Balancing the books to account for customer satisfaction

26 Dec 2008

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is now being integrated with accounting software to provide greater efficiencies and increased margins.

Over the past decade or so accounting software for small to medium-

sized enterprises (SMEs) has evolved way beyond simple end-of-month accounts and payroll.

Driven by businesses’ desire for greater efficiency and cost control, it is now more accurately described as accounting and business software because it incorporates various add-ons, such as customer relationship management (CRM) or human resources (HR), all integrated into one package.

This trend has extended the company accountant’s remit beyond keeping an eye on the books to practically becoming the head of IT within an SME, according to software providers.

“It’s probably always been the case that the accountant has had accountability for selecting IT solutions, but it’s happening differently today. He or she is interested in any way the firm can gain more efficiency through  technology, as well as the payback involved. The challenge for IT providers is to translate the payback into a language accountants can understand,” says Liam Mullaney, managing director of Sage.

Sage has been marketing its integrated accounting and CRM product, called ‘The Customer Package’, in earnest now for the past 24 months.

“Following our acquisition of a CRM package called ACT! five years ago, we discovered that quite often ACT! customers also had our accounting products, and most of those said they would be interested in an integrated solution,” says Mullaney.

“The whole idea is that salespeople gain access to the accounting system via their laptop or handheld device while on the road. Productivity increases because they can check stock levels on site, look at the customers’ account history and place orders in real-time.”

Sage has added many new features to the Sage 50 product recently, including a dashboard showing your current cash position, who owes you the most money, who’s overdue with their payments and so on.

It also has a package tointegrate its payroll product Micropay with a HR solution, in response to the arrival of the National Employment Rights Authority and the pressure on SMEs to be compliant.

Sage currently has 40,000 customers (not including those it hasn’t dealt with in the past 24 months), a support department of 60 people and a development team of 40.

“Demand for integrated packages is being driven by us to an extent. Most of our business comes from SMEs that don’t have time to install complex new systems or maybe don’t have a dedicated IT person,” says Mullaney.

“How I believe software can really work for such companies is to follow the ‘next, next, finish’ principle – in other words, write the functionality, for example Sage CRM, and have the ability to type the word ‘integration’ and a Sage 50 customer is automatically in the CRM system.”

Alan Connor, commercial director at Exchequer, says the average accountant in an SME has become far more IT literate since Windows 95 was introduced. Of Exchequer’s 1,000 customers attracted over the past 10 years, some 95pc switched from another software package.

“Previously, Y2K and the introduction of the euro were reasons for accountants in SMEs to think about the software they needed. The high percentage of our customers who switched from other packages shows how they have outgrown this phase.

“Nowadays, software has to deliver greater automation and far greater accountability to the operators and management, so they have better control of decisions. Technology had to change to allow fully integrated CRM, with websites and handheld devices all integrating live.”

It isn’t only large organisations that want to upgrade in this way, as SMEs are realising the coal-face benefits of synchronising data seamlessly and having information in real time, notes Connor.

“There’s no reason why you can’t run a business nowadays in an informed way on an hourly basis – you can view a snapshot when management decides, not when the software wants.”

Integrated accounting and CRM, such as the Exchequer package, are important both from a sales perspective and when planning production, targets and cash flow, as well as customer exposure.

“A lot of SMEs have a key trading partner with which they do, say, 60pc of their business, and they need to build in special processes unique to that client – for example, having to deal with them faster and more electronically than normal.

“If you were to do a poll of Irish suppliers to the multiple chains, five years ago price was the key factor and the lowest bidder got the deal. Now, they look for proof that suppliers have the systems in place capable of sustaining supply.”

By Sorcha Corcoran