The technology may be new, but the way you decide whether to use it shouldn't be

Is Software-as-a-Service right for your firm? The answer is yes - or no.

Over the last 12 months, there has been quite a buzz around the accounting profession about the SaaS delivery model. There are two primary reasons for this: One, the quality and quantity of products on the market have improved dramatically over the last 12-18 months, and two, the accessibility of high-speed Internet connections and Internet security have also improved quite a bit during the same time frame.

Now your firm has many more products to choose from and the associated risks of moving to a SaaS product have decreased significantly. Many firms are hesitant to move to SaaS products because the applications and products are relatively new and they don't fully understand the technology behind the products. My suggestion is, don't worry about the technology behind the product until you determine if the product actually improves the operations of your firm. Once the product has proven its functionality, then ask about the technology.

FEATURES FIRST

One of the primary selling points of SaaS applications is that the cost to operate and maintain the software is much cheaper than traditional client-server installed applications. Who cares if it is cheaper to maintain if the application doesn't solve a problem or make your firm more efficient and more profitable? The maintenance costs are relatively small compared to the cumulative labor costs that your firm may be able save on improved workflow applications. If you are saving maintenance costs, but increasing the amount of time to complete a task, it doesn't make any sense to use the application.

If the SaaS application passes the features test, next find out how you will be able to retrieve your firm's information from the application if you decide to quit using it. This is very important because you don't want to be held hostage by a Web-based application. Assuming the application passes this test, proceed to the software implementation and maintenance cost section.

If the SaaS application doesn't pass the features test, tell the vendor why you don't like the features or what features need to be added to make it a better application. SaaS applications can be updated and modified much more quickly than previous client-server installed applications. Also, SaaS vendors are very eager to please the market. They are the relative newcomers to the scene and they are aggressively acquiring market share. It never hurts to ask for features - you might be surprised that your vendor may contact you in a few weeks or months with the requested feature(s) added.

IMPLEMENTATION, MAINTENANCE

If the SaaS product/application has made it to this point in the process, all of the savings here will be an added bonus. Unlike client-server installed applications, SaaS applications don't require any additional hardware or software to be installed on your network. All of the maintenance and updates are maintained by the vendor. SaaS applications are accessed via your Web browser.

During this phase of the selection process, your firm IT professionals will need to make sure they are comfortable with the security and technology behind the SaaS application, but these questions or concerns are normally easily addressed by the vendors.

MANY CHOICES AND OPTIONS

As I stated above, the SaaS delivery model has increased in popularity over the past few years and there are many products to choose from. I would suggest that you make a comprehensive listing of all of the software applications that your firm currently has and compare that to the problem areas in your firm. Do some research by reading this or other publications that review these products and ask your peers what they are using to solve the problem areas that you find.

If you are busy, like most firms, hire someone who is knowledgeable about the public accounting industry and accounting/tax software applications. This type of professional can save you a lot of time in your quest to make your firm more profitable and efficient. You will find that there are many SaaS applications that can solve many of your firm's workflow issues.

START SMALL

Choose an application that solves a process that is not mission-critical. SaaS is a relatively new platform and as your firm is using the application, you will learn a lot about the endless opportunities and possibilities with using SaaS applications. During this learning process, your firm will be in a better position to learn how to choose other SaaS applications for your practice.

COMMUNICATE

Most SaaS vendors have user forums. As I mentioned previously, SaaS vendors are eager to please their customers and the SaaS platform allows for the rapid development of new features. Make sure your firm is an active member of the user forums. Your firm can have significant influence on the future development of the application and you can reap the rewards much sooner than with a client-server installed application.

INTEGRATION

With client-server installed applications, integration between applications/programs can be difficult and expensive. This should not be the case with SaaS applications. Ask your vendor about integrating with other applications in your firm.

As you can see, determining if SaaS is right for your firm is no different from choosing other applications. Just make sure you don't get distracted by the "new technology."

It all comes down to features and improving your firm's workflow.

Marty McCutchen, CPA, is the president of CPA Service Group LLC in Fort Worth, Texas. Reach him at (817) 312-7527 or martym cpaservicegroup.com.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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