Software survey: Building strong client relationships

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In a service business such as accounting, your relationships with your clients are paramount to the ongoing success of your practice. If you promise to do something, or to follow up research with a call or email, and forget or are late in contacting the client, it eats away at the trust they have in you. And you have no idea if or when something you didn’t do will come back to bite you.

Some accounting practices get away with using calendaring applications to nudge their memory. Others still use a paper approach, such as a day book or DayTimer. Given what’s at risk, now might be the time to look at a more formal computerized application. We surveyed seven vendors of client relationship management applications to get their take on what benefits a practice can expect from implementing a software solution, and what you can expect to see in the next few years as the applications continue to evolve.

The same, yet different

One consideration accountants face when considering CRM software is that much of the software is targeted towards sales organizations, rather than a service business like accounting. While many types of businesses have much in common, accounting practices generally lean more toward maintaining and enhancing relations, while sales organizations are generally a bit more focused on initially making the sale. The end results, however, are often the same — getting more customers/clients, and maintaining their current business while usually trying to upsell them into new products and services. So, our first question was how the vendor approached CRM for the somewhat different needs of an accounting practice.

In about half the responses, the vendors told us that they didn’t specifically tailor their CRM application to an accounting practice, but that they felt their approach to the application was flexible and customizable enough to be easily fitted to a particular practice’s needs.

“Zoho CRM is built on the idea that a customer relationship management application should be fully customizable and communicate with all of the tools that a business utilizes. Zoho CRM connects to marketing, email and productivity tools that an accounting practice uses, but more importantly, Zoho CRM connects directly with Zoho Books and QuickBooks Online (QBO via Zoho Flow),” said Talha Baqar, head of the Zoho advisor program.

Other vendors, such as ABLE, provide an accountant-centric solution to relationship management. As ABLE CEO Jeffrey Pawlow told us, “When we set out to make ABLE, our goal was to create a system that met the specific needs of professionals working in the accounting industry. As I see it, the big challenges that they face, and that our system seeks to address, are the need to establish and maintain strong relationships, the need to pivot their service offerings in light of developing technologies (AI, automation, etc.), and the need to have a centralized location for their business development and sales activities. For many accounting professionals, these things are not their forte. It can be hard for numbers people to tackle relational tasks.”

Templeton Solutions is another vendor with an accountant-centric system, which is built on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform. It offers the ability to manage people, projects and practice from a unified system built on CRM, and an easy-to-use planning grid based on common CPA services and tasks that assigns people to projects, calculates planned realization and rate per hour, and exports to Excel. It also provides tax automation with tax form management, workflow and tax return due-date tracking, including extensions. Finally, it has a focus on marketing, new business pursuit, and client delivery based upon billable hours rather than unit metrics.

AbacusNext hedges its bets with two products, one more targeted to accountants, the other more generic. The first is OfficeTools, a practice management application that features CRM capabilities, as well as ResultsCRM, a traditional CRM platform with robust sales and marketing functionality. OfficeTools was designed with accounting firms in mind, incorporating the terminology and workflow unique to the profession and enabling them to segment their database based on prospects, clients, referral sources and vendors. ResultsCRM is an industry-agnostic CRM, allowing an accounting firm to operate like a high-growth organization, with pipeline management and sales forecasting built in.

Reaping the benefits …

Implementing an application solution such as CRM is often a complex and time-consuming task, and requires that a practice devote resources not only to getting the application up and running, but also onboarding staff and supporting the application and the staff, on an ongoing basis. Given this investment, it makes sense to consider exactly what you can expect for your efforts.

According to Sage Group’s Cameron John, global director of accountant partners, “CRM adds value to the accounting profession in two major ways. First, for an accountant’s day-to-day workload, using a CRM can save time, keep work organized and prioritized, and free up more time for higher-value services. Second, adopting a CRM enables accountants to form closer relationships with clients and prospects, as it promotes a more holistic view of customer relationships.”

“The greatest benefit for accounting practices that adopt CRM is the centralization of client data,” Zoho’s Baqar pointed out. “Currently, most accounting practices leverage some sort of practice manager that pieces together clients’ data and invoices, but emails, chats, phone calls and other communications are often spread out among several applications. A CRM system gives accounting practices the ability to link tax documents, contracts and other forms in one place. The biggest benefit in doing this is that an accounting practice can allow other employees and partners to access client information, and help step in to resolve any issues that may arise. This gives accountants the opportunity to step away from their office without fear of all work being stopped completely.”

And Timothy Keith, director at CRM platform provider Introhive, noted that, “CRMs can help firms maximize existing client relationships and take them to the next level. Businesses are 60 to 70 percent more likely to sell to existing clients, compared to the 5 to 20 percent likelihood of selling to a new prospect [according to HubSpot data], making cross-selling a critical business development factor,” he told us. “Maintaining a CRM that serves as a system of record and source of truth gives accountants insights to better predict additional services clients could benefit from, particularly when it comes to building and protecting their assets.”

… and avoiding the pitfalls

Adding a new application to your software mix is not always entirely positive. We asked our respondents where they thought some of the pitfalls were in adopting CRM.

“The biggest thing is application proliferation,” Tom Kelly, senior director of product marketing at Oracle NetSuite, told us. “There seems to be an app for everything. While this is great from a consumer standpoint, adding applications can have a significant impact on an organization and its resources. One application, one training program, one point of access. Add another, a third, fourth application, etc., and now you have four-plus applications, training programs and access points. This will undoubtedly impact the time your resources have to support the customer, not to mention increase operational complexity and managing the risk that comes with proliferating applications.”

Zoho’s Baqar added, “A CRM application, like any tool in an accountant’s arsenal, is only as good as the information it is given. Accounting practices that are unable to continually update information in their CRM are at risk of further complicating their business workflows rather than simplifying them. This may initially require a change of habit, but the benefits of adopting this change far outweigh the temporary inconveniences.”

Introhive’s Keith noted another possible problem. “Expecting people to change their behaviors is a major pitfall accounting firms should consider before adopting a CRM. Generally, accountants tend to be more independent, having managed their own books of business for several years, or, in some cases, decades. Additionally, the partner model at many firms is difficult to navigate because accountants have stuck to this system for a long time and are not interested in shaking up the status quo. Some practitioners will be more open to change while others — sometimes very influential stakeholders — may be averse,” he said. “Typically, adoption problems have nothing to do with the CRM itself. Rather, these problems rest in expecting accountants to change their behaviors, like changing how they have managed tracking relationships over the course of their career.”

This seems to be a common response among our respondents. Templeton Solutions president Steven Templeton echoed this sentiment: “A CRM system is of little benefit if it is used by only a few individuals in the firm. A firm that views CRM as the center of its client engagement and practice management activities can realize enormous efficiencies, enhanced profitability, improved client service, much better visibility into its current operations and future forecast.”

And Sage’s John added, “Accountants should understand that simply adopting a CRM is not enough. Once the right CRM is selected, accountants need to think about how they can change existing business processes to maximize the potential benefits — or risk underutilizing their investment. Accountants also need to remember that the system needs to be used constantly and should be accessible by all practitioners to maximize value. This is not just a change in software, but a change in practice management, and as such, requires more investment than just purchasing a solution.”

Looking into the future

While no one can actually see the future, many of our respondents gave similar answers about where they see the CRM application evolving.

“In a word: automation,” AbacusNext product marketing manager Lindsay Conderman said. “The most difficult aspect of utilizing a CRM to its fullest is maintaining detailed records of all your firm’s interactions with clients and prospects, and then making that data actionable. Machine-learning-powered CRM automation, especially when integrated into a holistic practice-managed solution, will allow for automatic record logging and communication insights. Imagine if your CRM could tell you the type of communication a particular client or prospect will be most receptive to, and even what day and time you should reach out.”

Better integration is also a direction that Zoho’s Baqar sees. “While there is a plethora of CRM products out there, the company that can create a cohesive environment where a CRM application communicates directly with every single app a business uses, is the CRM solution that will be leaps and bounds ahead of products that rely on clunky integrations to complete their ecosystem.”

“CRM for accountants will evolve to harness the power of machine learning, artificial intelligence, bots and big data,” Sage’s John told us. “Second, all CRMs will become mobile-first — ensuring practitioners can always access information. And, third, for accounting specifically, I predict blockchain will play a big role in verifying each customer interaction tracked.”

Oracle NetSuite’s Kelly also sees technology providing a major change in how CRM is approached. “In the near term we can expect to see features like AI voice functionality be integrated into platforms. We will also continue to see improvements in mobile CRM and organizations leveraging data in the CRM to create deep personalization for customers. Emerging technologies like IoT (internet of things) will play a role over the next several years in being able to leverage CRM technology so that challenges can be identified before the customer may even be aware of them.”

Finally, ABLE’s Pawlow sees CRM serving as one foundation to extending a firm’s influence and expanding services. “I see accounting CRMs functioning as the hub of a CPA’s advisory suite of services. Accounting professionals may be fielding services through a variety of sources — their firm, their associations, their referral network — but all of their efforts will be centralized in their CRM. As cross-platform integrations become more and more available and advanced, the importance of the CRM hub will only grow. That being said, we need to anticipate and account for that expanding role today in order to accommodate it in the near future.”

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