Client relationship management (CRM) often exists in an accountancy firm as several discrete activities: marketing, sales, client data, managing workflows and resources - possibly all sitting across a number of systems and roles.
For many firms creating a single view of the relationship a firm has with its prospects, clients and professional contacts has long been an unfulfilled ambition. However, with the emergence of new technologies including well-connected software, machine learning and some level of artificial intelligence, we can now look beyond to how a new way of working could be achieved through leveraging automation.
No doubt this is a complex area. Not least because data is held in lots of different systems that make a single view difficult or expensive to obtain.
However, opportunities can be lost due to the time it takes to compile information on specific clients. Deadlines can be missed, communications poorly timed, and sometimes there just simply is not enough available time to action everything a firm wants to do. Scaling profitably as we move towards a more digital business environment will require a new technical model at its core.
The connected practice
A new breed of cloud-based practice management and CRM systems are starting to remould what is possible.
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Connecting disparate systems and pulling together useful data and insight into one place is at its heart. This one view could not only create a dashboard for each client or prospect but also act as an intelligence hub that can help shape the type and timeliness of marketing communication and service prompts.
Pulling this data together also means data can be interrogated quickly and easily, surfacing insight and giving substantially quicker answers to questions - these can then be used to trigger appropriate actions.
This level of automation, and allowing the software to learn and perform certain actions, could drastically reduce the amount of time staff need to handle administration.
While it remains a complex area, it is likely to be built up from several key elements.
Description: Client, prospect and professional contact data all kept in one central place.
- Rules established through APIs to ensure that all other systems are kept up to date
- Alerts set up to highlight where data differences need resolving. (eg address different to that held in bookkeeping software)
- Data from Google, Facebook, Twitter and website enquiry forms automatically imported and responded to
- New prospects assigned to specific marketing campaigns
- Feed into external third-party marketing tools (Mailchimp etc)
Having all client data in one place and on an accessible system is the starting point. This single point of truth will mean that it can feed to and from other systems, while you maintain control.
Description: News and information from external sources is displayed along with information from connected business applications eg bookkeeping, OCR, or resource planning software into the client record
- Social media, industry and sector news pulled in live
- Configured and connected information from other applications pushed and pulled
Bringing in data from across the business (not just finance) and making it near live creates a true view of the state and health of the client business.
Description: Bringing together core, linked and third-party data creates a comprehensive account of that contact.
- Automatic benchmarking, and monitoring ratios
- Triggers created when certain client tolerances are met
- Request data or trigger ad hoc actions
Removing the need to access separate systems and reduce time spent compiling and analysing data.
Quickly surfacing the most useful insights, and alerting the accountant of critical client events adds an extra dimension to a proactive service.
What and when
Description: Importing tax calendar, service deadlines and client-specific seasonal information tailors specific actions through machine learning.
- Recommend and plan communications for when they will be best received
- Automate important service reminders (close period etc)
- Prompts and schedule actions for staff
- Automatically add to specific marketing campaigns
Complex data analysis can create rich client experiences and drive better results through contact at the right and most appropriate time.
Description : Using AI to not just respond but interrogate and learn.
- "Check the location of my meeting on Wednesday, and let me know which bank managers are nearby"
- "Show me everyone who pays over 30 days, every quarter"
- "When a client exceeds this benchmark, let the account manager know"
- "What is the average fee per client by sector?"
Utilising speech or typed commands to interrogate all the available data opens up new ways to generate on-demand answers to complex questions, and streamline tasks.
Automating action, not the relationship
A relationship is more than just a set of processes, and just because automation can be applied it doesn’t always mean it is desirable.
The aim is to enable better client experiences, not automate the experience itself, so the future points to one where the firm itself decides which aspects should be automated and uses AI to leverage what is then possible.
Stepping towards automation
CRM represents some of the biggest challenges to fully realised practice automation - practically, technically and politically - but in the long term should reap the biggest rewards.
Pulling in financial data to display in the client record is a great start but there is a long way to go. Those vendors that can look to work with the widest and most relevant ecosystem (that is financial and non-financial systems that clients and the practice might use) stand the best chance of success.
Core data quality must be very good and kept that way. This is actually a challenge right now, even with the most straightforward of systems. However, with increased exchange and interrogation of data, this becomes critical. Investing in practice automation also means investing in improving the quality of the information you already have.
Deciding to what extent processes are automated will help to set risk at a level with which you are comfortable. From a compliance perspective this could be crucial, but it should also be used to prevent the creation of even more work for firms through task generation, prompts to be proactive, and increased communication with clients.
‘What is the question?’ is the new challenge
Regardless of the complexity involved in applying smart automation and AI to CRM, this is clearly a direction of travel, and one where the benefits are not just going to be judged in terms of efficiencies, but around insights.
One view is that it is not necessarily about being able to ask different questions, but getting to the answers more quickly. However, it is entirely possible that in time we will be able to make increasingly demanding and complex queries, that could change the way that the firm operates and interacts with its key contacts.
The client benefit
Ultimately a successful CRM approach is one that adds tangible benefit to the client, as Wendy Tapia, Product Evangelist for Sage Live suggests:
“Implementing CRM and automation allows accountants to collect data from many sources that help them understand their clients and their client’s data better. It’s not just the numbers. It's what they mean for the future of the client’s business.
AI is unlocking the ability to provide insights before they are needed, being able to take action proactively and assist customers on timely action”.
To read Sage's latest independent research including stats and opinions from fellow accountants on automation, download the new guide here.
About Richard Sergeant
Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.