- CRM (customer relationship management) software is the best way to manage the process for turning referrals and online inquiries into customers.
- Smaller practices may find free CRM solutions from the likes of HubSpot and Mailchimp adequate for their needs.
- In the UK, tools such as Senta, AccountancyManager, Pixie and Onkho have tackled CRM first, then added job workflows to build a practice management system.
Illustrations by Tanya Cooper
Sales is a challenging topic for many accountants. This is particularly true for small business owners who have risen on the strength of their expertise rather than their sales prowess.
The state of software in the accounting profession reflects this discomfort. While there are many applications that will help accountants improve the efficiency of the accounting workflow, there are few sales applications built specifically for accountants.
Even within practice management suites, the modules for managing customer relationships are overshadowed by job tracking and time billing.
And yet CRM (customer relationship management) software remains the best way to manage the process for turning referrals and online inquiries into customers. This process is essentially the same for any business, which means that low-cost, generic CRMs are well suited to accountants looking to expand their client base.
How practice management tools can be used for CRM
Adding new customers is a different process to selling to existing customers, however. You also don’t want a long list of leads, which includes individuals who will never be your customers, clogging your client database. Proactive firms typically will turn to their practice management suite to segment customers and show who is most likely to buy a complementary service.
This is a growing trend in the UK, which is a hotbed of accountancy R&D (research and development).
In the past five years, tools such as Senta, AccountancyManager, Pixie and Onkho have repositioned practice management as a function of CRM, says Richard Sergeant, managing director of Principle Point, a UK-based software consultancy.
“They have built practice management as a CRM first and added [job] workflows,” he says.
“Now you don’t have a separation between two systems, you just have a separation of workflows within the same system.”
When shopping for a CRM, it’s worth considering whether to buy software that has the ability to email leads as well. The most popular electronic newsletter or electronic direct mail (EDM) applications have added features from CRMs.
This makes them an easy way to experiment with sales processes in your firm without needing to spend more on a dedicated CRM.
CRM solutions you can get for free
Mailchimp has long been one of the most popular email marketing companies for firms of all sizes. It has transformed into a full marketing engine with a CRM that tracks communications with prospects across email, social media and digital ads; a free simple website or paid ecommerce website; landing pages, sign-up forms and conversion analytics.
Intuit paid US$12 billion for Mailchimp in 2021, one of its largest acquisitions to date.
Mailchimp has a great free plan for up to 2000 contacts. Its entry-level plans start at US$11 a month for 500 contacts.
It has an attractive, intuitive interface, is designed for small businesses and is a great option for sole traders and firms with three accountants or less.
HubSpot is another popular choice which has an excellent, free CRM that tracks prospects to customers. The paid CRM includes features such as live chat, personalised video messaging and a meeting scheduler. HubSpot also includes a marketing platform that sends newsletters, hosts landing pages and marketing videos, and manages social media.
The enterprise suite extends further into operations, service desk and a content management system (CMS) – the latter is actually useful for marketing because it can alter the text on a web page to show headlines or blocks of text relevant to the visitor. For example, if someone clicks on a digital ad for tax services and HubSpot identifies their location as Victoria, the webpage could add text such as “Meet our top tax advisers in Melbourne”.
HubSpot is surprisingly easy to use for such a powerful suite of software. You can use all the suites for free if you have only low usage. The price can quickly jump once you move to the paid plans. It is best suited to firms with more than 10 staff that have the capacity, processes and ambition to add more customers quickly.
What paid CRM system works for accountants?
Pipedrive is the polar opposite of HubSpot’s suite-based approach. It does one thing and one thing well – it turns leads into customers. Its feature set is relatively modest by comparison but this makes it much easier to operate. It costs US$12.50 per user month for the starter plan. (See the breakout for Link Advisors’ experience with Pipedrive.)
Better known under its previous name as Infusionsoft, Keap rebranded three years ago in a fresh effort to target small businesses with a simpler, sharper priced product. Infusionsoft was an automation powerhouse when it came to email campaigns, such as email sequences that gradually ‘nurture’ an interested prospect towards becoming a paying customer.
Keap retains the automations and includes impressive features such as a dedicated business line and text messaging, with customisable templates for fast response. It starts at US$80 a month for one user, with additional users for US$30 a month each.
Salesforce is the original cloud CRM for enterprise, launched back in 1999. It is enterprise software in every sense of the word; not only powerful but extremely expensive, a clunky interface and complexity that requires expert users or developers to tune properly. Salesforce is overkill for all but the biggest accounting firms. Pricing varies but as an indicator expect to pay A$100 per user per month for an entry-level plan.
One of the few CRMs built specifically for accounting firms, Symphony CRM is developed on the open software Sugar CRM and is headquartered in the UK. Symphony supports the concept of customer lifecycle management where the software helps larger firms discover opportunities for cross-selling services between accountants, partners and departments.
It measures factors in a business such as methods of engagement, frequency of contact, succession planning and other insights. Symphony also automates repetitive tasks through various modules including event management, referral management, onboarding and marketing automation. Symphony doesn’t disclose pricing.
Keep your eye on this one
Tall Emu is one of the few cloud-based CRMs developed and supported in Australia. It’s also a lot more than a CRM. Tall Emu brings in all your products and inventory and sales orders to create a mini-ERP that syncs and stores financial data with MYOB or Xero. It tracks serial numbers, bill of materials, production batches, assemblies and other useful manufacturing schemas.
Tall Emu is not a logical choice for an accounting firm given its focus on materials. However, elements of it could soon appear in a practice management suite near you. MYOB acquired Tall Emu in February 2022 as a step towards building a “business management platform” for small business, says Emma Fawcett, general manager SME at MYOB.
“Our first goal with Tall Emu is to really help them scale, firstly as a standalone, but then over time, integrate their capabilities into our suite,” she says. “And when we do that, we will absolutely look at how we make that offering work for accountants as well.”
Fawcett explains that although the initial focus is on small business, accountants and bookkeepers need CRM, too.
“We can see that, as accountants and bookkeepers add more strings to their bow in advisory, or help small businesses digitise or offer other services, they’re going to need a CRM to help them manage all of that,” she says. MYOB hasn’t released any dates for adding Tall Emu to MYOB’s practice management suite.
“As accountants add more strings to their bow in advisory, or help small businesses digitise… they're going to need a CRM to help them manage all of that.”
How Link Advisors powers its CRM
A CRM is only useful for making sales if you have someone willing to drive it. Link Advisors, a small Queensland firm with 40 staff, brought on a full-time business development manager (BDM) soon after it launched four years ago. The firm adds about 10 customers a month and is in the process of hiring a second BDM for its Gold Coast office.
Unlike most other firms that live on referrals, Link Advisors has a strong stream of online leads, thanks to its 280 Google reviews. It runs a competition among staff to see who can convince the most clients to post a review each month. These reviews push up Link Advisors’ search results for keywords relating to accounting; the firm captures more leads by advertising through Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords). The steady flow of online inquiries appear in the firm’s Slack channel and are triaged and stored in the Pipedrive CRM.
The BDM contacts each lead to determine the mix of services the prospect requires, creates a proposal in Ignition (formerly Practice Ignition), and sends it off.
If the prospect accepts the proposal, Link Advisors copies their details to Karbon, the firm’s practice management software, and Xero Tax. Karbon also operates as a CRM for existing clients. It attaches emails from any staff to the customer record so the most recent conversations are viewable by anyone in the firm.
Link Advisors uses Pipedrive to track the conversion velocity, the number of lost leads and why the firm is losing leads, explains co-founder and director, Chris Tinta CA.
“We have a few different categories about why we lost the lead,” he says. “Did they say we’re too expensive? Did they say ‘we aren’t ready yet’? So we can measure why we’re not winning, as well.”
“We have a few different categories about why we lost the lead… So we can measure why we're not winning, as well.”
The challenge of an effective sales strategy is ensuring you have enough capacity to take on new clients. Link Advisors handles this by pairing Australian accountants, who hold the relationship with the client, with an offshore counterpart in the Philippines, who helps complete the work. This gives the practice the flexibility to take on more work quickly.
Another key role is Link Advisors’ “problem solver”, a senior accountant who reviews each new client and brings them up to spec. This could include building a cash flow, implementing software or tidying up the accounting file.
“The file is in line with our best practice so it can drop into their client base and be more easily managed,” Tinta explains.
The BDM and problem solver roles are a huge investment but necessary, he adds. “We can bring work on without crippling the workflow of the existing accounting team.”
What to record on a customer profile
If there’s a reliable signal of quality customer service, it’s when a supplier remembers you personally. But what personal information should you track? Kylie Parker CA, director of Lotus Accounting in Sydney, specialises in private family office services and screen industry clients. She has shared her tips for what to include on a customer record to make clients feel special.
- Names of children
- Names of pets'
- Communication preferences – email/phone/ mail etc
- Beverage preference at meetings
- Gifts given
- Family issues/disputes
- Any conflict with other clients
- Meeting dates, agenda and follow-up
- Anything out of the normal compliance that
needs completing on a regular basis
- A group structure diagram
- Personal opinions
- Anything rude or derogatory
What you need to know about four popular customer relationship management solutions
|Product||Description||Organise sales with multiple pipelines||Include automations such as sending emails to new leads||Other useful features|
|Keap||Keap offers an email marketing and sales platform for small businesses, including products to manage customers, customer relationship management, marketing, and ecommerce.||Yes||Yes||Keap has different versions to better suit different types of businesses.|
|SugarCRM||SugarCRM provides an integrated platform across marketing, sales and service. It enables users to connect and engage with customers wherever they are. It features inbound and outbound email marketing tools, social media management
capabilities, AI-driven predictive analytics, and Google Ads management tools. Sugar Sell is a sales-force automation solution that paints a clear picture of customers with an understanding of their past, present and future. It delivers accurate, AI-powered predictions about customers and your business. Sugar Serve is customer support software that has everything needed to streamline customer service processes.
|Yes||Yes||Sugar delivers a CRM platform that helps teams achieve a clear view of customers. It enables companies to access a customer’s past behaviour, have awareness of the present and make bankable predictions about the future. The system is informed by accurate internal data and the best external information available.
||Salesforce’s 360-degree customer platform enables business to develop an organisational memory of its stakeholders, including customer, third-party suppliers and regulatory bodies. This understanding enables all colleagues within a business to add value to each conversation as well as generate insights for customer contact to build trust and deepen relationships through adjacent offerings.
||HubSpot is a powerful and easy-to-use CRM platform with all the tools needed to increase leads, accelerate sales, streamline customer service, or build a powerful website. HubSpot’s CRM platform includes marketing, sales, service, operations, and website management products that start free and scale to meet your needs at any stage of growth.||Yes||Yes||With more than 1000 apps in the HubSpot Marketplace, HubSpot’s CRM platform integrates with leading accounting and bookkeeping software, including Xero, QuickBooks, Chargebee, FreshBooks and more.|