Back to the future for Sage Accountants Division
In one of Sage's frequent corporate reorganisations, the company revived its Accountants Division in January 2005. In this interview, managing director Brendan Flattery tells AccountingWEB about the division's new direction.
When Brendan Flattery took over as managing director of Sage's reformed Accountants Division on 1 January 2005, he stepped into the corporate equivalent of the drummer's chair in Spinal Tap. Ever since Sage muscled into the tax and practice software market in 1999, a parade of managers has attempted to bring order to a group containing the remains of five software companies acquired in three years: Taxsoft, CSM, Hartley, IBIS and Apex.
A KPMG-trained accountant with experience of other software businesses, Flattery joined Sage in 2003 to manage its practice software products. The opportunity to take on responsibility for the Accountants Division arose when previous manager Adrian Grace left last year as the company restructured.
Flattery acknowledges that the division has undergone its share of turmoil. As part of last year's reorganisation, Sage closed the former Taxsoft base in Wimbledon and located the entire Accountants Division at its offices in Salford Quays, Manchester.
When he joined the business, Flattery comments, "There was a view that it wasn't as good as it could be." To deal with the problems, he wanted to "engage with the market" through visits to users, seminars and focus groups. Since his promotion, he has continued this tradition.
"I have spoken to around 1,000 customers in the past year," he says. "The message I got from them was that they had difficulties with the number of contact points they had with Sage. In the worst case I found, one accountant had 13 account managers and complained that he was being bombarded with calls."
Since the turn of 2005, all Accountant Division customers now have a single contact point in Manchester - unless they act as resellers and opt to deal directly with Sage in Newcastle instead.
To sort out customer service, Flattery says the Accountants Division took on many of "best parts" of the call centre management techniques Sage uses in Newcastle. But he adds that accountants need a different level of service to SME users. To cater for these needs, the Accountants Division has a 10-strong field support team.
The key measure for Flattery is how likely customers are to recommend Sage software. The measure is doubly important for the Accountants Division because of the influence accountants have on their clients. According to Flatter, the division has seen its recommendation rating rocket.
"Service is not an issue I come across now," he says.
The corporate reorganisation has absorbed much of his time, but Flattery says the division is planning several initiatives to help accountants deliver added value to their clients during 2005. These include:
"Accountancy is an increasingly competitive market and there's a recognition that we do more than compliance," says Flattery.
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Following the success of a Sage-wide advisory service for small businesses, the Accountants Division is planning to launch and HR advice centre that will help accountant customers provide a service to their clients. If the scheme takes off, more advisory services are planned.
Business intelligence for accountants is another innovation. Traditionally, this has been a corporate sale, but Sage's acquisition of the Excel-based IntelligentApps software gives the company tools that it can bring down into the Sage Line 50 and practice markets.
"We will have products for accountants to provide new services to their clients by taking the information they have and presenting it back to give higher value feedback," he says.
Flattery is still somewhat vague on the details about how Sage will deliver IntelligentApps for accountants. "We're still looking where we can take it forward," he says. He is similarly coy about the revamp to Sage's practice management suite, saying that the final decisions haven't yet been made about what enhancements to include in the autumn release.
But to back up his claims, Flattery points to an R&D budget of £15m for Accountants Division products in the next three years, supported by the development work that goes into the rest of the Sage portfolio.
Sage's Accountants Divison faces some stiff competition area from MYOB, and the increasingly ambitious UK challengers IRIS and Digita.
But with Old Trafford looming behind his office window, Flattery insists like a good football manager that he and his team are concentrating on their own strategies and streangths rather than what other people are doing.
"It's becoming an increasingly competitive marketplace and you can lie awake pondering who's going to do what next. We're not standing still, we're going at as rapid a pace as anyone. We take on board what they're doing, but we just have to be better at what we do and have more interesting products and services - hence the advisory service and business intelligence," he says.