Guest Podcast – Accounting Influencers with Rob Brown
At the end of 2019, FibreCRM CEO Simon Leek was interviewed by Rob Brown on
The Accounting Influencers podcast.
Learn how successfully integrated client relationship management systems can:
- Create a client-first culture within any accountancy practice
- Enable a consistently high standard of client services delivery
- Encourage sustainable practice growth
- Increase efficiency of internal business processes
Make sure to follow the podcast by clicking the link above and subscribe on your chosen podcast platform.
RB – Great to have you on the show my friend. For people that don’t know you, Simon, just tell us about your background and what you’re doing right now.
SL – I have been in CRM for about 30 years providing consultancy to all sorts of businesses since 2010. I’ve been providing CRM software to accountancy firms.
RB – Now CRM, let’s not take things for granted here. Some people might not know what it is. So tell us what it stands for. But also tell us what it means in your eyes because the definition of it may have changed over the years.
SL – So CRM started life about 30 years ago as sort of a Salesforce automation solution for businesses looking to find new clients streamline the sales and marketing process. And over the years, it’s come to be customer relationship management.
Now in the accountancy space, it’s more about client relationship management. It’s about looking after clients more effectively. It’s about finding new customers and streamlining your sales and marketing process.
RB – Because back in the day, Simon and it was a little black book, maybe it was an Excel spreadsheet. It was the Rolodex, you remember those?
SL – Exactly, yeah.
RB – But the world started to change. And we needed something a little more sophisticated, how was CRM born?
SL – You had different products, you have contact management systems with just a basic sort of sales activity management system. You had marketing systems. So, the sort of bigger marketing analytics and email marketing capability.
CRM came as sort of an acronym to try and bring all the marketing or the sales or the customer service elements of the business together into one place so that you’ve got one central view of all the interactions going with customers with prospective customers and with potential partners.
RB – So how did you get into being especially CRM provider for accountants?
SL – Its interesting. We were providing CRM systems to all manner of firms across the UK and our own accountants came to us and said, we’ve got this database with all our client data in it. And we want to do some email marketing to it, but the data is sort of locked away in what they called a practice management system.
They gave us that computer for six months to try and pick apart the database. We created in an integration with it. All the client data was pulled into their sales and marketing system, and then they could do their email marketing from it.
It turned out to be a product called IRIS, which is used by a large proportion of the market and there was born our opportunity to look for other accountants that have a similar product and pull that data out.
RB – So how was FibreCRM born?
SL – I moved to Cornwall in 2006 and set the business up to provide CRM two local businesses but realised as there are only pasty shops and tourist places, so there wasn’t really much money to be made. And we then started selling to large manufacturing firms.
We were quite successful at that. And then the opportunity within the accountancy space came about. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since – we’re now 100% focused on accountants.
RB – And are accountants any different manufacturers or people in other industries and sectors in what they need from a CRM?
SL – They are very different to the normal business. They have a lot of very rich data on their clients, they know who their high net worth individuals are, they do tax returns, and they’ve got information within the tax returns on whether somebody is a landlord or not.
There’s some very good quality data within their environment that needs to be surfaced onto a marketing platform so they can do more highly targeted sales upselling cross selling type activity.
Also within accounts in practice, everybody within the firm needs some sort of interface with the end clients. So traditional business says we’ll have a CRM for the sales and marketing department with an accountancy practice, really everybody needs access. And that comes with its own challenges and advantages.
RB – Well, we know in professional services accountants will be no different. There are different offices, different departments, different services. It’s all siloed, isn’t it? How complex does that make it with CRM data silos?
SL – Traditionally, CRM systems, they tend to be standalone systems, they need to be integrated with the rest of the line of business applications. When they are then that’s really when data starts coming to life.
Some CRM systems can fail simply because people don’t want to be doing double entry. They feel they just got to be inputting data into multiple systems. The idea of an integrated CRM system is about bringing all that data together so that all your practice management data is flowing into the CRM or your data on prospects or introduces is all in one place, so you’ve got visibility.
RB – And presumably that breaks down the silos that we have in professional firms?
SL – Very much so. Without an Integrated CRM system, you’ll end up with just another silo of data. You’ve got your marketing silo, you’ve got your business development silo, you’ve got your onboarding, your KYC processes, your lessons of engagement, you’ve got your client data, where you’re running different services for those clients.
Springing all that information together, as well as your Outlook Integration, your email communication going on your documents, you really need to have it all together in one place. So, it increases the visibility of all the information.
RB – And as you were listing those I was thinking, goodness, it’s so complex to bring all that data into one system, isn’t it?
SL – It can be complex. That’s why we priced out of the box integration with all the key practice management systems – products like IRIS, Wolters Kluwer and STAR. Some of the leading products we integrate with such as Xero so that each practice that is looking for a CRM system hasn’t got to go through a huge investment in developing some bespoke integration which they potentially can’t justify or afford.
So, by providing an out of the box system, they can be up and running very quickly at a lower cost, but with the capability to extend it as well, so they can really tune it to their own needs.
RB – Why would a firm of accountants need a CRM when they’ve got the practice management systems, which will do some of this, presumably?
SL – That’s a good question. Practice Management Systems are great at practice management, but they’re not a CRM system. I think some try and pretend that our CRM system but if you want a powerhouse CRM system that keeps track of all your prospects, you don’t want to clutter up your practice management system with non-client data on introducers.
So, what you tend to find is every practice will have a practice management system, but they’ll also have Excel spreadsheets with their pipeline with their professional firms in it. They’ll have outlook, they’ll have lots of silos of data.
But there’s no one central place where they bring everything together. And that’s what we call the heart of the practice. When all the data is surfaced. all departments within the practice, have access to that information quickly. So, they can deal with client enquiries and target people effectively because it’s all in one place. It’s to hand and immediate.
RB – So if accounting firms don’t have a CRM in place, Simon, what kind of problem does that presented them?
SL – People generally can’t find information, it’s very difficult to surface information for them. For example, they can’t provide a good client service because they’re off trying to find information. Marketing can’t easily invite the right people to an event.
We find accountants are just very busy people, and they need quick access to information. And that is where CRM can really help. We also find that accountants are looking to sell more than just compliance work.
The practice management system is great for compliance work, but they’re looking to sell advisory work and how do they do that? The CRM is just brilliant at helping them sell more services and keep customers happier.
RB – It does make a lot of sense. So, if you’ve got a CRM in place, presumably you can grow faster, you can sell more stuff, you can be more efficient. I mean, the upsides are huge, aren’t they?
SL – They are. A lot of it is around saving accountants time. Giving them more time to do more relationship management rather than chasing. So, another big pain that we find for most accountants is chasing for information. That’s a real time drainer.
They’re chasing for that books to be returned so they can process their accounts. They’re reminding their clients to pay their VAT or their tax. So, by automating all that through a CRM system, it completely eliminates that manual effort and frees up their time.
RB – Yeah, duplicated effort. That’s what we want to get away from isn’t it?
SL – Duplicated effort, that’s it.
RB – How important is the onboarding part of a CRM?
SL – What we’re finding that’s a really important part of the CRM system. It’s a logical step from the business development side. So, you’ve done the marketing you’ve produced a sales pipeline, you now need to produce a proposal and a letter of engagement. Then you have to go through the KYC process and your anti-money laundering check.
And that’s the natural path of a CRM system to the point where you’ve done all your checks or your anti-money laundering and you’re ready to onboard that client. Then it needs to create the client in the practice management system automatically, without you having to key that information in.
So the journey starts in the marketing, business development, onboarding, and then straight into the client engagement.
RB – So, you’ve got to build the onboarding into the CRM, haven’t you?
SL – It’s a key part of a CRM system for accountancy practices. There’s a lot of CRM systems that are great, but they’re not necessarily focused on professional service firms and accountancy practices on the onboarding process.
RB – That’s a really good point, because when accounting firms need a CRM, they presumably go to the market, and there’s some generic ones that will cut across all sectors and then they’ll be something like FibreCRM which will be exclusively for accountants, what will be the differences there?
SL – Well the key one is around functionality and the terminology used within our CRM system. So, you’ve got some great CRM systems that are like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics. They’re really good, rounded enterprise CRM systems, but they’re not geared for the accountancy space.
So, for example, with Fibre CRM, we have the KYC process built in, you can produce letters of engagement with electronic signing. And you can drive all that from the prospects and from the marketing activity. So, it all becomes one place to manage your onboarding process
One other points as well as referrals-in and referrals-out. So, within accounting practices, it’s very important not only to keep track of what business has been referred to you, but also what business you’ve referred to your professional firms that you work with. For example, Barclays Bank or Lloyds Bank, you’ve got a relationship with them. How much business have you passed to them and how much they pass to you? And having that capability within the CRM for accountants is quite key.
RB – That’s an excellent point because the bank accounting relationship is still pretty vital in the professional market, but it can get really messy cant it. Tracking who’s got what where it’s come from, of what magnitude it is when it’s coming in.
SL – So, CRM will do that. Yeah, absolutely. It keeps it all together. So, things that slip through the net, you don’t miss out on opportunities, and you maximise those relationships.
RB – Yeah, so what is the actual value of a CRM, then Simon?
SL – It means different things to different people. Some firms have very focused on CRM, they have an ambition maybe to grow their practice by 30% within the next couple of years, and then it’s looking at what that value is that revenue and how the CRM is going to help achieve that.
So, it could be based on a revenue generating growth, or it could be based on just efficiency improvements – operational streamlining, saving time for partners, improving the job turnaround times, making sure that the jobs that they’re running for clients can be delivered faster so they can take on more clients and be less busy. Its value can be different to different firms.
RB – Yeah, absolutely. Right. It’s in the eye of the beholder in it like beauty. So, how long traditionally does it take for a CRM to be implemented into an accounting firm?
SL – That’s a good question. It can take a short time and a long time; I would say that you need to break it into phases. You could get some quick wins, you could get the marketing up and running within a few weeks, you could get the business development and your pipeline tracking within another few weeks.
If you really want to put the whole process in play, it can take up to a year and beyond, because your processes are constantly changing, particularly in sales and marketing. It’s not as structured as a practice management system.
Sales and Marketing can be quite fluid, you want to implement new ideas for how to grow the practice. So, you’ll take on new parts of the product that you may not have purchased originally. It can take between three and six months to bed in.
RB – We would call that heavy lifting wouldn’t wait this certain amount to do with the front end to reap the benefits at the back end.
SL – Yeah, there traditionally is quite a lot of upfront services to get it operational. It’s not just a case of putting disc in the drive and wanting the executable and away you go using CRM. It’s something that needs to be thought through.
You need to make sure you got very clear statements of work on each of the elements that you are implementing. So, if you’re implementing a marketing capability, you need to know what success is and how you going to measure it, and how long it’s going to take to deliver that component.
RB – And how much training and support does a firm typically need when bringing in a CRM?
SL – In the first six to 12 months, they need quite a lot of support. As the years go on, we rarely hear from customers. But in the early days, it’s very much about cultural change. That’s one of the key elements. You will find that some firms are very tech savvy, other firms aren’t.
Now within a firm you might have some people that aren’t so up on the technology. Within the accountancy sector, we get a mix. Some very slow to take on with some very proactive firms that are pushing us to help them get it implemented.
RB – I’m glad you mentioned culture because I know firms where there’s maybe one or two champions that love the idea of a CRM and maybe even a couple of accountants across the landscape that are keen for it to be brought in. But maybe there’s some intransigent partners or some old-fashioned people are some people that don’t really get it and it’s fighting that culture to get it on board and isn’t it?
SL – That is one of the key challenges. One of the success factors of a CRM is everybody buying in. I think we got seven different success factors. One of them is executive buy in. So, if you’ve got some partners looking to retire soon maximising the value of the practice and they’re going to be investing any more because they’re looking to exit soon. There are other activities going on within the practice and need to be considered before you implement a CRM system.
RB – I like that idea of success factors. Simon, you said there was seven?
SL – Yeah, one of them is having clearly defined process. A lot of practices will buy a CRM without clearly defining what the processes are that need to be implemented. So that’s a key thing.
Another one is investment in training, making sure that all their staff are trained up and everybody knows how to use the system. All too often people have an hours training and away they go, well, it’s not going to work that way. You need to have an extended adoption programme.
Integration is another key success factor. If you don’t integrate it with your practice management, with your outlook, with your mobile device, then people are having two key things in information is out to date in one and not in the other did the adoption drops off? So, integration is key.
Another one is having a CRM manager. Now, we’re starting to see accounting firms taking on a dedicated CRM manager within the practice, it is one of the key success factors.
RB – Why is that important, then?
SL – Well, it’s important because there needs to be somebody on the ground in the practice all the time helping the culture of the business use a CRM. Being able to answer questions, being able to understand business requirements, as well as the aspects in the database and building reports for the business units.
Most firms will succeed with CRM have a dedicated CRM manager. We find some firms don’t have a dedicated CRM manager and they will say, well, Bob in your tax department is going to be the CRM manager, but they’re busy with their own day job and they’re probably only really focused on their own department.
So, you need somebody that can cross all the departments that can talk to all levels can talk to the managing partner and can talk to the junior accountants and understand what their needs are.
RB – That’s a very good point. Because if accountants are hitting brick walls and obstacles and they’ve got nowhere to go, adoption is going to be low, isn’t it? And then it’s not going to work.
SL – Yeah. And they just switch off from it. They’re too busy.
RB – So, I would imagine culture is also a success factor in a successful CRM, isn’t it?
SL – Culture is one of the big success factors. So, some of all the other success factors that really helped drive a good use of the CRM. Having a CRM manager, for example, will help improve the culture.
Equally, building good reports so that when you go to management meetings, you can report out the CRM and see the upsell cross sell capability. So, having information to hand will drive the use of and adoption of the system and improve the culture.
We have some firms that will use a CRM for reporting on their sales pipeline. If the opportunity that has been one didn’t come from the CRM, then it shouldn’t appear on their list of potential business that might not get commission or something like that.
RB – So how does CRM support accountants with advisor work? We hear a lot about the compliance advisory debate, accountants looking for the revenue streams. So how does it help?
SL – The advisory work is really a relationship management element of the services they deliver. Whereas the compliance work is more practice management service driven. The services they provide, particularly the advisory type services won’t sit in a compliance programmes that they traditionally use.
So, they need a central place to manage those advisory services. CRM is perfect for that. It’s the heart of the practice. It has got all their sales opportunities going on, so that they can keep track of what advisory services they’re offering their customers. They’ve got the upsell cross sell matrix, so they can just very quickly see the gaps in service across all their clients and go in and then sell additional services to those clients. CRM is really there to help them sell advisory services and build the relationships with their clients.
RB – And if you’re tracking problems and opportunities, then the CRM will remind you who talked to Bob about that problem and he mentioned that he was looking for an exit in three years so let’s fold that conversation and now starts to create advisory stuff, doesn’t it?
SL – It does. It also expands on that. So, for example, if Bob is talking to Sally about something, who is who else does Sally know within the practice? We find that having a sort of relationship tree of who knows who and being able to refer internally business from one department to another is another key part of selling advisory.
RB – That is it, isn’t it? identifying opportunities, if you picture classic matrix of right to these clients, we’ve sold these services thus far we want to increase share of wallet, we want to do more for them. But let’s track who’s got what and where the gaps are and then we can push that in a sales conversation.
SL – That’s one of the big parts of our CRM – the upsell cross sell matrix. It gives you that gap analysis. What are we selling? More importantly, what aren’t we selling to our customers at the moment? Which segments of our market by a particular service from us and who aren’t we talking to at the moment? And that’s where the upsell cross sell capability within the CRM really helps to sell more advisory work.
RB – Yeah, and as the tech gets better… A CRM now is a different animal to a CRM a few years ago. What do you think’s coming up in the next few years Simon in your world?
SL – A lot of people are talking about the future and artificial intelligence. And I just think if we look at the man on the ground and look at the humble accountancy practice, they just want a simple way to bring all their information together in one place so they can deliver the services delivering.
In terms of a CRM system. This is about just bringing all the departments together and I think over the next few years, it’s about making sure that all the elements of the practice are coming together and aren’t silos of departments. The marketing, the business development, the KYC, the onboarding, the client engagement, the upselling, the professional network, referral management, all that just needs to work well simply on any device and just help accountants deliver the services they deliver.
So, I don’t see there being a huge technology change over the next few years.
RB – No, because it’s all about the relationships. Isn’t it really, and just managing those properly? Is there any difference in the needs of a small firm versus a larger firm Simon, when it comes to CRM?
SL – I think the smaller firm has a bigger challenge with CRM, because they don’t have the resources of a larger firm. They don’t have a dedicated IT department, they don’t have a dedicated marketing department, you tend to have a smaller practice having to do it all.
It does take time and investment in getting a CRM up and running and if it takes too long, then they won’t see the value of it. So, it’s harder for a smaller practice.
RB – What is an ideal client for fibre in terms of size of accounting firm? What is your sweet spot?
SL – We tend to work with the mid to large firms. So below the top five, we’re looking at probably the top hundred and 45 firms. Maybe with three to four plus partners.
RB – Some firms will try and build a CRM themselves. What problems will that give them?
SL – It’s a huge investment in their time. They’ve developed it for a specific function very deep in functionality, but not very broad in capability. But the issue is that sales and marketing traditionally is a constantly changing animal.
If you spend a year developing your own system for one function you might find in that a years’ time you need it to do something else, or some new technologies come out like the KYC module being plugged into the CRM now.
So, it’s just a huge cost. I just don’t see why any practice would build our own. Apart from maybe the top five.
RB This is terrific accountants listening, want to have a chat to you about CRM and learn about some of the great stuff that you do? What’s a good way for them to reach you?
SL – People can contact us at my office on 0203 598 098 or they can email me Simon (@) FibreCRM (.) com.
RB – And traditionally, when you take on a new client, what’s the process? You’ll sit down, have a chat, find out about the needs? Where does it go from there?
SL – Yeah, once we’ve done the needs analysis will produce statements to work which clearly define what the value is going to be to that practice for CRM, so they understand what they’re investing in and what the value will be to them and how long it’s going to take and What the challenges might be along the way.
We’ll need to understand what practice management system that goes from whether we can integrate with it will need to understand what email system they’ve got. So, we’ll gather their requirements and then start the implementation. At that point will host the CRM for them not on a server in the cloud, or we could install it on their own office servers if necessary.
And then we’ll go through the onboarding, the adoption programme to help them adopt the CRM and see the benefits from it in phases.
RB – And what would FibreCRM give them that perhaps another CRM for accountants wouldn’t? What’s the advantage you have?
SL – Well, we are 100% focused on accountancy firms. So, our solution out of the box is going to be up and running faster because it’s more aligned to their way of working particularly using IRIS or CCH or STAR products and it’s ready to go.
RB – This is terrific Simon, would you leave us with an encouraging message for the accountants listening whose leaders perhaps don’t have a CRM in their firm but they want to drive that change upward sell the message it would look we need fibre CRM. We need to really get a handle on this. We should be talking to these guys.
SL – Yeah, and we get a lot of that. So contact me, let’s have a chat, see how we can help you put a presentation together to the board or to the managing partner or whoever you’re looking to get them on site, and we’ll work with you to do that. It wouldn’t cost you anything. We want to help you build a good business case.
RB – Yeah, that’s great. Thanks so much for your time today.
SL – No problem. Thank you, Rob.