Increasingly, accounting firms find productivity gains with latest digital products and services
By Mark Green
Alan Long manages his Baldwin CPAs firm in Richmond, Ky., from a desk with a linked bank of three computer screens; one is 20 inches and two are 24 inches. A webcam perches on one. Another 22-inch monitor with Apple TV wireless linkage is for television. He augments this with an 11-inch MacBook Air laptop and an iPad, the tools he takes into the field. And of course there’s a smartphone.
Long likes technology.
So do many CPAs nowadays.
“I think it’s becoming the norm nowadays,” said Penny Gold, CEO of the Kentucky Society of CPAs. “People want, as they call it, ‘the Amazon experience.’ The want to be able to get their data, and get it now. And to be able to do that you have to embrace the tech.”
“The Amazon experience” refers to exceeding customer expectations with new, unexpected and useful information and services derived from investment in digital infrastructure – and the payoff it brings businesses that do it successfully.
“Technology has become a very important factor in business,” said Darlene Zibart, chief financial officer for KSCPA and the organization’s liaison with its technology committee. “It is very important in being and staying competitive.”
CPAs and other accountants are very involved in helping businesses set up their financial internal controls and security, Zibart said. They must be tech savvy.”
When Bob Patterson sold out of his ownership position with Consumer’s Choice Coffee in January 2012 and opened his own CPA firm the following July, he took a tech-forward approach. Focusing on service businesses, especially fast-food franchisees, Patterson and Co. employs a smartphone accounting app customized from a platform created by Thomson Reuters that gives clients ongoing access to their business data.
“They’ve always got their phone with them,” Patterson said. “Anything they can see on their desktop (computer), they can see on their phone.”
A business client can see their latest profit and loss statement. With specialized authorizations, managers and employees can access financial documents, payroll information, time card entries, pay stubs and update their W-4 withholding. Restaurant operators, Patterson knows, are vitally concerned with their “flash report” for their four main cost categories: labor, food, liquor and paper.
“Those are the big drivers to a monthly financial statement for a restaurant,” he said. “The quicker they can get the (flash) statement, the quicker they can make adjustments. … At the end of the month, it’s too late to do anything.”
The app and its services have been well received, especially in the franchise sector where an owner with multiple locations wants consistency in operations. Six-month-old Patterson and Co. is approaching 100 clients, about 75 percent of which are restaurants.
“When I started,” Patterson said, “I had really made the decision that I wanted to go with the latest technology and offer a lot of these services to clients.”
Patterson has known Long for years and served on the KSCPA board with him.
“I call him frequently for advice,” Patterson said. “He’s a good guy. He’s the guru.”
About seven years ago, the industry created a new accounting credential: CITP, which stands for Certified Information Technology Professional. There are about 15 CITPs in Kentucky. Long was one of the first.
In fact, Accounting Today magazine recognized Long in October as one of its 10 nationwide Managing Partner Elites. It was the first time the magazine had named MP Elites, and it chose 10 “outstanding firm managers”from among 4,000 nominees recommended from across the United States.
He was selected, the magazine wrote, because “in a conservative profession, Long stands out for looking forward, equipping his small firm of just 22 people with practices, policies and technologies that even the biggest firms are only just starting to adopt. From integrating iPads, portals and videoconferencing to launching a formal training and learning program, he’s keeping his firm on the cutting edge.”
Long’s teched-out work station is typical at Baldwin CPAs. His three-monitor bank of screens is the minimum for the firm’s professionals, several of whom use four-monitor stacks, along with webcams, iPads or other tablets, laptops, etc.
“I’ve always liked the technology and tried to stay out on the forefront of it,” Long said.
His first computer in 1985 was an IBM AT model with 30 megabytes of hard-drive storage and 640 kilobytes of memory, he said, and it cost $6,400. Long paid an additional $900 for a motherboard upgrade plug-in on that first computer to run two additional terminals “so I could have a network in the office,” he said.
Today’s typical computers have at least 10,000 times more data storage and RAM capacity, and cost only about a tenth as much.
“My iPad has a lot more computing power than that first computer,” Long said.
He kept upgrading as the equipment improved over the years, readily admitting that not everything he tried has succeeded. The firm’s first dual-monitor work station came in 2002, and the number of work station monitors increased to three and four as prices fell, he said. While Long recalls paying $700 for his first 17-inch monitor, today a 19-inch screen is about $150.
The multiple screens, connectivity and devices do definitely increase productivity in Long’s view. For instance, Baldwin CPA does lots of videoconferencing with clients and among staff at its Richmond, Louisville and Maysville offices.
“It’s more personal to videoconference,” Long said.
The multiple screens allow partners to simultaneously share online desktops with another person to whom they’re demonstrating or explaining information and services, he said. Sometimes they take over a client’s desktop to demonstrate. And they can keep multiple other programs open and visible for reference to additional information or avoid disrupting a task that is midstream.
“I just find you can’t have enough screens,” Long said. His professionals and staff are on board with that assessment, too. “Once you put them in, people say, ‘I don’t know how I worked before.’”
Baldwin CPA equips all its staff with smartphones and iPads or other tablets. Because tablets screens are easier to see than a smartphone, Long said, staff in the field are more responsive to email.
In the office, Baldwin went paperless in 2002. Everything is scanned into the data system and the hard copy is disposed. Nothing has been lost. Clients – and accountants too at first – “get nervous” about destroying paper copies, Long said. Plenty of client information come in to the firm as paper, he said, but the office operates with an expectation that paper documents have a shelf life of about 7 days.
“I am not in the business of storing clients’ records,” Long said. “That’s somebody else’s business.”
Long has a long relationship as a follower and client of Kansas City-based Boomer Consulting, which advises CPA firms and whose founder Gary Boomer is a regular on the 10 most influential accountants in the industry list. Baldwin is a member of the Boomer Technology Circles community, which views technology as a strategic asset, and it gives Long “lots of contact with other managing partners of firms in a lot of other states.”
Boomer advises that firms should spend an average of 6.5 percent of their budget on technology, which includes hardware, software, IT and telephone services, Long said. Smaller firms are likely to spend more than that average, he said, and Baldwin is “a little above that at this time.”
Long earned his CITP credential from the American Institute of CPAs by completing its required program of study and exams. The intent is that CITP credential holders exhibit unique abilities in providing risk assessment, fraud, internal control, audit and/or information management services within their firm or for their employers.
Long even sometimes works as an IT consultant for some clients separate from his CPA services.
Presently, he is a big fan of the tablet mobile devices, and the world of productivity and service apps available on those portable platforms.
Baldwin currently is pursuing creation of a couple of apps for itself, according to Long. The firm’s IT staff is working on writing an app for use on an iPad so that a Baldwin CPA representative can have a client on his or her own explore the assorted services and levels and bundles of services the firm offers. The app will automatically price services and allow the client to compare their options. When a choice is finalized and submitted, it then will generate the firm’s engagement letter.
“Normally the process can take a couple of hours of interaction requiring a partner,” Long said.
The app will free up time for partners, whose schedules can get bottlenecked. And it will relieve the firm rep of having to remember every service, their prices and potential bundling options.
It is envisioned for completion in summer 2013.
Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Increasingly, accounting firms find productivity gains with latest digital products and services