After years of being treated as an afterthought by accountants and their software suppliers, practice management has enjoyed a mini-boom since 2015 - coincidentally the year when George Osborne famously announced the “death of the tax return” in his Budget speech.
Since then, Making Tax Digital has stimulated a move to online cloud bookkeeping applications as the most suitable tools for supporting clients with quarterly online reporting to HMRC. That momentum is now filtering through to professional practice tools, particularly among firms that have realised their client communications and tracking will need to be much more efficient. Whether or not MTD arrives as and when originally intended, the productivity gains from digital processes are worth it for improving client service and practice profitability.
Integrated versus best of breed
The established suite suppliers who have ruled the practice software market since the 1990s have been slow to respond to the combined challenges of MTD and cloud accounting, prompting the emergence of a new generation of online alternatives.
Having one supplier simplifies the relationship, but can make you overly dependant on the developer’s competence for your core compliance activities. Encouraged by MTD, the big bookkeeping engines are moving into practice tools, but with the exception of Sage, how many of them have a demonstrable tax record in tax and accounts preparation? The gap between these options is where you can find the cloud specialists, who offer sophisticated practice management tools that link out to both bookkeeping and compliance programs.
This situation presents software shoppers with three different options. You will need to work out which option most closely matches your practice roadmap and then focus on the applicaitons that cover the functional issues that matter most to you. At the same time, pay particular attention to their built-in integration features and future strategies. You don’t want to commit to a practice management app that isn’t going to be able to work with the other tools you want to use.
How cloud do you want to go?
The cloud revolution hasn’t quite swept through the practice software world yet, but it’s certainly having an impact.
The pioneers who have embraced FreeAgent, Xero and QuickBooks Online are less patient with slow-moving compliance-focused developers who don’t get their online, advisory business model. In the absence of suitable integrations, many of them look first to their application ecosystems to fill functional gaps in their practice workflows. This is the world that Karbon HQ, Practice Ignition and Workflow Max inhabit, along with a few cloud-based compliance providers such as Taxfiler and Capium.
Sage, IRIS and BTCSoftware are responding with cloud-based compliance tools or hybrid online data stores to counteract this disruption. Many, many practitioners prefer to stick with what they know and are not so bothered about whether the work gets done on a desktop program or online - so long as the application does what it’s supposed to do and is easy to use and maintain.
If cloud computing has become your preferred long-term strategy, you can either opt for one of the new generation of all-cloud suites, or go the ecosystem route and put together a stable of apps that give you the functionality you want.
Rise of the bookkeeping app platform
Cloud apps are great for their flexibility and solutions to specific problems, but keeping track of which clients are using which ones and where they stand with their documents, data, tax returns and so on can be a nightmare.
This growing niggle has seen the emergence of yet another variant of practice software - the app platform. Receipt Bank was first out of the traps with its Practice Platform for tracking the bookkeeping workflow from clients using Receipt Bank to capture their transactions. CCH OneClick, Xero HQ and more recently the QuickBooks Online Accountant Practice Management module and Sage Accountant Cloud have all come forward with similar products for practitioners.
The integration and depth of functionality varies a lot with these tools, but some of them come free if you sign up to the vendor’s practitioner program(me). These are early days for practice platforms, but in time the fight to own the practitioner’s homescreen could intensify. If developers are thinking this way, perhaps you should too. Have you worked out an app strategy for your firm yet? And how will you manage the client roll-outs and tracking? Exploring what’s available from the suppliers now could shape your decisions if you move into this area.
Practitioners have always been reluctant to invest in practice management applications, spending far less in them than companion apps for tax and accounts preparation.
All-in-one suites bundle some of the core client data mechanisms into their programs, but will often charge extra for billing, CRM/data mining and other modules. Suppliers targeting smaller firms, such as BTCSoftware, TaxCalc and Keytime include basic practice management functions as part of their suites. This lessens the need for firms to spend any more on practice management, but means they are not equipped to expand their reach into more sophisticated processes for managing client workflows and communications.
Pricing can also be a trap for ambitious practitioners. Ambitious firms can start out on a reasonable deal, but discover that their preferred option becomes a lot more expensive if they achieve their growth targets. Always map your growth aspirations against the supplier’s terms and watch for client upgrade packages that might bite as you grow.
What about marketing?
One of the accounting profession's more embarrassing secrets is the lack of oversight and management that goes on with its marketing activities. There has been an explosion in digital marketing and social networking in the past few years, but this has not been accompanied by an increase in client relationship management (CRM).
For example, barely a third of the entrants to the Accounting Excellence Awards are able to identify to our judges where their new clients are coming from. That shortcoming is increasingly being addressed by features built into practice management programs. Not only does CRM help measure marketing effectiveness, it can also contribute greatly to keeping your existing clients happy with timely, relevant communications.
The workflow challenge
Workflow tools let you define the different stages, responsibilities and deadlines for particular tasks and then track when they are completed and how much staff time they consumed. Some programs will have basic task features, but more sophisticated options will include assignment and review stages and link the workflow data to billing systems. Workflow tools are still a minority interest, partly because they demand a lot of input in money and effort, but are likely to grow in importance as the profession becomes more automated.