How to Choose the Right CRM Software for Your Accounting Firm

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A CRM is a great tool for keeping your accounting clients happy. But what should you look for and do you really need one? Let's find out.

As a firm owner focused on growing your business, you want to develop new relationships with potential clients while also providing excellent service for your existing clients. That can be challenging, especially if finding the time to work on your business competes with the time required to work in your business. 

The best firms understand that nurturing client relationships and being responsive to their communication is key. It can mean the difference between getting and retaining clients or letting them get scooped up by one of your competitors. Successful growth will require you to streamline your processes, delegate more tasks to your team, and help them get rid of administrative inefficiencies so they can prioritize their time around billable work.

That’s why accounting CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software can be especially helpful for your firm. A CRM tool will allow you to keep track of potential clients and make sure that your existing clients are happy. The outcome will be reduced stress along with improved team collaboration, efficiency, transparency, and accountability—setting your firm up for continued growth and success. 

As with most investments in your business, landing on the best CRM option can be a complex and research-heavy process. You want to be sure that you actually need a CRM and that your platform choice serves your needs. Read on for a deep dive into what CRM is, when it may be useful for your accounting firm, and how to effectively vet CRM platforms.

What is accounting CRM?

Customer relationship management (CRM) is software that manages your firm’s client information as well as interactions with clients and potential clients. The purpose of accounting CRM is simple—improve client relationships to grow your firm. Accounting CRM software helps firms stay connected to clients, streamline processes, and improve profitability.

CRM software can be used to manage relationships across the entire client lifecycle—spanning marketing, sales, project work, support, and client service interactions.

CRM vs CMS: What’s the difference?

These two terms are often interchanged but mean slightly different things. CRM software is often focused on the sales cycle for clients. This is apparent in common CRM features, such as: 

  • Sales pipeline reporting
  • Email marketing
  • Auto phone dialers for prospect calls
  • Deep integrations with marketing and lead platforms

On the other hand, client management software (CMS) can go by many titles, such as client contact software or customer management software. In the accounting industry, you’ll sometimes even see CRM used interchangeably with CMS. However, the singular goal of client management software is to provide a centralized source of record where you can manage and track your client work. Rather than a focus on sales pipeline management, you’ll see things like team collaboration, project management, and due date tracking software as core features of a CMS.

Do you need a CRM?

Perhaps you’ve already given more attention to marketing, sales, and business development tactics. Maybe your firm has a growing list of potential clients and new project work. If so, then your team is likely starting to feel the growing pains of clunky client onboarding, client information spread out in a dozen different tools and browser tabs, and an ever-expanding list of administrative tasks.

According to Becky Livingston at Firm of the Future, “You know you need a CRM when your list of contacts has outgrown your Rolodex…Another indication is when you begin to forget important information about your clients, or you notice your communication with them has dwindled.”

To be more specific, if you find yourself sharing email passwords to general inboxes (like info@), putting client information in a spreadsheet so the team can access it, or spending a lot more time on internal back-and-forth before you can respond to a client, you might be ready for a centralized tool like a CRM.

Common CRM hurdles for accounting firms

According to a 2017 report from The Ackert Advisory, 62% of accounting firms have some kind of CRM software, but less than 5% use it regularly (every two weeks). The two biggest challenges to firms using their CRM regularly are ongoing data entry and lack of team accountability.

Before you decide to implement a CRM tool for your firm, consider the following hurdles and whether you’ll be able to overcome them:

1. Team buy-in

Change is hard. Adding a new tool to your team’s operations is no small feat, so you’ll need to be prepared to lead by example, help troubleshoot, request their feedback, and repeat your vision until all team members actually buy in to the benefits of a “new way of doing things.”

2. Cost

Depending on the size of your team and the number of clients you serve, a CRM tool can cost several thousand dollars per year. Before dropping that kind of financial investment, you’ll want to make sure you’re actually going to use what you’re paying for. Evaluate plenty of tools, and read through accounting forums to find out what features are worth it, and which ones go unused.

3. Ease of use and required training

Similar to your team buy-in, you’ll also want to consider how easy the tool is to use on a day-to-day basis. Does everyone have to go through onboarding training or read 5 hours of help documentation before they know how to use the tool? Beyond just the money you spend on the tool itself, you’ll want to evaluate what kind of time investment it will take to get your entire client list and everyone up and running in a new system.

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Essential CRM features for accountants

As you begin to explore CRM options for your accounting firm, be sure to keep the following features in mind. While not all of them may be relevant to your business right now, it may be valuable to have these additional features available as you become more comfortable with the platform.

1. Centralized contact list and client history

The number one feature of a CRM is that it needs to store all of your client information. It needs to be done in a way that makes that information accessible to everyone on your team and provides different accessibility options based on specific roles. As you continue to use the CRM, it should also offer a clear history for each client. That way anyone on your team can easily look back at past work and conversations and pick up where things left off.

2. Team collaboration and delegation

Most CRM tools offer a way for your team to add notes and assign tasks so that the tool becomes and remains your source of truth on all client work. Some tools also provide additional collaboration features like document sharing, email templates, and more. As you explore collaborative features, be sure that you have an idea of how you would like you and your team to work. Or at least have a list of current issues you run into that the CRM could help alleviate.

3. Sales pipeline

A core feature of CRM tools is having some way to track the lifecycle of your clients, so you can better understand the effort required to convert someone from being a potential client to a lifelong client. You should be able to see where any of your clients are in that lifecycle at any given time.

4. Automated workflows

Perhaps one of the best features of a CRM is the ability to set up and run customized, automated workflows. Turning repetitive manual tasks into automatic work your software does for you should offer huge time savings for your team. Automated workflows create an efficient way to prompt your team and your clients to take important actions at exactly the right time to keep work moving smoothly.

5. Email marketing & drip campaigns

Sophisticated CRM software will connect with your email client or email marketing software, triggering behavior-based emails that encourage your clients to take the next step in their lifecycle. Internally, you can set up email campaigns to remind accountants about upcoming deadlines or check on the progress of a file that hasn’t been marked complete yet. Externally, you can send deadline information to your clients, along with follow-ups and appointment requests.

6. Streamlined client onboarding and management

If you purchase a CRM tool specifically built for accounting firms, they may offer the ability to set up and organize your client onboarding process. If you can put the time and effort into customizing your client onboarding process via your CRM, this will reduce the administrative load for your team. With additional features like self-service client portals, document signing and sharing, and scheduled reminders, you can also manage a lot of your client administrative tasks without a lot of extra burden on your team.

7. Integrations with other software

While it’s not an absolutely critical feature, keep your eyes out for CRM software that can integrate with many of your other accounting tools, like QuickBooks, or even your calendar for meeting scheduling. Getting all of your tools to communicate with each other will keep your data clean and in sync, without lifting a finger.

8. Reporting and analytics

Data reporting is another key feature of CRM tools. Whether it’s tracking email opens and clicks, your team’s average email response times, or other useful sales pipeline data, it’s important to be able to measure key performance indicators. By measuring what matters, you’ll be able to identify ways to improve the way your firm delivers client service. 

Elevate relationships with your clients

All of these specific features aside, the important thing to keep in mind is that a CRM should help you strengthen your relationships with clients. The automation, organization, and communication benefits should make your ability to start and nurture relationships easier. As you explore and test CRM options, if you find that those benefits are not emerging then it may be best to hold off on investing in new software. 

Instead, circle back and reassess your core customer management processes. 

Determine if you’re currently able to effectively engage with clients and provide immediate value with your services. You may find that you need to establish a more consistent process for onboarding, communicating with clients, and reporting on performance. A CRM may help with some of this, but more than likely you need to revisit your methodology and advising strategy to truly make the most of it.

If any of this sounds like something your firm could benefit from, then you may want to check out the LivePlan Strategic Advisor Program Training. This self-paced online training will help you develop efficient and valuable advising services built around strengthening ongoing relationships with your clients. 

Jonathan Michael
Jonathan Michael
Jonathan is the Senior Channel Marketing Manager for Palo Alto Software.
Posted in Growth & Productivity