CLOUD COMPUTING: BUSINESS IMPACTS
Drew: Steve, your business’s model is kind of unique, and I was wondering if you could describe your business and what role the cloud has played in building it.
Chaney: Yeah, so in a nutshell, what my firm is is we offer bookkeeping services for nonprofits, and ultimately, within that function … we’re an outsourced controllership. Some of our entities will also hire us to be the CFO of the organization. We’ll do everything from all the payroll, everything except for depositing the funds. But then, after they deposit, we take it from there and run with it. We sort of do all the financial services A to Z with the budgeting and all of that.
Again, we’ve always had a Citrix space type of remote desktop connection for our clients because I used to have that at Arthur Andersen before I started my company in 2002. I always knew that could exist, and I made sure I had that. (All of our clients used to be within 50 miles of Sacramento). … By using the cloud-based system, now we have clients from Phoenix, Ariz., to Oregon, from Winnemucca, Nev., to San Diego.
We’ve been able to go from about 50 clients to, now, well over 300. We do this type of service for every month: write-up services, full bookkeeping services, all the payroll. Before, it was very cumbersome getting all the live checks to people, things of this sort. Now, all of our clients can print their checks off remotely if they want live checks, or it’s just direct deposit. We give all that for free. It’s all included in the price.
We’ve been able to expand, and from 2009 to 2010, we were able to grow (our revenue almost 90%). At this point now, it’s just becoming a real cash cow because our processes are so tight. … the biggest (obstacle) we have with our clients is the transition. It’s sort of the paradigm shift that they have of having a bookkeeper on-site and leadership on-site, versus I get them to buy into the factor of well, you would dial your bookkeeper’s extension; now you just dial my phone and we’re over the Internet. We still collaborate.
Once they get over that, that’s fine. What’s helped us to get over that is having a major investment and setting up our own personalized templates and going forward for that. Intacct has allowed our transition cost and our setup cost to be … the economies of scale have been reduced greatly. The effective rate has gone up. That’s really what we do with it. We do not issue any reports for our companies. With internal bookkeeping, we present it that way. That’s it in a nutshell … what we do.
Drew: Jennifer, you’ve moved to an almost entirely cloud-based service delivery platform for client accounting services. Why did you make this move, and what effect has it had on your business?
Katrulya: I think the biggest impact that we’ve seen in a number of areas is, first, the ability to practice what we preach as far as internal controls and segregation of duties, collaboration with our clients. We work with a number of smaller businesses who may have one or two primary people in their office who handle most of the day-to-day transactions. We can now function as kind of that controller and oversight to provide an approval function, to provide a second set of eyes on what’s going on in the company.
For nonprofits, they often have volunteer staff at a number of locations or even members of the finance committee. Their boards, and the ability to collaborate in the cloud with us as part of their team, makes it all feel very seamless across the board but allows everybody to be compliant, allows for fraud protections, allows for so much increase in terms of audit trail and other things that go along with most of these applications.
Whereas before that, all of that was poor at best. We really made a crack at it, but certainly nothing like we’re able to provide now. I think some other areas (where the cloud has helped) really are in terms of our ability to provide packaged menus of solutions. Really, we’ve spent a lot of time focusing on industry verticals that we work with, focusing on what their needs are in those particular industries, and how we can combine and integrate cloud solutions to do a really good job in that space.
What that’s done for us is by leveraging that from client to client—and, Steve mentioned this a little bit a moment ago … the ability to replicate that to create the templates to do that time and again—has allowed us to actually increase our effective billing rates. And this will talk a little bit to ROI (return on investment) but where we were seeing maybe $45 to $175 an hour before when we opened our doors—and that $175 an hour we were super excited about—to where now we’re able to see rates of $125 an hour to, in a couple of real specific niche industries, up to about $800 an hour by the time we’re done, because we’ve just been able to refine so dramatically what we do and where clients have been and what they’ve been paying for equivalent or far less service. We’re able to really wow them, really provide them with a tremendous level of expertise and a product.
So they love that. Our cost of equipment is minimal. We’ve just been able to retire for us our small business server, our terminal server. We don’t have that upkeep. We don’t have the IT maintenance cost anymore. So when we look at replacing machines, now we’re looking at replacing laptops, getting docking stations, smartphones, and we’re focusing … on the ability of our staff to be mobile, their iPads, their ability to connect mobile. And I think one of the things that we, an unintentional thing that we found, but probably one of the biggest things in our firm, is by being able to make our staff more mobile, they can now attend with us some of the industry conferences or some of the conferences in the industries that we serve.
When we do designate a specialty for CFO services or for advanced services, we can now give our staff, and we incorporate this into our pay for performance, but the opportunity for them to go and kind of really see what we’re so excited about and why and meet their peers and interact in the industry and not be so isolated. In terms of retention and staff involvement and their excitement about us and their buy-in, that is probably one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen is actually by creating cloud and virtual environment(s) for our firm, we’ve actually been able to get our staff out the door for things that matter most and really help make us a winning relationship for them and so for retention.
Flexible work schedules. We have clients now that are in multiple states and multiple countries. So if we have staff that wants to work at 4 in the morning or at midnight, great, because that actually helps us, helps them, and our clients love it as well. We can measure performance in a number of ways we couldn’t measure it before. So that does allow us to reward top performers and those who really have seen it through with the process and helped us move things forward.
On the reverse side, it’s helped us really manage performance that maybe before wasn’t on our radar—individuals that showed up for work every day, that didn’t call in sick. Things that used to seem like the baseline requirements that we were happy with, we can now also much more successfully measure productivity and end result.
As a small firm, we can compete much more effectively with large firms. It would have been to me unheard of many years ago for me to be on this call with larger firms being able to leverage the same technology solutions, similar equipment. We couldn’t have made the same capital investments. So being able to play in the same space allows us to collaborate. We work now with a lot of large firms in an alliance-type relationship and, again, we simply couldn’t have done that before.
So I think, overall, we just feel like we’re really able to grow, to be competitive, to serve our clients in the best possible way, and we just don’t feel like there are nearly as many limits to what we’re able to do anymore.
Drew: The next question is for both Carol and Joe. Both of your firms leverage a Web-based workflow tool. I know you use it on taxes and for other services. Can you describe how you implemented your cloud system and how long it took and then describe what services this workflow tool handles?
Kulencavich: The workflow system that we use and workflow software, which is a cloud-based application, we have all of our services on there. So it’s not just tax, it’s accounting. You can even put human resources on there, like annual evaluations or quarterly evaluations. The transition was fairly seamless. The company that we used made it very clear that they wanted to keep it as seamless as possible.
So as far as getting our database into the system, they did all of that. We didn’t have to do anything. We just put in an Excel file (with client data, users, affiliated client data, type of filings and tasks such as tax, bookkeeping, etc.), and they did the transition for us. So it was a very seamless process, and we’ve benefitted so much from it just saving time at the administrative level and at the managers’ level. There’s a lot less micromanaging going on, a lot less follow-up. The staff loves it because they can take ownership with the clients that they are responsible for, and they can be proactive in contacting the clients.
We’re able to perform better client service, too. … Because it is cloud-based, we’re able to see information 24/7. Waking up in the middle of the night worried about a status of anything, we can just log right on and see what the status is. Everything is in real time, and I think that’s the key to making this workflow important for us.
Drew: OK, thank you. Joe, it’s your turn.
Manzelli: Sure. If Carol wants to add a couple things (she can interject) because we do both use the same cloud-based software, XCM. As Carol said, to implement, all it took was us getting our database in an Excel format with at least one person who was responsible for the client. And literally for us, it was pretty simple. We had a time and billing program and also our tax program where we merged some databases and got it to them. And I want to say almost from day one, we were basically up and running.
The software, as Carol said, it really makes me more effective because I go from multiple offices back and forth. … I can check my mobile phone to find out where a return is … (If) a client gives me a call, I don’t have to go, “Well, hey, let me give you a call back. I’ve got to check with some people.” If they call in the office (or) they call remotely, I can find out exactly where that return is.
Again, (when) we started out, the software was initially designed for tax preparation. They designed the software for offshore tax preparation. Immediately, and before they actually started to change their software and their model around a little bit, I looked at it and said, “Geez, well, why can’t we use this for everything else that we do?” …
In, I believe, the last two years, and Carol can confirm that … they changed it so even the auditing and attestation work and write-up is built into the product as well, so that whatever workflow that you have, you can utilize this software. It’s, again, cloud-based. You can access it anywhere.
One of the benefits that we’ve seen: The software company (does) a survey, and it says: How much time per person during busy season are you saving? They’ve got upward of 90 minutes per person per day. But I would legitimately say that, in our firm, we probably have at least a minimum, this is my opinion here, of 30 minutes per day per person where someone is not looking for something, where it’s at, where is it … in the process. Someone running down the hallway to find something. The admin staff knows exactly what’s supposed to be mailed out, if it needs to be mailed out, if it needs to be electronically filed.
As Carol said, too, we have actually happier employees. Jennifer mentioned it: When you have these processes in place, you have employees that can take ownership of their job. As a matter of fact, it’s funny, (here’s) a little anecdote. We’ve actually forced everyone to use this software initially. Again, like I said before, it’s a buy-in from the top with most of these things. We had employees that refused to do work unless it got sent to them through the software.
A partner would come up to them and say, “I need you to prepare this return.” And they’d say, “Well, it’s not in my inbox.” So it really put a lot of controls in for us. We looked at it (as), how do you document all this stuff, and we did document it. Now, it’s built within the software for us because the software has become adaptable to be able to—you know, each firm is a little bit different. … If we do a tax return, it’s kind of the same process beginning to end, but it differs a little bit. So the software is also very adaptable, which is very important.
Quite honestly, it’s very, very simple to use. If anybody can type, can read and send an email, it’s a very simple piece of software to utilize.
Drew: Thank you.
Kulencavich: I would agree with Joe with regards to the staff really putting the burden back on the partner where they’ve been told to use it and then the partners aren’t using it. They’re holding the partners accountable. So it does work both ways. As far as saving time, we used to have an administrator who ran our old, what we called a due date monitoring system, which is the PPC tracker, which was not, obviously, a real-time software. During busy season, her overtime hours were cut (by) probably between 100 and 150 hours just because she wouldn’t have to run any reports, she wouldn’t have to update this PPC tracker with statuses. So it definitely saved real time for her and, obviously, (there was) less overtime for the bottom line.
Drew: Thanks, Carol. Michael, you manage the client accounting area for McGladrey. What has been the impact of cloud-based applications on your area of the firm?
Smith: Thanks, Jeff. What’s interesting (about) my background is (that) McGladrey is a pretty large firm, (a) full-service operation where we provide audit, tax and consulting services. In the past, I was in more of the traditional areas of the firm, which would be audit and tax. Over the past few years, we’ve had a significant amount of demand for client accounting services. Now, I think not unlike many CPA firms, client accounting services for us were always delivered; they just weren’t a lead service offering. These services, they tended to have lower profit margins. They were more transactional in nature, and they were often referred to as something else, so they’d be referred to as maybe bookkeeping or write-up. They just weren’t lead services. They were ancillary to other lead services, such as audit or tax.
What happened is this caused a lot of inconsistencies in terms of both staffing engagements and the approach(es) that were taken in those engagements. With cloud-based technologies, it has allowed us to standardize more on process and also utilize a team that’s dedicated to providing client accounting services versus just having the relationship—whether it would be an audit partner or tax partner, consulting partner—drive who services the client, which may not be the right solution for the client.
So things have changed where this is now more of a lead service offering within our firm. The cloud has played a significant role in allowing us to do that because, before, it was difficult to deliver those services efficiently and get the right pricing and make the right level of profit margins. But now with the cloud, for a lot of the reasons stated by many others on the call, we’re able to drive efficiency and do things in a much more seamless fashion.
I think one of the big things for us has been the ability to integrate different applications. I think the ability to integrate in a cloud environment is much different than it is in an environment where you’re using on-premise solutions. So, just to give you an example, we use Intacct and Bill.com to service certain clients. Having those two applications talk to one another, and pass data in a seamless fashion, really allows us to eliminate some of the day-to-day transaction processing and redeploy the time and resources toward the more value-added services. Those services might be more along the lines of controllership-type services such as analysis, such as reporting, and just providing business advice to our clients—whereas before, we’d be spending a lot of time doing double data entry and focusing on transaction processing and write-up and bookkeeping. There wasn’t time or room in the budget to be able to deliver those services.
So that’s sort of it in a nutshell. I think the one other thing I would say that’s had a significant impact is the scalability. So we have at McGladrey … several offices throughout the country, and the ability for us to easily onboard other staff onto an engagement that may not be physically within our office is huge.
It really makes a big difference so that we don’t have to make big technology investments. If we need to add one of the team members that’s outside of our office onto an engagement, it’s very seamless and it can be done very quickly. And there’s no software that needs to be installed on a computer, and that individual can work virtually from everywhere once they’re provisioned to a particular application. So that’s had a very significant impact as well.
Ultimately, I think it’s really about providing more value to our clients. That’s where we’re always driving toward. And I think using the cloud has allowed us to deliver more value because it’s just created all sorts of efficiency and time savings, and we’re able to redeploy that and share that with the client in other areas that add more value and are more strategic to their businesses.
WHAT TO CONSIDER IN MULLING MOVE TO THE CLOUD
Drew: What advice would you have for CPA firms that are not on the cloud right now but are considering that move? What factors should they weigh in making that decision? (What are realistic outcomes for them to expect?)
Chaney: I would just say, “Do it. Just do it.” But it’s a lot more than that, obviously. Maybe seek out some other CPA firms that have done it and sit down with them and ask them if they would be willing to help give some guidance as to what to consider, because there are a lot of pitfalls. As glamorous as it is to have things Web-based and as slick as Intacct and Bill.com are, there are things about how to work out when the programs don’t do what you want them to do.
Getting into the actual workflow and the documentation about how things are going to go, that’s important. But just to sort of have a mentor or another firm help walk you through that would be a lot (of help). It would definitely help the transition time in that regard. Then, what I would say is on the realistic outcomes, just to set some goals for yourself and then try to exceed them, obviously.
It’s just where we’re going with everything. They could expect to see a lot more than probably what they’re anticipating in the beginning because there definitely is—it’s just the way things are going because people want to cut costs. Outsourcing business functions and business processes is the way to go. So it’s sort of a hot topic.
On this cloud-based accounting, just get a mentor, even if it’s a person at Intacct or Bill.com. They’re great about that—assigning you people. I think if I had utilized that more at the beginning, I would have not had a couple hiccups that we had. But just working through it.
Drew: OK. Thanks, Steve. Jennifer, do you have anything to add?
Katrulya: Thanks. Just a few points that I will quickly make. To me, the single biggest thing I love is the fact that we actually get to work with other firms who are implementing cloud solutions. The biggest thing time and again I see go wrong, I would say, is (you need) to have a business plan for this, a client accounting services business plan that talks about where you’re trying to go as if this is a brand-new business venture—because it is, in a number of ways. Decide where it is you’re trying to go and how you’re going to get there and what is going on in the marketplace. Education first and blueprinting out what you’re hoping to achieve, how you’re going to get there and how you’re going to measure whether or not it’s successful, that’s the biggest way to have your game plan in place so that you can present it to other partners and the staff and the firm and get the buy-in that you need to make this successful.
I did this: I came back from a conference and jumped into all this, started to implement things left and right, and there would have been a much, much better way to approach this. So through hindsight, hopefully, I can save some other people that struggle. Communicating early and frequently with clients about this move, making sure that you keep them in the loop about how you’re going to transition, when you’re going to transition. We didn’t make it a choice for our clients to transition, but we made it as clear as possible for them about how we were going to get there and what we needed from them to make that successful, and most importantly, what the benefits were going to be for them when we got there.
We spent a lot of time selecting best-of-breed applications, and several of them have been mentioned on this call. But you can’t emphasize that enough. Right now, in this space, there are so many applications that will be on the map tomorrow and gone in a week or a month. So (it’s important to find) applications that are going to be around, that really do have the right levels of security, redundancy, etc., in place that are going to stick with us and that have the right support team in their office and their company to work with you.
The other thing I would just really say is you’re asking your staff and your team to go through a big, big transition and this is … that moment where we’ve always said we want to have people on our team who come to work for more than a paycheck. This is that time for pay for performance because you’re going to be asking them to step up in a big way. So integrating that as part of this process becomes a lot easier and becomes so important because we are all going to succeed by putting in these applications and moving forward. The firms we’re seeing be most successful include the staff in that process.
Manzelli: The bottom line (is) have a plan, have benchmarks, goals so that you can measure against that plan. One of the things that I don’t think has been mentioned here, but it’s very important—we talked about hardware or the lack thereof—is one of the things that we jumped into is making sure you have the proper bandwidth, both upload and download, because some applications don’t take a lot of bandwidth to get the data back and forth. Others take a tremendous amount.
(Make) sure that whatever other Internet-based things you’re doing, whether it be research or whatever, bandwidth is one of those things you make sure you look at and make sure that you do question the software companies as to what type of bandwidth they recommend. Whatever they recommend, get more. (Those) would be my strongest words of advice. Whatever it is or whatever they’re saying is the minimum, get more and make sure you have it both upload and download so that you’re able to work as if you’re sitting right at your desk and not (at) the old dial-up-type speeds. I’ve seen that even with high-speed Internet—some applications come to a crawl because they’re pushing data back and forth. Again, one of those things is to just look at that.
Drew: OK. Thanks, Joe. Michael, do you have anything to add?
Smith: The only thing I’d probably add is sometimes it’s hard to make the move, and it’s a big change, and it’s risky. You’re dealing with client relationships, and you don’t want to damage those relationships, so be strategic about how you go about taking next steps. Try to identify some clients that may be low-risk so that you can have a little bit of a testing ground. Sometimes you’ve just got to jump in and go for it and do it. The planning is important, don’t get me wrong, but don’t overplan. What I mean by that is don’t plan so much that you don’t get out of the gate for a year because you’re trying to make sure that it goes without a hitch. You’re going to run into issues, you’re going to run into problems, and that’s why, if you pick some low-risk clients, maybe clients that, like in our case, we do client accounting services in some situations where it’s not necessarily client facing, it’s more behind the scenes. So we’re doing all the accounting on the back end, and the client is not necessarily interacting with the systems. Those are great situations to test the new software, to get comfortable with the new software, to get the staff trained.
I think the other thing to keep in mind is don’t assume that simply buying new technology is going to fix a problem or improve a process. It’s really important, and I think Joe hit on this earlier, … to think through the current process and how it’s going to be handled after it’s shifted to a cloud-based application. Oftentimes, it’s less about buying the technology, and it’s more about how you actually apply the technology. So really think through how that process will work when you go from the old to the new.