Practice management software: User verdicts
When AccountingWEB sat a group of accountants down across a conference table from suppliers of cloud practice management software suppliers, their priorities were very clear: “Make it simple for me… Save me time... Help me manage all the clients I’m taking on.” John Stokdyk and Richard Hattersley sum up their findings.
The specific areas that were causing the most problems for our practitioners included:
- Client chasing and data collection
- Reaching out to new prospects in an organised manner and simplifying the process of bringing them on board as clients. One firm was looking for reminders and prompts on this set of tasks “as we lost a few clients because we didn’t love them enough”.
- Linking invoices to standardised fee structures, and the ability to raise and manage bills for ad hoc projects that run alongside. Also facilities for tracking and reporting work in progress (WIP)
- Creating and managing task categories and workflows for better tracking and analysis
- Pulling all of these features together into a solution that will help firms manage clients through the Making Tax Digital transition.
It became apparent that our six practice management software workshop participants wanted a wide variety of functions, and that most of the existing practice management tools didn’t fit their requirements. Sharon Pocock from Kinder Pocock uses the free Xero Practice Manager module, but supplements it with a number of add-on applications. Yet even she relied, like several other workshop participants, on a number of administrative spreadsheets.
This spreadsheet dependence confirms that practice management software has been the poor relation of accounting software for many years. In our 2013 software survey, just 10% of respondents used practice management tools, compared to 23% each for tax and accounts production. And while the cloud has swept through the profession for bookkeeping, online tools for specialist tax and practice functions have lagged behind.
That has been changing in recent years with the arrival of suppliers like Logical Office, Glide, Senta and more recently mTrio and Prosper. The accountants taking part in our workshop said they were familiar with what the “old guard” suppliers had to offer, so we showed them what the latest entrants to the market had to offer.
This initial overview summarises what we found. Follow the links for more detailed summaries of each system.
Glide started life as a specialist workflow engine and responded to user needs by evolving into a more general cloud practice management tool. Since it was launched in 2013, Glide has built up a base of 170+ user firms.
At the heart of the application is a flexible workflow engine that allows the practice to define the ingredients and milestones for a wide variety of practice processes. The configuration tools include buttons that trigger new actions to move the job to a new stage or alert colleagues that a task is required. Once a workflow has been built, it can be incorporated into the program’s pull-down menus.
Glide’s pricing may sit above the needs of some small practices, but the application has carved out a clear niche among firms that want comprehensive control over their internal processes.
At its heart, mTrio operates as a central practice database and marketing platform that pulls together different apps such as Mailchimp, Dropbox and Google Drive in one place. The program has been built on the Salesforce.com platform.
Current integrations include links to Digita, TaxCalc, Xero and specialist add-ons such as Practice Ignition - with more on the way as customers request them.
Onboarding is a particular strength. Adding someone new to the database automatically sends them a welcome text, creates a client in Xero and opens a client folder for them in Google Drive. “A job that used to take half an hour can be completed with one click,” says the developer.
Prosper is driven by a Kanban-style interface that allows users to view which projects need their attention and move on-screen cards to show what’s been done. This scheduling overview can be filtered to see what different teams will be working on in the next week or month.
To foster collaboration, clients can access their own work schedules. This is a novel concept for online practice management, but old-fashioned email tracking is not supported. The client onboarding process pulls all of these ingredients together into one of the strongest sections of the program.
Pricing is based on number of clients rather than users within the practice, so Prosper is better suited to larger firms than sole practitioners.
Senta hit the streets in 2015 and now boasts more than 130 user firms. It comes with an attractive home page dashboard that points the user to components that include a flexible client view page, a workflow scheduling engine and lightweight, but functional CRM and marketing tools.
Integration is a strong point, allowing Senta to link into cloud bookkeeping tools within the practice and beyond via application programming interfaces (APIs) to Companies House and other data sources such as Zapier.
Delivered for a fixed price that starts at £29 per user per month, Senta has struck a nice balance between usability and functionality.
“If you could get a hybrid of them all you’d have an ideal solution,” said AccountingWEB member Glenn Martin after spending five hours reviewing the four cloud accounting practice management software.
At the start of our workshop, the participants were advised that it can be fruitless trying to find the “best” software. Every application comes from a different place and price point, and the art of selection is to find the best fit with the practice’s functional requirements and budget.
The workshop confirmed that you can’t always get what you want from business software. Olly Evans commented: “I’m always looking for Nirvana, but it’s never there. You never get the product you want to run the business, and I don’t think you will ever get it.”
Faced with this eternal frustration, he looks at the integration facilities in any new program: “If it hasn’t got a feature that I want, then maybe I can get near it.”
For the small practitioners on our panel with an eye on client communications and managing clients through Making Tax Digital, Senta got closest to the mark with its combination of workflow, email and reporting features at a competitive price. Yet it was weaker than the other programs when it came to onboarding.
While mTrio matched Senta’s email integration, it exploited some of the underlying Salesforce capabilities to deliver a more powerful marketing and client communications environment. It also seemed to start from the onboarding challenge and follow through to the internal practice workflows.
The oldest application on show, Glide, offered the kind of facilities for departmental workflows and billing that would appeal to larger firms - but with the monthly fee starting at £39 (includes five users), it was less attractive to some of the small practitioners at our workshop.
In functional terms, Prosper sits between Senta and Glide. It included time recording, fee analysis and onboarding tools - including a proposal-to-engagement letter routine - that appealed to firms looking for a bit more sophistication than Senta. But with a price ranging from £50/month/user (15 clients) to £250/month/user (200 clients), Prosper worked out as the most expensive of the solutions for small practitioners at the workshop.
The accountant panellists in our workshop explained that power and functionality aren’t everything when it comes to practice management software. Ease of use and product support are just as important. Back-end flexibility increases the time it takes to learn your way around a new application, with the risk that team members will shun new systems and revert to old habits and processes.
According to one of the accountants, this hurdle slowed the adoption of practice management systems: “It’s really hard to switch, because we all still have lots of accounts to do every month. The time and migrations involved mean that none of us are going to invest in just trying out these programs out. The developers really have to earn our money to justify those subscriptions.”
Feature comparison table
The accountants taking part in our workshop were keen to see what functionality each of the cloud systems had to offer. A basic line-up of what we found is presented below.
For a detailed comparison of best practice management software for accountants and individual software user reviews, visit AccountingWEB’s Practice Management Software category page in Software Reviews.
|Client portal||In beta||✔||✔|
Google Apps, CCH, Digita, CoHo
|Xero, Sage One,
Digita, TaxCalc, Gmail, MS Outlook, MailChimp, Google Drive, Dropbox, Salesforce.com
|QBO & Xero (both in beta), Google Apps
CoHo, CCH, Digita, Amazon Web Services (AWS)
|Free Agent, QBO, Xero, MS Outlook,
Gmail, CoHo, TPR, Zapier
|Price:||£8-25/user per month; min £39/user per month||£39/user per month;
|£50-250 per month
(£1/client per month)
|£29/user per month|