I’m proud to be a certified public accountant. My profession is highly regarded. We are known to be financial experts. We are trusted and respected. We are relied upon as advisors, counselors and consultants to help guide our clients through business problems ranging from mergers and acquisitions to succession and estate planning. CPAs do these things well.
But unfortunately we don’t do everything well. And one of the things we do quite badly is use customer relationship management systems. I know this because my tech company has tried – and failed – to implement CRMs at a dozen small and mid-sized accounting firms over the past few years.
By failure I mean that each of these firms spent a significant amount of money – tens of thousands of dollars – on software and services only to either find themselves with nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet or abandoning the system altogether.
Was it because of the software? No. Was it bad consulting on my part? I don’t think so, although there’s always that possibility. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m convinced that there are other reasons contributing to these failures that are very particularly to my profession.
For starters, accountants are not marketers. We never professed to be marketers. We will never become marketers. As CPAs, our lives are based on tangible, data-driven facts. And even though the best marketers are data-driven marketers, we accountants don’t seem to connect that data to our CRM systems. We still don’t appreciate the value of tracking conversations, email exchanges and demographic information in a shared database. We are bad at collecting and following up leads. We have been trained to analyze past transactions and are not accustomed to looking at the future with things like “pipeline reports” and “opportunity analysis.”
We cringe at being called “salespeople” or “marketers.” We’re financial people! Unfortunately, that’s the illusion we create for ourselves. We know that we must market to grow. But we pass those dirty tasks off to others that “handle those things.” And because of that we don’t provide enough resources or priority to our marketing teams. That is assuming that we even have a marketing team.
The next reason has to do with the data itself. Every accounting firm I know has practice management systems that handle time and billing and client activities. These systems are core to their firms. They remind us of tax deadlines and financial issues and keep relevant personal and corporate information to best serve our clients. But these are not CRM systems. They are not connected to our websites. They can’t send mass emails. They don’t let us create marketing campaigns. Leads don’t go here. Relationships aren’t tracked. Data isn’t leveraged for promotional activities.
But accountants are busy people and even maintaining a good practice management system sucks up a lot of non-billable administrative time. And when “busy season” comes (generally January through April) the last thing they will do is spend time on a CRM system. To them, their practice management systems are all that matters. And so a CRM system falls away unused.
Another factor: accounting firms, by their nature, are partner driven. CPAs, like attorneys, build their own mini-practices both inside and outside of the firm. Individual partners tend to operate in silos. They keep very close to their clients and work very hard to keep them happy. Sure, they rely on other systems to bill and track work activities. But they’ve got their specific, protected, proprietary way of doing things on their own little island and they’re not very motivated to share with others. Of course, this hurts the overall value of a firm but even as much as many partners say they care deeply about the firm’s future they’re reluctant to bend on how they do things because they feel that what they’re doing is core to that very future. Maybe they’re right. We’ll never know because change is elusive.
Which brings me to the final reason why CPA firms are so bad with CRM: old people.
A number of reports – like this one – peg the average age of the typical accountant to be in their mid-40’s. A 2017 report in the CPA Journal says their average age is actually in the mid-50’s. That means that the typical partner has been doing what they’ve been doing for at least 20 or 30 years, and usually more. They’ve built their own little fiefdoms using Outlook, Google, a spreadsheet or even – and I’m not kidding – index cards and rolodexes and they’re not about to change what they do just for the sake of some new, unproven CRM system. We have our routines (we accountants like our routines). We are uncomfortable with change. We will hold on to our personal client databases until you pry it from our cold, dead fingers.
That’s a huge problem because CRM systems rely on collaboration. They only work when a firm buys into them fully and everyone shares their data. When just one or two key partners ignore the system because they don’t want to change their ways then they’ve created the broken link that brings the system down. This happens a lot. And it’s fatal.
All of these reasons add up to a big problem for anyone implementing a CRM system at an accounting firm. None of these factors are easily surmountable. Each and every one have contributed to my many CRM implementation failures. You would think that, being a CPA, I would have some magical answer to overcome these issues. But I don’t. Which is why whenever I encounter a prospective CPA firm as a CRM client I back away slowly, then turn around and run. I love my profession. But I know its limitations.