ARE WE FREE-FALLING?
When I began my consulting career with accounting firms in the early 1990’s, I was shocked at how many programs each firm used.These clients, which were primarily accounting firms, needed more applications to run their practice than most small businesses. As Windows took off, my client’s desktops became cluttered with accounting software icons.
When I first attended the Technology show in 2000 at the LAX airport in Los Angeles, there must have been a hundred vendors showing their applications. There were nearly twenty time and billing programs and ten tax programs.
Year after year these numbers continuing reducing. By 2011, there were no time and billing programs and only four tax programs. Only three practice management programs exhibited. For accountants the choices are fewer every year.
It is as if our industry is free falling without a parachute.
Over the last decade, we have seen company after company being bought out by a large corporation like CCH or Thomson. Most of the programs were discontinued or shelved and users were either forced to move to a different application or find another vendor. Elimination is what the bigger vendors are after. It seems so un-American to eliminate choices. Our country was founded on great ideas and fair trade practices. When you spend nearly 25 years working in the accounting industry, you begin to care about the thousands of accountants in our industry. You recognize all the effort they put into serving their clients and improving their firms. You begin to care and caring turns into effort to solve problems, build applications that transform firms. As a company becomes bigger, it suffers from a lack of identity and eventually loses all ability to care except for the bottom line. This is what the accounting software industry is currently suffering from.
You wonder if those who run such companies remember what it was like to run their firm or small practice, or if they ever did. With 90% of practices having two or less professionals and less than ten total staff, we need to relate to them in order to serve them. I believe in order to serve these professionals and their firms you must understand them, care and then have the ability to create something they need.
When developing software, you ask yourself some critical questions. You say: How are we going to be viewed? What are we trying to accomplish? What problem are we trying to solve? How can we serve a purpose? How can we be relevant? One thing’s for sure…to be relevant, you need to be accessible and let users decide what works for them. You have to empower them, not enslave them.
Those who only think of how financially successful they can be, will make critical mistakes. One of those mistakes is making software that doesn’t integrate with other applications.
At Office Tools Professional, we saw a need at accounting firms for the integration of process and data. Too many firms were using three, four and even five applications to manage their office. We also saw that in order to bring together all their processes and truly improve firm’s productivity, we would need to create something unique. We also knew it must integrate well with others. First we decided that the data and documents belong to the accounting firms, not us. We selected Microsoft SQL which allows end user control. Then we asked, “how can we store documents so they could easily be accessed if a user decided to use another application provider?” This means the firms critical data is under their control. If you can’t keep customers happy by keeping your software relevant, you certainly can’t by imprisoning their documents or data.
We also knew our application needed to integrate within itself. This means our internal features need to be easily connected together. We made sure the connected features like Call Tracking, Due Dates, Workflow, Time & Billing, Scheduling and Document Management worked seamlessly together and worked in a single unified screen.
Most importantly, we created ways to integrate with others. We allow all other program’s contact information to be added to our Practice Management Software through MS Excel, our synchronization products as well as directly through Microsoft SQL. We also integrate with Adobe, Google Maps, MS Office, Intuits QuickBooks and Lacerte, LaserApp for investment managers, Dymo label printers and others. To make things even sweeter, we allow users to export any data or report to Excel. We also gave our users the ability to create their own reports with Crystal Reports.
Could you imagine a tax program with integrated features from other applications similar to the way Intuit QuickBooks allows? New document features like SmartVault has done or tracking and Time integration with a Practice Management program like Office Tools Professional? I can. The problem lies with the accounting software vendors. Their Tax and Accounting programs are proprietary and don’t allow real integration with others. It seems in this technological age where sharing of information is the norm, hat these companies need to open their doors. QuickBooks has. Sales Force dot com has. Facebook and Google have. Why haven’t other vendors, especially the large vendors who claim to lead our industry?
Recently one of our customers was considering moving their firm to Thomsons Software offerings. They said to me “I might as well move to Thompson they will rule the world someday anyway”. With Thompson controlling a large part of accounting education with its “Gear Up” brand training and with the many proprietary applications they offer, I am concerned firms are no longer being offered any choices. The Gear Up conferences do not let any competing vendor’s (nearly all non-Thomson vendors) exhibit at their corporate conferences; conferences, where they educate Accountants about technology and provide information on how to run their firms. Once again taking away choice and controlling information. This is truly not culturally acceptable with today’s technology where information sharing is the norm. While this big corporate behavior seems to strengthen and unify, it actually stifles innovation and stops the advancement of technology.
I think it is derived from a plan to lock users into their products. This keeps users from ever leaving because they fear losing historical data. Think about it, you lock all of your data into their program and you can never experience new things or explore new technology. I suggest consumers beware of these providers. If you are not careful, you will be waiting on the sidelines watching other firms move ahead of you, while you remain locked into their programs
So what can the accountant do? I say get up and call your software provider and say, “When are you going to allow integration?” If you are not sure about your provider, ask them, “is your software data proprietary? Is it accessible to other programs?” You can also ask what other software programs integrate with it….if there is silence on the end of the phone hang up and run! Find a vendor who has your best interest in mind and can help you truly take advantage of today’s technology.
I believe that customers will continue to demand true integration and an openness that creates an environment for improved applications and offerings to the accounting industry. Those who don’t serve the accounting industry fairly will be left out of a new world culture of creativity and sharing. Competition is good for the consumer, the developers and the industry.
It’s time for the software vendors in our industry to sell new ideas, better ways of doing things, not spending time creating applications that limit accountants in a proprietary way. This is a disservice to the accounting profession and lends itself towards a monopolistic approach. An approach that leaves the accountant and the industry free-falling without a parachute.