The shift from point solutions to integrated systems: A modern approach for accounting firms
In September’s Thought Leader column, I introduced you to point solutions and talked about whether they’re the best way to handle firm management. This month, I’d like to go deeper into the topic of point solutions, their limitations and the rise of integrated systems.
A review of point solutions
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read the September column yet, in this context, a point solution is a software app or tool that’s designed to address a singular or specific task or problem within an accounting firm. While point solutions are often adept at performing the particular tasks they’re designed for, they operate in isolation and may not communicate seamlessly with other systems or tools.
If you look back at the last 30 years of firm technology, it’s apparent that we’re entering a new phase. The initial phase was the rapid creation of core technology solutions that solved big challenges like automating the accounting system, payroll and tax returns. Then came the need for some level of integration, so we saw the evolution of software suites from companies like Thomson Reuters, Wolter Kluwer and Intuit.
The big suite vendors were unable to—or chose not to—keep pace with the rapid move to the cloud and the desire for a much better digital client experience. That opened the door for point solutions designed to accomplish specific tasks. However, we’re now at a place where integrated systems are essential for accounting firms aiming for efficiency, adaptability and scalability.
The limitations of point solutions
Here’s a list of functional areas for firm management that firms are solving for with different point solutions today:
- Time, billing and workflow management
- Client communications
- Proposals and engagement letters
- Prospect management
- Client surveys
- Document management
- Client portals
The tasks involved can range from invoicing, getting paid, managing documents and communicating with clients to other specialized functions.
There are so many point solutions available today that firms I talk with often use more than two dozen distinct solutions to solve their firm’s needs. That means with each point solution operating as a standalone, firms face the daunting task of managing multiple systems—each with its own different maintenance requirements, upgrades and subscription fees.
The integration issue also looms large, as ensuring seamless communication and data flow between these isolated systems becomes a massive undertaking.
Data silos are a challenge, too, where crucial data is sequestered within individual systems, impeding the fluid exchange of information and insights across the firm. In an era where data is king, these silos can severely hamper informed decision-making and strategic insights.
Furthermore, the specialized nature of point solutions inherently limits their flexibility. As businesses evolve, adapt and face unprecedented challenges, these systems can become more of a shackle than an enabler—constraining the firm’s agility and responsiveness and leading to:
- Specialization overkill: The bloat of applications creates over-compartmentalization of data and inefficiency for the team.
- Integration challenges: It’s complicated to create seamless data flow and communication between different point solutions.
- Cost implications: There are both overt and hidden costs associated with maintaining multiple point solutions.
- Staff complexity: Such a large number of solutions inevitably creates complexity for staff onboarding, offboarding and training.
The rise of integrated systems
A modern, integrated solution significantly reduces the number of separate applications needed to accomplish the same set of tasks. Since the core of every accounting firm is the client, an integrated solution includes all the functionality needed to manage the client relationship.
Any integrated solution you consider for your firm should be built with the following principles in mind:
- A holistic approach: The core value proposition of many point solutions can be consolidated into an all-encompassing integrated system. Remember, the realistic goal for firms is not to get to one overall solution, but to limit the quantity of solutions.
- Data consistency: Single points of truth help ensure data accuracy and consistency across different functional areas.
- Enhanced collaboration: When data is centralized, it’s much easier to train staff and provides enhanced workflow consistency.
- Cost efficiency: There are overall cost savings in direct and indirect costs, such as training and maintaining the system.
So, how will two of the most important issues firms (and all businesses) face today work with integrated solutions? Here are my predictions:
- AI and machine learning: A modern firm will leverage AI and machine learning to create efficiencies and better team and client experiences. The more data that’s consolidated, the more AI and machine learning can assist and provide value.
- Security and compliance: Every vendor you use has a potential direct connection to your systems via the internet. The more vendors you use, the greater the vulnerability. The trend will be to limit the amount of exposure and ensure the vendors you use exercise the best security practices.
The intricate dance of business operations demands more than precision in isolation; it calls for cohesion, flexibility and integration. While point solutions have played their part in the past few years, the future of accounting is integrative, adaptive and holistic. What would have been apps that supported individual startup companies over the last few years are now becoming, instead, features that are part of more holistic integrated solutions.
We now live in an era where data is not just accurate but also accessible; insights are not just profound but also actionable; and where accounting firms are not just responsive but also strategic visionaries in business operation landscapes.
Why every accounting firm needs a culture champion
Accounting firms are renowned for their commitment to precision, professionalism and accuracy in handling tax and accounting matters. While these traits are undoubtedly essential, there’s another often overlooked aspect that can make a significant impact on your accounting firm’s success: company culture.
In this article, we want to explore why having someone in charge of shaping and nurturing culture in your firm isn’t just important—it’s critical.
The basics of culture
Company culture is defined as the collective personality of an organization. It encompasses the shared values, beliefs, practices and behaviors that define the working environment.
In the world of accounting—where strict regulations and data security are paramount—you might think that culture takes a backseat. However, culture plays a crucial role in shaping your firm’s reputation, client relationships, employee satisfaction and even its ability to adapt to change.
Your company culture impacts so much of your business. Of course, your clients are crucial to keeping your business’s bills paid and the doors open. But the next most important asset in your firm? Your employees.
Think about it: Employees are your firm’s public face. They’re the ones who develop deep relationships with clients and colleagues. When employees are satisfied, they’re more likely to stay and deliver exceptional work. Not to mention that existing employees are also your best recruiting tool.
Having happy employees really does create a happier, healthier and more profitable firm. And that happiness is a byproduct of your culture.
The role of a culture champion
Have you heard the old adage, “If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible?” What that means, in its simplest form, is that if accountability isn’t established, then no one is held responsible for the outcome of something.
In this case, the ‘something’ is company culture. With client work typically being priority number one, other priorities tend to fall by the wayside. This is why it’s important to task a team member with the responsibility of being the firm’s culture champion.
So, what is a culture champion, and what’s their role in your accounting firm? They’re the team member who is most likely to:
- Define and promote core values. The culture champion is someone who helps develop, clarify and advance the core values that guide the firm’s behavior, ensuring that these values align with the firm’s mission and goals.
- Create a positive work environment. They make an effort to create a work environment that fosters employee well-being, collaboration and open communication.
- Build employee engagement. They focus on engaging employees, recognizing their achievements, and providing opportunities for personal and professional growth.
- Support adaptation and innovation. They promote a culture of adaptability and innovation by encouraging employees to embrace change and identify opportunities for improvement.
- Strengthen ‘client-centricity.’ The culture champion reinforces a client-centric mindset and reminds employees of the importance of delivering value to clients and building lasting relationships.
In the competitive landscape of accounting firms, the importance of having someone in charge of culture cannot be overstated. Your culture champion will play a pivotal role in shaping your firm’s reputation, retaining talent and fostering an environment that thrives on adaptability and client satisfaction.
By recognizing the significance of culture and designating a champion, you can position your accounting firm for sustained success and longevity in a rapidly changing industry.
Speak now or forever hold your peace…
As the year draws to a close and tax season approaches, we’re all gearing up for another busy—and critical—time of the year.
Yes, it’s only November, but by the time you get around to reading this it will almost be Thanksgiving. I know many of you have a lot on your plate right now (and I’m not talking about the turkey, ham and mashed potatoes), and may be focusing on the technical aspects of tax preparation.
But it’s equally important to consider the communication plan that will help set the stage for a successful season. Strategic communication is a key factor in maintaining strong client relationships and ensuring a smooth tax season.
Effective communication is a cornerstone of client relationships for any firm. A well-planned communication strategy can enhance client satisfaction, prevent misunderstandings, and promote trust and transparency. The benefits of having a communication plan are particularly pronounced during the busy tax season, when clients are anxious about what’s to come.
The 7 elements of a comprehensive communication plan
Before embarking on your communication efforts, it’s essential to define the purpose. Is it to provide clients with tax deadlines and updates, offer financial planning advice or share firm news? Knowing the purpose will help align your messaging and maintain focus.
Recognize that not all clients are the same. Segment your clients into groups based on their needs, preferences and circumstances. Tailor your communication to these segments to make it more relevant and effective.
Craft clear and concise messages that convey the information or advice you want to share. Above all, your message should be easy to understand. Avoid jargon or technical terms that clients may not comprehend.
Content is king in the world of communication. Whether you’re sending emails, newsletters or conducting webinars, your content should be informative, engaging and valuable to your clients. This may include tax tips, financial planning strategies or updates on tax law changes.
Consider the most suitable communication channels for your clients. Email, phone calls, in-person meetings and social media are all viable options. Use the channels that align with your client’s preferences while maintaining a consistent brand image across all platforms.
Strike a balance between maintaining regular communication and avoiding overload. Clients appreciate consistent updates and check-ins, but too many messages can be overwhelming. Plan your communication frequency wisely.
The tone of your communication should reflect your firm’s values and culture. It should be professional, yet friendly and approachable. Tailor the tone to your client segments as well, keeping in mind their expectations and comfort levels.
Communication: Not just for tax season anymore
While tax season is a focal point for many public accounting firms, it’s important to note that effective communication should be maintained throughout the year. Regular updates, financial advice and relationship-building shouldn’t be confined to a specific season.
Year-round communication not only benefits your firm with client retention and referrals. It also keeps you in touch with your clients’ changing needs and circumstances, allowing you to adapt and provide more tailored services.
In the accounting world, strategic communication is a vital asset that should not be overlooked. By developing a well-structured communication plan with…
- A clear purpose
- A deep understanding of your audience
- Effective messaging
- Valuable content
- The right channels
- Suitable frequency
- A consistent tone
…your firm can build and maintain:
- Strong client relationships
- Enhance client satisfaction
- And, ultimately, ensure a successful tax season
Remember, these principles apply not just during tax season but throughout the entire year, leading to sustained growth and client trust.
Rightworks Academy members can review the many resources linked to our Client communications strategy lesson (login required) and take advantage of the samples we’ve provided to get a head start ASAP.
And trust me: you’ll want to get started before you realize tax season is right around the corner. (Which, in my experience, usually happens right after you gobble the last of the leftovers. Enjoy those hot turkey sandwiches!)
Do cybersecurity measures actually do any good?
The acronym “FUD,” which stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, was popular in the technology industry of the ‘90s. Big tech vendors constantly accused each other—as well as various journalists, analysts and other observers—of spreading FUD. (The vendors also spread a lot of FUD themselves, so the accusations were well-founded in many cases.)
FUD might seem like one of those ‘90s expressions that hasn’t stood the test of time, like “raise the roof” or “talk to the hand.” But someone on the infallible summation of all human history, Wikipedia, figures FUD dates back in some form to the 1920s…or even possibly to 1693! By the mid-‘70s, FUD was a pretty common acronym in marketing presentations.
However you refer to the concept of FUD today, there’s plenty of it around discussions of cybersecurity. The difference between 1990s (or 1690s) marketing FUD and 2020s cybersecurity FUD is that the current version is real. It’s not just marketing or competitive blather between software vendors. Cybersecurity is a realm full of very real fear, uncertainty and doubt—and it should be.
The requisite scary numbers never seem to change
You’ll never read an article on cybersecurity without having to wade through some scary numbers, so here they are. They serve as yet another reminder that your firm is constantly under attack. Ready?
- Attacks occurred at a pace of more than 11 per minute from March to May 2023. The pace of attacks is actually increasing.
- The median ransom payment for recovery of stolen information was more than $190,000 in Q2 2023, up 20% from Q1. And yes, that includes even the smallest businesses. Imagine your firm taking that kind of hit.
- About 30% of ransomware attacks target small businesses. Being a small firm doesn’t make you a safe firm.
- Cyber insurance premiums rose by 20% in 2022, so even those companies that haven’t been hit by ransomware yet are still paying for it.
Does cybersecurity ever make anything better?
It all becomes FUD overload after a while, right? A devastating cyberattack seems inevitable. Nearly every day, you see someone trying to sell you cybersecurity in some form—an application, a service, even a philosophy. Yet, the numbers around cybersecurity get worse and worse. Does any of this security stuff actually work?
In fact, it does. And that’s not the beginning of a pitch to get you to buy security services. It’s a statistically valid perspective. OK, would-be cyberattackers aren’t slowing their efforts to steal your data, and the pace of attacks generally increases all the time. Your firm really does face a constant threat. Thanks to cybersecurity technology and services, though, businesses are getting better at stopping threats. And it shows.
Numbers show cybersecurity is working after all
Progress might be slow and sporadic, but it’s progress, nonetheless. Look at ransomware, for starters. The median ransom paid by businesses to recover data increased in Q2 2023. Bad news, right? Sure. But the percentage of attack victims that paid a ransom dropped to a record low.
Ultimately, 34% of victims paid up—still an uncomfortably large percentage. But a record low in the percentage of cyberattack victims paying a ransom is good news. Even companies that lose data to thieves are able to recover it without paying to get it back. That’s a win for cybersecurity! Of course, that number doesn’t include the literal millions of attacks that security technologies and services warded off before any damage ever occurred.
We’re getting smarter about cybersecurity, too. Training employees to avoid threats is paying off, at least here in the US. The most recent National Privacy Test, conducted separately in countries around the world, showed that internet users in the US and Germany jointly ranked second in the world for security savvy, right behind Poland and Singapore.
Basically, we’re getting better at creating strong passwords, rapidly updating applications, avoiding dubious online offers and keeping personally identifiable information off the internet—including social media. Only 1% of Americans who took part in the survey turned out to be extremely cybernaïve. Almost one-fifth achieved the highest level of security awareness.
How to approach cybersecurity with confidence
Some of the improvements in security expertise have to be the result of security training in workplaces, which teaches employees how to, for example, avoid ransomware emails. No doubt a steady stream of blog posts and online articles full of scary numbers have helped as well…right?
Then there’s the drop in the percentage of companies paying a ransom for data. That number is a sign that many organizations have invested in cybersecurity infrastructure robust enough that a cyberattack doesn’t do significant financial damage—even if it does sneak through a company’s defenses. Threat mitigation is a real and important facet of cybersecurity.
Of course, cybersecurity is and will remain a major concern of firm owners. But there are a couple of things that firms can do to keep moving security in the right direction:
- Let experts handle it. Run your applications and store your data in the cloud, where trained professionals safeguard and back up your clients’ critical information. Don’t risk managing security yourself.
- Train your staff to avoid security threats. The overwhelming majority of cyberattacks can’t happen without someone in your firm taking part in it, however unwittingly. The more your employees know, the smaller your risk.
The only cybersecurity number that really matters is 1. Every day your firm doesn’t lose data to a cyberattack is a good day. With a cloud partner, you can approach security not with FUD but with BCC: Bravery, Certainty and Confidence. OK, that doesn’t really form a catchy acronym. But it’s still way better than FUD.
Is it time to tidy up your firm’s online presence?
As the year waltzes to a close and the holidays jingle their way in, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…to manage your online presence.
I get it; the prospect of conducting a year-end audit of your firm’s online presence may not sound particularly enticing—especially when you’re hustling to wrap things up before year-end. Plus, schedules fill up, priorities shift and people take time off, which too often means putting this task off until next year.
Luckily for you, however, I’m here with my annual reminder to spiff up your online presence for the holidays and beyond. Every end-of-year marketing checklist should include a few digital essentials to get the new year rolling on the right hoof. So, I’ve got a checklist to help steer you and your team through these must-dos before the curtain falls on the year.
Spruce up your social media and Google Business Profiles
It’s easy to spend so much time making sure your website is right that your social media and Google Business Profiles (GBP) get pushed to the side to be looked at “later” (aka “some undetermined time in the next decade”). As a result, these platforms—which play just as crucial a role in your online presence as your website—sit unused and neglected.
Here are three ways you can give your social media and GBP a facelift and kickstart 2024 with a little razzle-dazzle and a big, fabulous bang:
- Amp up those keywords. Give your firm’s description, bios, services and other details a keyword-rich makeover, making it easy for potential clients to find you.
- Show some sparkle with new imagery. Toss in fresh snapshots of your office, your amazing team and other fun quirks that make your firm stand out.
- Set the stage with a social media calendar. Begin filling your 2024 calendar with posts and outreach that resonate with your target audience and strategy. Rightworks Academy members: Don’t forget to toss in posts from your Rightworks content package, featuring cool graphics and content from In The Loop/Advantage magazines, QuickReads articles and eBooks.
Audit your online reviews
Client testimonials are powerful marketing tools for accounting firms, and they’re an excellent way to showcase your expertise to potential clients. Take the time to evaluate your online reviews…and develop a plan to gather more in 2024.
Here are three more tips to get you more of those bright and shiny reviews:
- Respond to reviews received in the past six months. Express your gratitude to reviewers who have left four or more stars. Reach out to those who have given lower ratings (three stars or fewer) to discuss their concerns directly. A polite response can turn the tune around—and Google loves to see you tuning into your reviews.
- Identify trends in review activity. Determine if there were specific periods during the year when you received an influx of reviews. For instance, tax season may present opportunities to request reviews from clients.
- Make online review management a year-round priority. If you promise to consistently manage your online reviews to maintain a robust online presence, I promise to dial back on these yearly reminders. Deal?
Remember, managing your online presence is a team gig. Assign tasks to your crew to create a sense of unity and enthusiasm. The more engaged your team is, the more likely your online presence will remain in good shape throughout the year.
If you’re interested in learning more about enhancing your firm’s online presence, take a peek at our Digital Marketing Solutions and see how we can make your online presence glow!
On our bookshelf
The Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off
by Mason Donovan and Mark Kaplan
Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business
by Patrick M. Lencioni
The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI
by Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley
What’s going on at Rightworks Academy?
Events for members
Check out these events exclusively for Rightworks Academy members.
- November 14: Marketing Solutions webinar: How personal engagement can increase organic leads for your firm
- December 6: Cleaning up your systems for the new year
- December 7: Winter Culture webinar
- December 13: Getting ready for busy season, Part 1: Organizing your management solutions and processes
See the entire webinar schedule and register at Community > Events in your Rightworks Academy account.
November 28-30: Sarasota, Florida—Rightworks Academy members: It’s not too late to register for Inspire 2023! There’s still time to join like-minded firm owners, partners and leadership from across the country for three days of inspiration, education and even a bit of relaxation!
Learn more on the Inspire conference page.
Events for members and non-members
Not a Rightworks Academy member yet? We have you covered with live and on-demand events where you can learn more about Rightworks Academy and the latest hot topics in the profession.
Visit rightworks.com/resources/live-on-demand-webinars/ for a continually updated schedule of events.
In the spotlight this month:
The Modern Firm® playbook
Dive into The Modern Firm playbook—a comprehensive guide to building and managing a thriving firm in the modern era—with Rightworks Academy member coach Tiffany Caponigro. You’ll discover how to adapt to changing market dynamics, embrace innovation and drive sustainable growth by implementing the four smart pillars of a modern firm.
Register at rightworks.com/webinars/modern-firm-playbook
CPA Practice Advisor’s 2023 Ensuring Success
December 6-7, 2023
Meet your year-end CPE requirements from anywhere, on any device—no cost, no travel, no hotel! CPA Practice Advisor’s two-day, livestreamed interactive continuing education sessions feature an exciting lineup of well-known accounting profession speakers.
Register now at ensuringsuccess.com/
What’s new on the blog?
From ways to leverage AI during busy season to developing a firm playbook to knowing when it’s time to say goodbye to those…umm…challenging clients, the Rightworks blog has the information Rightworks Academy members need to stand out from the crowd. Check out our newest posts, and don’t forget to bookmark the blog so you can stay up to date.
Read the latest posts at rightworks.com/blog.
Milestone member anniversaries
It’s time to recognize the Rightworks Academy member firms that have reached their first, fifth and tenth anniversaries! Help us wish the following firms a Happy Anniversary:
Dejene & Associates, Inc.
CPA Dream Team (Elizabeth A Ulrich CPA LLC)
E & M, PLLC
Mash Financial Planning
Roslund, Prestage & Company, P.C.
Goldsmith Molis & Gray
Valezar & Associates Inc.
Strong & Kuhni LC
Gruber and Associates, P.A.
Fellner & Kuhn, LLP
Pyle & Associates, P.C.
Scher Group, PLLC
Teeling & Co
CPA Professionals, Inc.
Your Office Biz Inc
Lange Tax & Financial Services
Kernochan & Associates, Inc.
Matthew Accounting, PLLC
Hammar & Associates
The Neve Group, LTD.
Bryan J Archer CPA PA
Knoll & Company
Integrated Payroll Systems (Arvanites & Associates)
Robert S. Cranston, CPA
Winters Financial Group
De La Rosa & Company
Montgomery & Company, CPAs
Congratulations on your success, and we look forward to celebrating many more anniversaries with you and your teams!