We had another very productive meeting of the Mid-Market Tech Forum this week, where the focus of conversation was on automating practice management and where improvements can be made. Discussions centred around four areas:
What have firms automated?
Several areas were highlighted, with timesheets, budgeting, invoicing and CRM at the top of the list. A few stated that they had built bespoke applications on existing systems, particularly in relation to reporting and dashboards. Client acceptance, management and due diligence were also highlighted, with links into client portals.
Main benefits reported were saving time and cost. Issues included staff resistance to change and a need to update their skills, in particular in relation to persuasion and negotiation.
Review of vendors
A list of the main vendors in this space was drawn up and discussed. In addition to the ‘usual suspects’ it was noted a number of firms undertake bespoke development. There was consensus that the market was somewhat underserved, due partly to its size, leading to slow development. This effect was added to by the high cost of switching.
Moving to the cloud was discussed at length, with existing systems being transferred to the cloud, but little being added over and above the existing legacy systems, meaning potential benefits and new ways of working offered by the new technology were often not being utilised.
This group also mentioned looking outside accountancy at other service sectors, particularly legal, where many of the issues (plan and monitor work tasks and forecast and collect fees) are similar.
It was suggested that collective action could be taken to apply some market pressure, with the leading vendors invited to future meetings of the forum to review these issues with the group.
What additional functionality is needed?
This group reflected the frustration expressed in the previous one, that the impulse for change has had to come from the firms rather than the vendors themselves. Cloud again featured, with problems with mobile integration for timesheets and difficulties carrying on working in mobile/cloud not-spots, which still exist around the country.
This is leading firms to look outside traditional suppliers at other types of solution, whether it be newer systems like Silverfin, or traditional ERP vendors such as Agresso.
Are apps filling the gap?
This group confirmed there were apps that could help extend functionality, but highlighted there is a proliferation of apps, making choosing the right one difficult. Many apps offer a free trial period, making it possible to switch quite often. Two apps mentioned as helpful were Netdocs (online document management) and Microsoft Flow (now called Power Automate, which connects the Office 365 suite).
The group also spent time discussing general adoption and change management, noting apps are easier for individual staff to pick up and experiment with, but that makes them harder to control and get oversight on.
So plenty of information sharing and validation in the room – plus a request to meet with the leading vendors to offer group experience and suggestions.
If you are an accounting firm that operates in the mid-market and would like to join the forum, please mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A fuller version of this article will be included in the Tech Faculty magazine Chartech. We will also publish an overview of Practice Management suppliers serving smaller practitioners at the end of February. You can read an overview of the Tech Faculty and how to join online.
What's missing from mid-tier PM systems - API's and a willingness from current incumbent software suppliers to realise it's no longer the 90's and that multi-platform integrations are a necessity. They should focus on their key strengths, not mess about with portals, CRM, marketing etc - all of these are better served by purpose built apps. To see what is likely to happen over the next few years you only have to look down the firm size market to the likes of Karbon (and others) who have effectively replaced the old cohort of suppliers in this market.
Microsoft Flow - the poor man's Zapier! I've tried it and it's pretty awful. It might be integrated with O365 but unlike Teams which is a reasonable replacement for Slack Flow is way off the mark.