Accountant partnership programmes: How are the major vendors doing?by
What are the major players in the accounting software industry offering in their partnership programmes to help them stand out from the crowd? And how does this align with what accountants actually want? Richard Sergeant digs into this emotive issue.
The motivation for accounting software vendors to develop a relationship with the profession is primarily to use it as a sales channel to business customers.
Over the years, these initiatives have developed considerably from more traditional reseller-type agreements with some add-ons (the old Sage Accountants Club, for example) into what we now know today as partner programmes.
As both technology, firms and clients have grown in sophistication, what a vendor must be seen to deliver in terms of value has also increased. This is taking them beyond talking about products and positioning themselves as general supporters and guides for firms. However, this isn’t always aligned with what accountants themselves see as important and of value.
At first glance, there is little to separate the QuickBooks ProAdvisor, Sage for Accountants, FreeAgent Partner or Xero Partner programmes, but the devil is always in the detail and they do vary in many subtle ways, including price, support and community values.
All the programmes mentioned offer free software for firms, access to educational tools and resources, access to events and webinars, a practice directory and tiered discounts depending on which level partner you currently are. Levels are largely determined by how much of their software you have been able to sell.
Discounts are an interesting topic, given the recent discussions around transparency and frequency of price increases highlighted on social media. How vendors respond to this pressure will be hard to reconcile with individual pricing deals on a firm-by-firm basis. Then we have the complicating factor for FreeAgent, which is offered free if clients bank with NatWest, RBS or Mettle.
Xero recently reduced its financial incentives to partners joining after April 2022, taking Bronze partners from a discount rate of 15% to 5%, and Platinum from 30% to 20%. QuickBooks offers accountants licence discounts of 50% for its equivalent partner tiers. Sage for Accountants offers “a minimum of 50% off accounting RRP”, although this relatively new proposition is very much in development and lacks the granularity of the other programmes.
Given Xero’s current position at the top of the UK’s cloud accounting tree, it’s not hard to see it flexing some muscle and keeping more of the revenue. However, the alternative view is that given some of the very high discounting of old, this is actually tuning the partner relationship to something more manageable now the initial land grab has come to an end.
How the vendors see things
Having interviewed spokespeople from the four major players for this article, the web paged outlining their partner programmes do not necessarily convey how they themselves view the agenda behind them.
As is the case with most business propositions these days, the vendors try to link the functional aspects of their partner programmes to a higher sense of purpose, such as helping small businesses or accounting firms, or tackling wider societal issues. Stewart Hurd, VP of sales for FreeAgent sums up its agenda as “giving back”.
“A good example is that in our partner portal we have launched a practice insights section,” said Hurd. “This allows our partners to see what their clients are doing or not doing and to try to build behaviours that will help.”
This philosophy extends across FreeAgent’s educational programmes, including aspects of its accountant product as well: giving back data to help drive engagement.
Intuit’s UK commercial leader Chetan Shah said the QuickBooks developer’s “overarching mission is to power prosperity around the world. It largely means having a growing and thriving business, and so ProAdvisor comes from a concept of growing and building a thriving practice. It’s then evolved to include education, giving the tools and capabilities to develop and make practices more efficient.”
Both Xero and Sage follow suit in a similar way. No one can deny their sincerity and having such drivers allows them to consider their offering in a coherent way. But are such ambitions actually in line with what accountants want?
What accountants value
In a recent article unpacking the results of AccountingWEB’s Insights software report, both Xero and Quickbooks experienced a noteworthy drop in their NPS scores this year, while Sage’s increased, albeit from a much lower starting point and still in negative territory. The article quantifies the factors driving those measurements, but I think accountant engagement and satisfaction ratings are about four key things: price, value, product development and support.
This conclusion is backed by feedback collected from accountants on LinkedIn. Asked what aspects of vendor partner programmes they valued the most, the default answers were the importance of prompt and accessible support, named and consistent relationships with people who understand their firm, and useful product development.
The thorny issue of support attracted the most comments, from both positive and negative standpoints. Product support is not necessarily tied to a partner programme, but given the time-sensitive nature of a lot of the work accountants do, it is an important part of what they are buying into and what they rightly expect. Xero and QuickBooks both came out poorly here (and I stress this is direct feedback rather than a statistical study).
Typical comments include those by Debra Sermon of Balance Bookkeeping: “I have more than nine years’ experience with Xero and it’s the worst it’s ever been. Luckily I know the software better than their support does so it’s only software glitches I can’t fix.”
Such is the value of support, some cited it as reason enough for actually moving suppliers.
Sage and FreeAgent, by comparison, were consistently praised: “FreeAgent support is amazing – the team that has answered my many, many emails over the years have been incredibly knowledgeable and aware,” commented Stacey Borrow, Profit by Design.
The importance placed on support by accountant and bookkeeper customers doesn’t come as a surprise to Grant Picknell, vice president of Sage’s account segment at Sage. “Great support looks different for different people, therefore it’s about offering the breadth of channels to cater for all those different needs. We’re building multiple different ways to engage with our customer success and support teams – whether that’s by telephone, online chat, email, and in the future directly from within the product.”
Support is such a high priority, it will be crucial for all vendors looking to gain and retain accountant partners in the future.
The other critical factor is around account management, or more specifically having a valued and consistent relationship with someone who can be both a trusted salesperson and conduit for support.
Both the Insights research and the online feedback showed that Xero has struggled in this area. Like many other organisations, Xero suffered from Covid curtailing traditional face-to-face meetings and events, things that helped Xero build its reputation. And even though its the cloud accounting market leader, Xero is not immune to what seems like a merry-go-round of people moving between vendors – another symptom of the post-pandemic world of work.
Ian Phillips, Xero’s head of partner sales, understands customers’ current concerns and frustrations with account management and support services. “We need to make sure that getting access to the right people at the right time is improved,” he said. “We recognise that we need to be proactive, recognise the support we are delivering doesn’t quite meet needs, be agile and shift.”
While Xero still holds an advantage in terms of its core product perception and wider ecosystem, Xero will need to improve and demonstrate these human aspects to partners if it wants to maintain its dominant position. Especially as Picknell sees this as an area of strength for Sage. “We know accountants value the account manager relationship and working with someone with industry expertise. We’ve got account managers who understand the world of accountants, and are there to support them on an ongoing basis, even if it’s only to triage and own an issue until it’s resolved.”
A sense of community
But, the one area that Xero is still the undoubted leader in is fostering and curating a sense of community – the recent Xerocon being the most visible expression of nurturing its relationship with its partners. “The concept of community and how important that is to Xero can’t be overstated. It’s not a one-way street and is pretty special,” explained Phillips.
And it’s hard to disagree. While Sage, FreeAgent and QuickBooks inspire loyalty, they haven’t translated that into the same visible force as the Xero community. Yet.
The future of the partner programme
As with most comparisons of service, when things are broken down into a matrix it’s hard to distinguish a great deal between the rivals, and partner programmes are no different. Yet there are aspects of the relationship that mean a considerable amount to the partners which aren’t codified: the human aspects of service delivery that might actually constitute a real partnership of interests.
Those vendors who can nail that on their webpage and follow through with the goods may just have the upper hand as we move towards MTD ITSA coming online.