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You Can’t Build a “Firm of the Future” on Yesterday’s Software

Today’s accounting firms must shift to integrated, advanced cloud solutions to provide more value to their clients and become firms of the future.

Today’s accounting firms are getting pressure from every quarter to evolve into “The Firm of the Future” (according to Ron Baker), “Radical CPAs” (like Jody Padar), or “Firm Forward” (as defined by Edi Osborne). To make these aspirations a reality, firms must shift from an internal focus on efficiency to an external focus on serving their clients and adding more value.Unfortunately, the mission-critical applications you rely on don’t generally support you in making this transition. Many of today’s leading CPA-centric software companies have either not gotten the message or have been unable to move swiftly enough to provide forward-thinking accountants the tools they need to make this shift. These vendors are still delivering dated solutions, built on old technology, and designed to run only on desktop computers. Prior attempts by these vendors to deliver full-featured, integrated cloud solutions have not succeeded.

“While many transactional functions will become automated as the profession undergoes profound change, value will be achieved by understanding client needs and helping them identify new ways to propel their businesses forward.”—AICPA on client advisory

The Challenge: Siloed Data and Missing Insights

If being chained to a desktop isn’t painful enough, the cost of having captive, siloed data is even worse.

Accounting firms historically automate their practice in one of two ways: they buy a suite of tools from a single software provider, or they take a best of breed approach and acquire different tools from different vendors. In either case, these solutions generally come from vendors who gained a foothold with accountants through their publishing enterprises that had scores of researchers on board (and fewer developers.) They expanded the depth of their accounting offerings through product acquisitions and product development, and ended up with a myriad of data structures across a multitude of applications—none of which connect with each other.

Whether you use a single vendor’s “suite” of tools or work across different vendors, the problem is the same: data is siloed and information is not shared. As a result, there is little readily available insight about your practice or your clients.

The Opportunity: Designed for Change

It’s time to look for new solutions that are designed to meet the needs of your firm as it grows and evolves. But that means you need to look for products that use a different approach to software development and are built on a strong but flexible platform.

You also need new criteria for evaluating potential solutions. Shopping for a list of features is not enough; you need to seek solutions that are nimble enough to quickly add features, functions, fields, and capabilities that you might not have even imagined at the time of purchase.

So how do you find solutions that will meet your current and future needs?

The Foundation: Flexible Design

It starts with the right technology platform.

Cloud-based applications designed for full web and mobile access are the first step. Reconfigured desktop software, hosted solutions, or web services that share pieces of data on the web are not robust enough to enable the kind of agility that nimble firms require to serve today’s businesses. You need tools capable of quickly leveraging augmented intelligence, voice-activated services, and future innovations on the horizon.

The design thinking at the core of today’s software is a key requirement, along with agile development teams and rapid deployment models. It must be simple, intuitive, and flexible. Features and functions can always be added to the right core application.

“We believe design is the key to building great software. Great design requires us to understand how everything comes together and, more importantly, how we experience it. And to be successful, great design is simple, efficient and ultimately has to lift the human spirit. We believe BQE Software is the manifestation of these goals.”—Steven Burns, FAIA, Chief Creative Officer, BQE Software

Action Step: Look for the company’s investment in programmers plus (UX) user experience and (UI) user interface designers.

The Right Features: For Today and Beyond

What features are required for firms of the future and how many different applications (in older systems) or apps (in cloud-based systems) do you have to cobble together to get a full set of features that meets your needs? You need a single system that considers the critical aspects of managing your firm, its people, and your clients effectively at each stage of a client relationship.

  1. Engagements
  2. Document Management
  3. Time tracking
  4. Project Management and Workflow
  5. Billing and Payment
  6. Accessibility
  7. Communication

Engagement letters are a critical first step in managing a client relationship. You need a tool that lets you create them quickly, email them to a client, and manage their response. How much time do you spend each tax season looking for your clients’ signed engagement letters?

You need an easy, integrated way to associate documents and information requests with individual clients while also getting them signed electronically.

No matter how much you aspire to value pricing, most firms are still using either a hybrid of fixed fee and hourly pricing or hourly pricing alone. That means time tracking and billing are still important aspects of their accounting.

If you want accurate time and billing, you need to make it easy for your employees to capture their time as it happens. Desktop time and billing applications are not enough. You need mobile applications that allow your teams to capture their time as it happens: when they are on client sites or working remotely.

You also want intelligent systems that can not only track your time but, using geographical information (if authorized), are also able to capture your location and identify the related client.

And why can’t the application remember what you did last week and let you start from there? Ease of use and mobile access can make the chore of timekeeping less painful and more accurate.

As hourly pricing is replaced by value pricing, today’s firms will need to embrace project management. True project management requires accurate scope definition, resource scheduling (and Gantt chart management), phase definitions, time estimates, and budgeting as well as accurate reporting and profitability by project. These are skills the profession is still trying to master.

Even CPA firms have to worry about cash flow. To optimize your cash during peak periods, you need quick and accurate billing systems that offer multiple billing methods, including up-front deposits, recurring retainers, and fixed and hourly billing (time and materials).

You want proactive tools that use artificial intelligence to suggest better ways of charging and billing for your time while also providing meaningful KPIs. On top of that, you want integrated electronic payment applications that make it easy for your clients to pay.

In the future, your employees are likely to work remotely, at least some of the time. That means they need systems that are accessible from multiple devices (cloud and mobile) in a user-friendly, secure way.

How do you keep in touch with client and employee tasks? Do you have to go to yet another app in order to communicate?

You want a system that has built-in workflow capability and notification tools that alert you (either by phone or browser) whenever a new task is assigned, or approvals are required or approved.

Action Step: Look at your vendor’s feature list as well as their product roadmap and release history. How often are updates to the software released?

The Goal: Better Customer Service

In today’s experience-focused world, accounting firms must make client service a priority. You must make it easy for your clients to do business with you and easy for your teams to stay on top of their client responsibilities. This requires new tools that support the changing needs of your profession and provide timely insights into the following information:

  • Budgets and planning
  • Resource capacity
  • Deadlines
  • Project management, scheduling, and profitability
  • Customer billing and collections
  • Customer demographics
  • Customer interactions

You want dashboards that put this information at your fingertips and make it visible for anyone who has access rights.

And you need access to this information—via phone, tablet, or computer—wherever you happen to be. Action Step: Look for a solution with customizable dashboards and mobile access.

The Process: How to Choose the Right Product

Now that you have a sense of what your current solution is missing, it’s time to start looking for a new solution.

Follow these steps:

  1. Define your current needs. Consider future requirements for staffing and access. Be clear about what works in your current software and what doesn’t. Then, list what you would love to see in a new solution.
  2. Create a software selection team. Be sure to include staff at each level (from first-year members to experienced partners).
  3. Create a shortlist of software vendors to review.
  4. Test trial software, if available.
  5. Consider deployment options: cloud or desktop?
  6. Review pricing models. Look for pricing that is configurable based on role or usage .
  7. Calculate expected costs for software, support, and any hardware requirements.
  8. Review available training and support. Ask about the size of their support team, training resources, and support options.
  9. Gather references and follow up with your top three vendors.
  10. Narrow your list to your top choice and request a final proposal.

The Result: Your Firm of Now

It’s time to stop waiting for the future to arrive. Your clients and employees need you to become the kind of firm that supports them NOW by taking the steps that will lead them towards their ideal future.

Today is the day that you can finally free yourself from the mundane tasks (and associated mindsets) that sap your energy and hold you back. Start expecting more from your automated solutions. While we all appreciate the years we have spent with those vendors of the past, it’s time to stop making business decisions based on loyalty, and instead, seek out the right solutions for your evolving needs.

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