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Why do CPAs suck at CRM?

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My company sells five different customer relationship management applications, and we currently serve about 600 clients using these applications. I've gotten pretty good at being able to identify prospective clients that have a good chance of success. So can you guess my reaction when a CPA firm approaches me about a potential CRM solution? It's not good. Why?

Because we, as CPAs, suck at CRM.

It's true. My consultants — all experienced and well-trained — have attempted implementations of very well-known and proven CRM systems at CPA firms both big and small. Some have done better than others. But for the most part, our CPA firm clients usually do worse with their CRM systems than clients in other industries. Why?

It's simple: culture.

Most CPA firms don't have a culture that is best suited for a CRM solution. That is not to say that we all do poor jobs at sales and client service. It means that we just do things a little differently than most other industries.

Think about it: Your clients usually have an engagement team, led by a partner and executed by a manager. The leaders of this team have grown into this position in most cases through their technical ability. That's a good thing, because clients value CPAs that can save their companies taxes, and provide reliable financial statement assurances and good business advice. The profession further reinforces this by requiring us to renew our credits regularly through mostly technical accounting courses.

Partners and managers have the most influence in a CPA firm. They tend to build islands of client data that are oftentimes inaccessible to others. They've been at it for years and — like all of us accountants do — they have built their own "systems" for tracking their client activities, be it using a firm practice management application, a spreadsheet or even a simple email program. As we get older, we get set in our ways and more resistant to change. We appreciate the work that our marketers do, but we're very, very sensitive to sharing too much of our data with them lest our clients start thinking our firms are too … well … sales-y.

This culture is different from most companies. When we sell CRM systems we are selling primarily to sales and marketing teams. Salespeople are, of course, professionals and have a certain level of technical proficiency. But they are being paid to sell, not service. Their skill set is not in financial planning or tax strategy but instead in closing deals and making quotas. These are the clients that succeed the most with CRM systems.

The report you need

So does that mean that a CPA firm shouldn't get a CRM system? Not at all. What it does mean is that the firm has to change its approach to the software — and its expectations. So here's my advice, which I’ve learned the hard way and by many failed projects with firms and successful projects with others outside the industry: focus on your firm's open and closed proposals. Have a great pipeline report.

Hopefully your firm is using a pipeline report (if not, then you should because that’s what all good businesses I encounter do). I’m betting that the report, like most of our clients, is on a spreadsheet. Assuming this is the case, then stop using the spreadsheet and instead use your CRM system to do the same thing. That way, at a minimum, your partners and managers are being asked to just do the same amount of data entry about prospective client engagements that they were doing before, but just in a different place.

Once that's accomplished and people are used to that then … grow it. Expand the report to include more information, like "last activity" and "next planned activities." Include emails. Integrate it with your calendar. Create “stages” indicating where the proposal is in the sales process. Add more data about the client to the report like services proposed and other potential services needed.

Over time, your firm's management will come to rely on this report to … well … manage the firm. They will pay careful attention to those proposals that should close and those that are still percolating. They will appreciate the impact that this data has over their ability to forecast your firm's operations. They will also better appreciate those partners that are doing their part to grow the firm, in addition to providing excellent client service. And as the data becomes more critical it will be more important for everyone to make sure they're updating it currently.

And in the process … they're using the CRM system! Sure, it’s a change of culture. But a change for the better.

The benefits? Besides a better handle on future cash flow, there’s better marketing data and a better overall system for making sure nothing falls through the cracks and everyone on the team is on the same page. You don't have to set your sights too high. You don't have to be using all the advanced features of the system either. Just do this simple thing.

You don't have to suck at CRM. Even though you're a CPA firm.

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