by Michael Giardina, CEO & President, Office Tools
At first glance this may seem like a simple question. Accounting firms are dependent on the tax preparation and general ledger programs that allow them to provide essential services to their clients. Without these applications there would be no billings, and therefore no firm. But the question isn’t which programs are required to do accounting work in the first place—every firm uses one of a handful of popular tax and general ledger applications—the question is, what is the most important application in a successful firm?
In my experience, the firms that have been able to realize their full potential take advantage of applications specifically designed for practice management. Because a true practice management application should facilitate the work you’re already doing, from preparing returns to updating ledgers to consulting, while at the same time helping you run your business. It should help you address the three key facets of firm success: client retention, resource analytics, and market competitiveness.
Improved services increase client retention (and new business)
We have all heard the seminars and read the articles on “crafting the client experience.” There are lots of resources out there to help you ensure your clients have a frictionless, pleasant experience from the moment they walk through your door. And while these techniques are an essential part of building a positive relationship with your client base, your commitment to crafting the client experience needs to penetrate beyond scented candles and a feng shui-ed reception area—starting with the interaction between clients and staff.
Utilizing practice management software with a centralized database means that a client communicating with any member of your staff only needs to supply their name in order for that employee to instantly access relevant account information. From the status of their engagement, to account balance, to a progress update on their return—your staff is empowered to answer most client questions, regardless of the employee’s familiarity with the client or their account. Software designed to help you manage your practice should make every employee an expert on every client, ensuring that no client asking for the status of their return ever has to hear, “The person handling your return isn’t available, can I have them call you back?”
Practice management software makes every employee more helpful to every client, simultaneously improving your service offerings and your client’s experience of those services. This is the type of efficiency multiplier that’s foundational to a successful practice.
Analytics are the roadmap to profitability
The real goal of any software implementation should be to make your business more efficient, and nowhere is that more true than resource analytics. Traditionally firms have exclusively used their time and billing software to generate this analysis, resulting in metrics that are too narrow to apply to your unique firm, or too broad to decipher quickly and easily. When looking at the profitability of a particular client or service offering, there’s more to the story than hours tracked versus revenue collected. At the same time, that story shouldn’t look and read like a Russian novel.
The balance that needs to be struck is generating reports that are simple without being simplistic, and basing those reports on rich, nuanced data without turning your staff into clipboard wielding field researchers documenting every second of their day. To achieve that balance, you need time tracking that is integrated into your workflow management. Then it’s easy for employees to track all of their time, not just billable hours.
Well designed practice management software should combine traditional time and billing with scheduling, project tracking, even document management—so that time data from various activities can be mined and analyzed. What you end up with are reports that can help you identify how much actual time was spent on a project, by whom, and which steps took the longest. You can determine your office’s average turnaround time for a return, spot the outliers, and establish why those projects didn’t go out on time. This type of analysis gives you the opportunity to streamline your processes, increasing profitability across the board.
Greater efficiency makes you more competitive
By now it’s probably easy to see that the real point of implementing practice management software is to increase efficiency. Whether it’s organizing and accessing client information, or time-tracking and profit analysis, these are tools for improving productivity. Because if a firm in your area can perform the same services at a lower cost, you run the risk of losing clients.
Competitiveness is about providing the same high quality services you always have at a cost the market will bear. With many of the services we provide being commoditized by consumer grade applications, it’s never been more important to stand out. As you continue to specialize and provide unique offerings, you must also give your productivity a tune up. Luckily, it’s never been easier to do just that.
New technologies have brought some significant advances in OCR and web applications for software designers in our industry. From scan and fill software like SurePrep and ProSystem fx Scan, to online document portals that allow you to not only securely transfer files to/from your clients, but post invoices, accept payments, and schedule appointments. Find the applications and services that best compliment your current offerings while helping you expand.
Lastly, take a good look at your work flow processes and staff resources, and determine how you can improve. I believe one of the best ways to do this is through embracing a comprehensive software solution to help you manage your firm.
What is the most important application in a successful firm?
Regardless of your firm size or specialization, success hinges on your ability to manage core resources. Truly efficient management is a moving target—staff and client turnover naturally dictate an evolving workflow dynamic—which is why it’s so important to invest in software specifically designed to help you manage your firm. Let it do time consuming work of collecting and organizing data, so you can focus on exercising the talents that made you successful in the first place.
So what’s the most important app in a successful firm? The one that increases your efficiency and productivity, and leaves your competition playing catch up.
What to look for in practice management software
- Simplify. Good practice management software should reduce the number of applications you rely on, not just add another to the top of the heap. Look for a program that incorporates time & billings, scheduling, CRM, project workflow—even document management—then eliminate redundant software. This will give you the functionality of a host of standalone applications in a single program window, simplifying the way you work. If well designed, these functions should also be able to easily integrate with one another, providing further opportunity to increase productivity without adding clutter.
- Unify. Carrying on from the last point, practice management software that combines functions typically handled by separate applications will allow you to access your client and firm data in a single, unified database. Maintaining one database is enough to think about, when you start trying to balance separate databases for each of your major firm needs you’re multiplying your workload. Apart from the increased over head, your ability to integrate and cross-reference your data is greatly reduced, and you miss out on the opportunities for advanced productivity mentioned above.
- Modify. Choose software with a flexible framework that can be tailored to fit your individual firm needs. You don’t want to get locked into system that only has one way to do everything. Make sure there are enough configuration and settings options that you can implement the software how you see fit, with enough versatility to allow users a choice in how they want to utilize it.
- Magnify. No matter how comprehensive the practice management solution you choose, no single application, or suite of applications, can replace all the software and web services that could help your business grow. That’s why it’s important to go with a practice management application committed to third party integration—whether it’s with your tax and general ledger software, or exciting web services like Demandforce from Intuit that brings you powerful client facing communication tools and SEO opportunities. Directly integrating with these applications and services will magnify the impact of everything you do. Your practice management solution should be the “hub” of your firm, and as such it should provide as much integration with third parties as possible.