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.”
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 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 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 is what we found:
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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. 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 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, HMRC 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-based practice management applications.
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.
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Contributions from the AccountingWEB.co.uk editorial team.