What is your firm's internet strategy?Perhaps you don't have a Web strategy, and your goal has simply been to maintain a respectable Web site. In today's environment, just having a site is no longer a competitive advantage. In many firms, the Web site has been delegated to the marketing department, firm administration or human resources. Little thought has been given to the objectives behind the site and a related economic model.
Some firms have used the "Build it and they will come" approach. Other firms focus on potential employees using their sites to gather information about the firm prior to interviews. Many say that their sites really haven't produced any new business.
Again I ask, what are your objectives? Let's get beyond, "We need a site," and look into the future and where firms should be investing in order to have a Web site that provides a competitive advantage.
You should also be aware that you are no longer just competing with other CPA firms in your community. The Web provides global services and outside competitors are coming into your market.
With any strategy, the first step is to establish objectives. The following sample objectives may apply to your firm:
* Provide an experience where clients, prospective clients, employees and prospective employees can learn about the firm and its services.
* Provide a secure portal for clients to store and access documents.
* Provide firm employees with resources such as policies and procedures, employee directories, learning management and applications.
* Integrate with the firm's content management system.
There are probably more objectives, but these cover the basics associated with clients, firm employees, integration and content management. Many firms are still trying to determine the following:
* An economic model for their Web site;
* How to integrate the Web site with a document management system; and,
These are all important strategies, and should involve firm leadership, management and technology personnel. Too often the firm's Web site design is left to one group, such as IT or marketing. Please remember that it is a firm initiative and requires a team approach with a wide spectrum of skills and capabilities. Some of those are:
* Firm administration;
* Human resources;
* Graphic design;
* Communications (bandwidth, etc.);
* Records management; and,
* Legal and protection.
As with most important decisions involving technology, it is important to learn what is currently possible and where the industry (competitors, vendors, etc.) is heading.
Many people may not immediately see the importance of redesigning your Web site. To do so will require a plan, a budget, and education regarding the expected results. Most important, site design requires time - time that isn't billable to clients. It also requires visionary leadership, change management and an in-depth look at new revenue sources.
It is easy to dismiss the importance of a Web strategy with the idea that if clients aren't asking for Web-based services, then you don't need to invest in the development. The fact is that most clients haven't spent any time thinking about how you can offer them new and innovative services.
The good news is that visionary firms (early adopters) have already tried client portals, and they are a win-win solution for the client and the firm. Other industries are also rapidly getting into the business, such as financial planning, banking, insurance and legal. While accountants are still the most trusted business advisor, they may be reduced to a lesser role if they don't embrace the current portal technology that is available to them.
If you want to see a great example, visit www.emoneyadvisors.com. This is a very good client portal offered through financial planners, where the accountant is placed in a lesser role, along with others such as doctors, attorneys, bankers and insurance agents.
The other good news is that small firms can offer these services. Many are already offering portals through their existing software vendor, such as Thomson Creative Solutions and CCH. (Some of the other vendors offering solutions are Interwoven and iLumen.) The investment is reasonable, and the potential revenue is large if firms will get out of the hours-times-dollars revenue model.
What is the value to a client of being able to access documents such as tax returns, trust documents, insurance policies and wills from any place at any time over a secure Web connection? Clients can also electronically submit information for tax returns, payroll, write-up and even assurance services.
Vendor selection is important, but having established objectives in advance will shorten the time to market and reduce the long-term investment.
Consideration should also be given to the application service provider model. Does your firm really want the primary responsibility for storing, securing and ultimately destroying documents in accordance with firm standards, policies and procedures? Or does it make sense to source these services?
Spending time today learning about the options and preparing a plan that includes objectives, measurements of success, initiatives, due dates and responsible parties will save your firm time and money.
Remember that planning, people and processes are the key elements to exponential growth. Technology is the accelerator.
L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
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