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What’s in your cloud toolbox?

8th Sep 2016

Accountants who have embraced cloud computing often talk about “digital plumbing” and the skills involved in selecting and integrating add-on tools. US-based practitioner Patti Scharf recently shared her take on the subject.

Based in Colorado, Patti Scharf is chief controller at Catching Clouds, where she specialises in helping ecommerce businesses optimise their cloud accounting processes. Also closely involved in the practice is her husband Scott Schart, an IT consultant who takes a particular interest in cloud add-ons around stock management, fulfilment and billing processes.

“When our cloud accounting firm first started, we decided that as long as the software was in the cloud, we would support it for our clients. We felt that we were tech-savvy enough that we would be able to integrate any of the tools our clients might want or need. However, we quickly learned that even if that was true, it is really darn hard to scale that model into a business,” she wrote on our US sister site AccountingWEB.com.

Pick your niche

The cloud revolution has changed accounting from a scenario where there was typically a choice between one or two general ledger systems and clients could all be squeezed into one standardised box.

“Now there are literally hundreds of apps to choose from, and different software serve different needs,” says Scharf.

The proliferation of cloud add-ons means that as client’s needs expand and you move into new niches, a firm could end up integrating and using an unwieldy conglomeration of dozens of apps. “That becomes expensive, not only in cost of apps but even more so in terms of time researching, testing, implementing, and training.” Scharf warns.

The best way to manage your way around such chaos is to focus on a common customer base where clients need more or less the same tools. This niche focus will help you develop expertise with a handful of tools to delivery the best possible service to your clients.

Clients will sometimes tell you about software they’ve heard about that they’d like to try. Don’t dismiss such suggestions - they could be the right solution for that situation. But remember that your job is to guide them to the right solution. That’s why they appointed you in the first place.

“Ask lots and lots of questions about their business, their processes, and their desired results. Then research and implement a tool that gets them where they want to be,” Scharf advises. “Whatever you do, don’t let them push you into implementing a tool that isn’t right for their business. That helps no one and frustrates everyone.”

The Catching Clouds team obsesses about process, which “drives virtually everything in our business”. If a tool conflicts with or can’t adapt to their internal processes, it will push the app to the sidelines until it can. But not without giving the developer a chance to win their business by giving them feedback on what’s right and what’s wrong with the app.

Scharf tells the story about how a particular travel industry client brought about a major change in her cloud strategy. During its busiest periods, the company handled 100-200 bills a week, which were overseen by a full-time bookkeeper who manually entered the payments into QuickBooks Desktop, printed them and posted them out.

Replacing the payment processing part with Bill.com was a first step, but the integration between that cloud-based system didn’t fully meet the need for a single data-entry process.

“That end result became a crossroads for our firm,” she wrote. “We used Bill.com with both Xero and QuickBooks Online clients, but they each had a different process, so our team had to be doubly trained, and the multiple processes had to be documented. It increased confusion and frustration for our team, and we finally decided we needed to pick just one general ledger and go with it.”

The firm took a similar approach when evaluating time and expense apps, payroll systems and other tools, which ultimately led to a switch from QuickBooks to Xero, which Scharf rolled out to all the firm’s online clients.

Build your own toolbox

When putting together your cloud toolbox, these are the steps Scharf suggests:

  • Research to find a few key tools already touted as best in the industry.
  • Test them out in your own firm to figure out what will work best for you and your clients.
  • Save the best for each function (accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, time and expense, sales tax, etc).
  • And… you’re on your way to creating your toolbox.

“The goal isn’t to accumulate as many tools as you can. The goal is to use the fewest number of tools necessary to streamline your internal processes, improve your firm’s effectiveness, and, of course, produce amazing results for your clients,” Scharf said.

Cloud software continues to evolve and improve. Quite possibly the tools you add to your portfolio now won’t be the same after a few years. Maintaining a good dialogue with cloud developers is an important way to influence them so they continue to meet your needs, but also to keep track of how products are developing.

“Maybe the key feature that you really want and need is due to be released next week. If you don’t ask, you might abandon the perfect tool moments before it is about to fundamentally fix one of your core problems,” she wrote.

“And always keep your eyes open for new players. The cloud accounting technology space is changing every single day. Do what you can to keep up with the changing landscape - your clients will thank you for it.”

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