[IMGCAP(1)]Over the last decade, “practice management” has become an industry unto itself.

Beyond the hundreds of private consultants and year-round seminars, we’ve seen a proliferation of task-specific software. As a result, it’s little wonder why many accounting firms now find themselves operating with multiple — and not always harmonious — systems. The various applications sometimes work from different platforms. Staff must be trained and retrained. And as expensive new tools are added, firms must continually reinvest in IT expertise.

Does it really need to be so complicated?

Even more frustrating, a cobbled network of practice management software might be adequate for basic internal functions, but it does little to build a firm’s business through client development and opportunity management. In today’s environment, we know that client retention and cross-selling of services are paramount. Yet in a survey by Harris & Associates, according to Accounting Today, “well over 90 percent” of executives complained that their firm “isn’t spending enough time” cross-selling to existing clients.

The proven solution for this strategic imperative is customer relationship management technology. CRM is by now standard throughout the financial services sectors, not to mention its widespread and sophisticated use by retailers and manufacturers in the consumer marketplace; yet many in our industry have been reluctant to embrace it. Despite that 90 percent number quoted above, our own recent Templeton study found less than 5 percent of accounting firms have given state-of-the-art CRM systems a try.

Why is this? From our experience in the field, one big reason stands out: Despite its undeniable business-building advantages, until now CRM software has been designed largely as a free-standing technology — separate from the practice management functions of most accounting firms. Thus executives have been (understandably) reluctant to invest in what they see as yet another costly layer of IT complexity.

But what if CRM included all the necessary tools of practice management?

The question arises: Why not a single solution? One completely integrated system that seamlessly combines everything you need in practice management with everything you want for CRM.

That question is exactly what we asked ourselves at Templeton. And recently we partnered with Microsoft to create a solution – a single comprehensive system for every aspect of practice management plus customer (client) relationship management.

First of all, we wanted it to be simple: a single log-in system that’s intuitive, easy to learn and operates on the same Outlook format we already know. It had to be fully integrated to handle time and billing, accounting and reporting, tracking and project management, personnel scheduling, a workflow engine… everything.

And something more: We wanted built-in account management capabilities with a range of up-selling, cross-selling and opportunity management CRM features.

Here’s a partial summary of our “must have” list for this integrated practice management/CRM system:

•    Time and billing

•    Resource management and personnel scheduling

•    Document management system

•    Project management, reporting capabilities and forecasting

•    WIP and realization reports

•    Tax filing management and due-date tracking

•    Workflow engine

•    Sales “pipeline” and CRM opportunity management system to nurture marketing efforts

•    Contact and account management

Above all, this integrated program had to be tailored to the nuanced needs of a busy accounting firm like our own. Is that too much to expect? Not anymore. Our firm now operates with a simple turnkey system that takes practice management not just to another level — but a new dimension. We call it TC Practice Management.

TC Practice Management finally solves the old quandary of how to build a viable business and firm operation strategy within the often fragmented environment of an accounting practice structured on individual partnerships and “silos.” This new system puts everyone on the same page, and keeps them reading from the same book.

As accountants, we may not immediately realize the importance of this cohesiveness, as we can get caught up tending to our own “book of business.” A single, firm-wide operating solution, such as TC Practice Management, can help break down traditional barriers, and encourage a unified firm articulating a single brand and culture both internally and externally.

In the commercial marketplace, of course, the brand is king. And the linchpin is CRM technology to consistently “remember and reward” loyal customers, while cross-selling additional goods or services. This vital function is not left to individual initiative or index cards. With CRM, it is automatic. In our industry the “brand” is you: your name, your people, your expertise, your range of services.

Practice management, time and billing, and document management programs alone cannot hope to address this dynamic customer relationship management role, and until now CRM could not do the essential work of these dedicated systems for accounting firms. The good news is, now you can have both. And in this case, one plus one provides an exponentially better answer.

Chris Gryskiewicz, CPA, is a partner with Templeton & Company, an accounting firm headquartered in South Florida. He also serves as the executive vice president with Templeton Solutions, a technology consulting subsidiary of Templeton & Company. He can be reached at chrisg@templetonco.com or (561) 798-9988.

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