After looking at the products, meeting with the vendors, and speaking with CPAs that I advise, the recognition of firm needs are fairly consistent. Billing is performed regularly so it needs to be simple to avoid costly administrative time from management – that often means having good reports to make good decisions. Most staff [read: timekeepers] aren’t paid to analyze volumes of firm metrics. And lastly, clients need to be well-supported.
To meet these goals, vendors have taken different approaches. Some have taken the client perspective and handle data as a part of project management. Others have gone the route of ensuring the timekeeper can quickly get in and out, and a few have focused on providing all the information that could be gleaned from the information stored in the time and billing database. That’s great! Options are aplenty, and smaller firms – especially start-ups and sole proprietors – can find an application that meets their needs very well.
However, established small, niche, and mid-size firms may be in need of new software, but may not desire new workflows. A change may simply be necessary because their existing application cannot handle the data volume any longer, and a SQL supported application is needed. For others, it might be a lack of reporting, or a change in the availability of technical support onsite or through the vendor that is the impetus for change.
After careful analysis, these two groups of firms have irreconcilable differences in their needs, but they both buy products from the same vendors. At the established firm, what partner can’t list her largest clients? What manager requires a report to identify the lazy employees? These firms want information to promote staff self-awareness of ways in which they can improve. But these firms don’t tend to speak up very loudly when they have issues with their software. Very small offices will vocalize their concerns often when things don’t work well. They are more features dependent. The combination of the two can lead to a questionable prioritization from vendors for the emphasis and improvements made in products. There’s a cautionary tale that comes from all of this.
Two firms, one small and new with one client, another large and established with more than a thousand clients, bought the same application from a vendor for the same price. To the vendor, they paid equally, so their concerns were ranked equally. The first client, new to computers, emailed the vendor with a painfully nasty email that finding information to support his client was taking too long, and that he wanted automation to capture data when he worked in other software applications. The vendor immediately set to work creating new navigation methods and rebuilt the back-end to support seamless inclusion of data. Meanwhile, the larger firm sent in an email that said something to the effect of, “your aging reports don’t reconcile and the staff productivity is incorrectly calculated”. The vendor, deeply engrossed in building the new interface, responded with a service-friendly reminder that all input was appreciated, and it would be looked at for the next release. Now the next release was scheduled 11 months away, and the first firm lost its client and the accountant found it better to consult part-time for his previous employer. The other firm lost several large clients because of billing problems and let go of two staff members based on incorrect information. When the new release came out, the larger firm was forced to learn new navigation, but did not receive corrected reports, as there were no other complaints of reporting errors.
When it comes to selecting your vendor and your product, make sure you and the vendor get to know one another and that your needs are met. Be a progressive accountant and use the software to set reasonable expectations and improve performance of the individual, which will strengthen the firm and its relationships. Don’t find yourself in the pool of demanding accountants that rely on technology features as the only means to improving the client relationship and generating more revenue.
The six products reviewed are all capable of supporting a progressive firm. Before setting out to purchase a product, it’s an excellent idea to know the critical needs for success at your firm and to use that as your own scoring rubric for time and billing software.