Six New Rules for Smarter Tech Spending

Plus: Topline findings and recommendations for firms of every size from the new Accounting Firm Operations and Technology Survey.

By Brian Tankersley
Accounting Firm Operations and Technology Survey

Many practitioners think that CPA firm information technology is easy, and the really hard work is done with people who have large databases, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, as it would be normal for a staff tax preparer to have as many as 12 applications open at once.

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Very few things are as important to your firm’s effectiveness and efficiency than the reliability and effectiveness of your technology.

Some general guidance on how to approach IT in your firm includes the following.

  1. Have an IT plan, including an operating and capital budget. Even if the plan is wrong after you complete it, do it anyway, and update it frequently. Over time, you will get better at estimating the capital and operating costs associated with operating your firm’s technology, but if you don’t try to budget it, you will never get any better at planning and budgeting.
  2. You can’t change immediately, and you shouldn’t push to change too quickly. Similarly, you shouldn’t fall behind. There is a fine line between stretching your abilities and resources to achieve a goal and pushing so hard that you become ineffective, and you should constantly evaluate yourself and your team’s progress so that you don’t lose the confidence of the partners, who are your internal clients. Given the difficulty of finding competent, promotable staff in the current market, it is especially important to assess the impact on the senior associates and managers, who are very difficult to find in most markets.
  3. Don’t do everything yourself and do your due diligence before you buy. Many long?term problems can be avoided by doing your homework and having your “super users” run some pilot engagements with a new solution before you use it across the entire firm. A large number of salespeople who work serving the profession have never worked in an accounting firm, so they may have a limited understanding of your existing work processes and the impact that the new product will have on those workflows.
  4. Network with others and work with consultants when you need them. While consultants are expensive, the cost of poor or failed implementations is more expensive. If a change is worth doing, it’s worth doing right the first time, and having a competent consultant familiar with accounting firms and their applications increases your chances of success significantly.
  5. Security and privacy regulation appear to be coming to America in the next few years, which we expect will cause increases in the costs associated with data breaches and other instances of noncompliance. Firms should assess their readiness for laws like GDPR and new state laws in California and other states.
  6. Security awareness training and cyber insurance are essential for firms of all sizes today. Services like KnowBe4 and others can provide phishing training for a small monthly fee, and will also send messages to your team throughout the year to reinforce what they learned.

Some specific thoughts on issues at firms of each size grouping are as follows:

Solo Practitioners

Solo practitioners tend to have the owner make all of the recommendations as well as have the final decision-making authority. Some 76.0% report personally handling all IT support, which is the highest of all firm size groups.

The cost to purchase technology was this group’s top issue, followed closely by security and risk management. Unfortunately, those two factors are at cross-purposes, and we often see solo practitioners who do not have the right technology tools to reduce their risks.

Some specific ideas they can use include:

  1. Evaluate tools like Doodle.com, Timetrade.com, and Microsoft Bookings to help some of their clients book their own appointments.
  2. Consider using outsourced preparation from services like Xpitax or SurePrep to extend your ability to serve clients without having to deal with the related headaches.
  3. Evaluate pre-packaged hosting services from Drake, Right Networks, Wolters Kluwer, or Thomson Reuters to reduce your IT complexity and improve uptime.
  4. Review the economics of your practice and look at your pricing. Many solo practitioners I know do not prune their substandard and very risky clients so they can have room in their practice to serve better, more profitable clients with a lower risk profile.

Small Firms

Small firms need to have trusted peers or consultants with CPA firm IT experience who can help them make difficult decisions in their firms. We note that 25.0% of this group report using outsourced/managed services, and 40.8% hire outside IT help when needed, but 19.7% report handling the support themselves.

In our experience, this group is the most likely to have significant challenges because they often do not have an IT consultant with CPA firm experience to ask questions, or they have a hosting company without deep CPA firm knowledge handle everything.

The complexity of CPA firm IT cannot be understated, and while the individual tasks performed by practitioners are not extremely difficult, application-specific software often requires a certain amount of time in the trenches to support effectively.

These firms cite security and risk management as their top technology concern, followed by change and keeping up with new software.

Some ideas for small firms include:

  1. Consider using outsourced preparation from services like Xpitax or SurePrep to extend your ability to serve clients without having to deal with the related headaches.
  2. Evaluate pre-packaged hosting services from Drake, Right Networks, Wolters Kluwer, or Thomson Reuters to reduce your IT complexity and improve uptime.
  3. Consider joining an association serving small firms like CPAConnect or RootWorx. While associations generally either work together (refer work) or play together (offer CPE and conferences in exotic locations), some associations (like these two) also have a focus on sharing information and helping each other solve problems.

Mid-Size Firms

Mid-sized firms are the most likely to think of IT as a competitive advantage and are the first firm size likely to have at least one full time IT staff person, and more of these firms now use managed services.

Mid-size firms large enough to have some more complex needs but are not so large that the firm’s managing partner and other leaders can completely back away from client work. If the partners have grown the firm organically or are a merger of small firms, they may struggle to give up the day-to-day decisions, making it hard to hire and retain a competent IT professional.

We’ve also seen other firms in this category to manage IT staff the same way they manage accountants – that usually doesn’t work out well.

It may also be difficult to have someone with both (1) years of dealing with your combination of applications who also (2) has experience dealing with the major vendors – unless a national managed service provider or other outside consultants specializing in work with accounting firms are used.

Some things for mid-size firms to consider:

  1. Consider joining an association like CPAmerica or the RSM Alliance. While associations generally either work together (refer work) or play together (offer CPE and conferences in exotic locations), some associations have a focus of sharing information and helping each other solve problems.
  2. Consider sending your emerging leaders to sales training from organizations like The Rainmaker Group, Convergence Coaching, or Boomer Consulting. While you may not like the cost of technology, one way to make it less painful is to bring in more profitable work from client referrals.
  3. Look at hosting companies and managed services providers like NMGI, Xcentric/Right Networks, CETROM, and Ace Cloud Hosting with substantial experience working with accounting firms. It’s not enough to have a good hosting platform; it really is critical that the provider’s team have strong experience with your firm’s specific tax and engagement applications.

Large Firms

Large firms were more likely to have a full-time IT pro or an IT department, and less likely than mid-size firms to use managed services.

Getting the structure right in these firms is a significant challenge, and the partners are often the hardest group to change as fast as is required to compete on a global basis.

Large firms offer the most services, which means that the IT staff will also have more practice groups to deal with, and will require more coordination than is necessary at a smaller firm.

The extent to which the partners meddle in the work of the firm administrator and the IT director will have a direct influence on how hard it is to manage this difficult work.

A key growth point for these firms is how much direct client responsibility is required of the managing partner. If the chief executive has a heavy load of client engagements, he or she may be unable to provide the leadership that firms of this size need, but often do not have.

Some suggestions:

  1. Look at your firm’s business processes. While you may or may not decide to do a full “lean six sigma” engagement, every firm needs to have well designed, well thought out business processes.
  2. Evaluate your key performance indicators and workflow management tools. Tools like XCM Analytics, CCH Axcess Data Insights, and ProStaff can offer significant insights into the operations of your firm if used properly.
  3. Look at hosting companies and managed services providers like NMGI, Xcentric/Right Networks, CETROM, and Ace Cloud Hosting with substantial experience working with accounting firms. It’s not enough to have a good hosting platform; it really is critical that the provider’s team have strong experience with your firm’s specific tax and engagement applications.
  4. Consider sending your emerging leaders to sales training from organizations like The Rainmaker Group, Convergence Coaching, or Boomer Consulting. While you may not like the cost of technology, one way to make it less painful is to bring in more profitable work from client referrals.
  5. Look at how your firm is addressing its inventory of confidential information. Firms with this scale become very attractive targets for identity thieves and require more robust security procedures and protocols.

Extra-Large Firms

Firms with over 100 staff will usually have an IT Director/CIO to handle IT operations and maintenance for the firm’s COO/CEO, with one or more junior IT people to handle routine tasks and implement IT projects.

These firms also often use “product champions” – staff members who are involved in the firm’s implementation and support of new and existing technologies.

These emerging leaders from the practice areas provide critical input to the management team on applications and help teams operationalize the use of technology by documenting the firm’s processes and supporting their team with tips, tricks, and refresher training.

Many of the suggestion the apply to large firms also apply to the extra-large firm, with one significant addition:

  • Some mega-firms are using “extra-large” firms as a “farm team” for poaching promotable staff. If extra-large firms wish to retain these people, firms must have a strategy to compete with the training, benefits, and flexibility offered by the global firms.

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