Most accounting and business advisory professionals know that industry-leading firms rely heavily on technology to grow their businesses. But where does a firm start in evaluating technology?

Experts suggest that firms cannot select new technology effectively without first examining their clients, their services and their staff as they all relate to firm strategy. Greg LaFollette, strategic advisor to CPA.com, says starting with the question “What technology should I use?” is like saying, “I want to build a house; which hammer should I buy?” Technology, like a hammer, is really a tool to help firms build a dream practice. The process of completing the detailed “blueprints” or strategy for the firm will clarify what technology tools are required. Some technology solutions address multiple challenges, but it is still important to consider how specific solutions may address other critical challenges facing the firm.

The most common challenges that can be best solved with technology fall roughly into three broad categories:

1. Providing services and products

When it comes to providing services and products, challenges center on efficiency, staff utilization and differentiation from competitors. Thus, experts recommend technology that incorporates automation, artificial intelligence and business analytics as the types of solutions that accounting and advisory professionals should explore. Automation allows more routine tasks to be handed off to administrative staff, while senior accounting staff can focus their efforts on providing additional analysis and insight. Business analytics technology, which leverages artificial intelligence, can also make it easier and faster for accountants to provide operational or strategic advice to business clients.

2. Customer relationship management

Technology can help accounting and advisory firms manage the entire life of a customer relationship — from finding the prospect (or better yet, making it easy for the prospect to find the firm), to coordinating client communications and deepening the relationship to expand revenue opportunities and ensure retention. Several experts list a customer relationship management system as the type of technology that can address many of the challenges of accounting and advisory firms, particularly when some form of CRM is implemented early on in the life of the firm.

For a startup firm, a cloud-based CRM solution should be one of the first technology solutions incorporated, according to Doug Sleeter, an Accounting Hall of Fame member and accounting software guru focused on small business solutions. “For accountants, that term might not feel as comfortable today as it will in the future for them, because it’s not your client list only, it’s your marketing list, your database of details about your clients, maybe even into the tax return records,” Sleeter says. CRMs can consolidate information about email traffic, action items for the firm, etc., all in one spot. Technology thought leader and consultant Brian Tankersley notes that firms need more activity tracking and centralized correspondence in order to provide continuity of service as the team and client base grow.

3. Performance/practice management

Another category of challenges that firms can solve with technology is practice and performance management. Examining a firm’s strategy and processes up front will be crucial to selecting the technology that is most needed. Indeed, those examinations will often highlight bottlenecks or roadblocks to customer service, growth and staff engagement. Solutions to manage the practice and workflow can be as simple as e-learning and web meeting technologies.

Other workflow-focused solutions can address challenges related to balancing staff workloads and digital document storage. Experts say it’s critical to have secure, cloud-based storage that allows clients to transfer data and push documents to the firm so that the firm can access them immediately. These solutions also allow staff in multiple locations to access what they need to in order to perform their work and move the engagement forward. Cloud-based storage also allows firms to share deliverables with clients electronically and immediately. This helps a firm focus on what’s most important (even if it’s not the same as what’s most urgent) about managing the practice.

New technology opens up opportunities for accountants and business advisors to stay on the cutting edge of client services and scale their firms efficiently. By taking a closer look at these three challenge areas and solutions, firms can gain a better understanding of what technology will best meet their needs.

Excerpted with permission from Tech Roadmap: Selecting the Ideal Solutions to Thrive in Business Advising.