training for QuickBooks certification, but knows that more can be done.  She has re-applied to be a member of the new council.

CPA Bruce Downs, who runs a small practice in Birmingham, Ala., served with Madeira on the QuickBooks council. He also re-applied for the same reason he served on the previous board: to attempt to give small practitioners a voice.

And though he realizes that  the ideal is greater than the reality, Downs is confident that he will be able to make a difference with the new consolidated group.

“The advantage I have is I’m small and local. And most people I deal with are good customers and get frustrated in dealing with the larger, corporate world Intuit is in,” Downs said. “Being on the council, we are getting a crack at putting a voice in there. It’s hard to expect a billion-dollar corporation to respond to you as an individual would, but it’s still a good thing and the feedback is there.”

Rich Walker, the CPA who serves as the director of Intuit’s accountant and advisor relations, said that he expects even more senior executive involvement with the new council.

“[Intuit chief executive] Steve Bennett realized the impact and importance of accountants, and he envisions the council as having an expanding sphere of influence across the entire company. He also wanted to elevate involvement by the highest level of senior management, including himself,” Walker said.

He admitted that Intuit executives initially set the agenda with previous councils, but learned that it was best to leave that to the council members and have executives listen.

Walker said that the idea for Intuit to have these accountant-member product councils came in March 2002. He also said that some of the traditional methods of surveys, focus groups and in-home or in-office visits worked well, but the company realized that it could do more. Walker said that he believes that the previous councils, though they were somewhat disconnected from one another, were able to accomplish three main objectives in providing “detailed product information, a means to experience the products, and training.”

There are, of course, those in the industry who fail to see the impact or the significance of the new council.

Doug Sleeter, who runs The Sleeter Group, a QuickBooks training and certified consultant network, has been appreciative of Intuit’s customer feedback efforts. However, he is not entirely convinced of the importance of this latest move.

“Intuit is very disciplined about gathering input from several customer groups, and they place a high value on accountants’ input, but I don’t expect a significant strategy shift or product change to come as a result of this consolidation,” Sleeter said. “Maybe it’s more about showing, from a PR perspective, that they are making an effort to do these things. I just hope they have people on the committee that don’t just have their own agenda. It needs to be constructive.”

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