Make a choice on practice management software

Choosing an accounting software solution is often a matter of random, rather than determined decision making. It is anecdotal that some firms choose to use a specific product, merely because they were the first to respond, or a colleague recommended it. It is certainly true that both responsiveness and reputation are important considerations when deciding on a solution, but other more pertinent considerations may apply and remain unmet. This often leads to misunderstandings, poor business decisions and wasted resources.

In order to benefit from this type of analysis, it is important to start with questions such as What do we need? before investigating market options. Additional preliminary considerations may be the expected lifetime of the firm, and the life cycle of the product. Expected growth and potential exit strategies from the choices made should also be considered.  The only way to get what we want, is to know what we want. Otherwise the salesperson will tell us that we need their product!

The discussion which follows makes many assumptions.  These assumptions are briefly discussed in order to illuminate the choices made.  

It is assumed that an attorneys firm, with specific trust  compliance requirements, requires an accounting software solution. The product search is focused on an accounting solution which provides integrated trust and business ledgers, with all expected Financial Reports, Trust Compliance Reports in a best fit with operations and other software solutions. Additional criteria includes availability of Value Added Services, after sales service and vendor know how. The relevant examples are illustrative and names fictional. No software was harmed in preparing this discussion.

Criteria

Our needs should be structured into specific criteria. For our purposes a range of criteria is determined, and the three prospects are assessed based on our criteria. These criteria are by no means definitive, and applying these without adapting to personal needs will result in a poor-fit decision. In the final instance, an evaluation of our prospects should guide our decision. Star charts (also known as spider charts) are used to visually represent the criteria. The criteria used here is intended to illustrate support of the decision making process.

Prospects

Three fictional software products are evaluated. The same criteria are used for all prospects. The emphasis being on how successful each product meets the stated criteria.

Subjective Assessment

Criteria are necessarily subjective. Ordinal rankings, such as poor, good or best are used. These are detailed and applied to prospects.  

Integrity refers to the internal integrity of the accounting system: does it comply with formal, recognized accounting conventions such as debits equal credits and is it internally consistent.

Integration refers to the the level of integration available between the Trust and Business records.

Several criteria apply to Trust accounting, and may be understood as containers for the availability of  reports, ease of interpretation and general usefulness.

Commercial accounting solutions abound and may be used to benchmark Business accounting functionality.

Vendor criteria include aspects such as Reputation, Responsiveness and Know How.

Human Resource criteria refers to Training required, Documentation available, After Care expected, Feedback loop time lines and Staff Complement required.

Product specific criteria includes Cloud deployment, Cross Platform availability (the same solution available on Apple iOS, Android and MS Windows?),  Software Compatibility, Scalability (number of users), Reliability (up time), how streamlined is the User Experience, VAS and integration with existing Operations.

This list is illustrative in nature only and must be applied with the necessary local customization in order to obtain worthwhile, usable results.

The main advantage of using visual data presentations is the proverbial thousands words these picture paint. Criteria is grouped in an arbitrary but conceptually meaningful manner, grouping perceived related items.  The charts are designed in such a way that “best” is farthest from the center, meaning a more round appearance covers all requirements. In the final instance, how well a prospect meets our requirements is necessarily subjective.

For our purposes the chart is divided into four major and one smaller area. The top (in white) contains provision for Integrity and Integration: the extent to which the system combines trust and business information and perceived internal integrity.

The remaining top half of the chart is the perceived treatment of trust (yellow) and business (pink) accounting features.

The Human Resource (purple) features contain  items that will impact our staff. Where little required Training is consider good and a high level of available After Care is considered good.

Software qualities (blue) refer to technical features. Up time indicates how reliable the system is perceived to be, UX (User Experience) refers to how easily users are expected to adapt to using the system. VAS refers to non-core Value Added Services, such as SMSes, automated email etc. Cloud can have only a “No” or “Yes” answer, indicating how the system is deployed. Cross Platfom offers an indication to the availability of the system on Apple, Android and Windows. Scalability refers to the ease and cost at which additional users can be added.

Where a specific product meets all our needs perfectly, a full circle is to be expected. If a solution were to be custom made, we could expect a product that does in fact meet all our criteria perfectly. But as this is not the case and we need to choose from available options, a more ragged shape is to be anticipated.  The question finally will be, not which product is a perfect-fit solution, but rather which of the options available presents itself as a best-fit solution.

Prospect A

The product is a designed for the attorneys accounting niche market.  The first prospect provides a high level of trust and business integration, is known for it’s extensive reporting features. The vendor  provides ample operational support, as well as an extensive after sales care, and extensive value added features.

Possible problem areas are a complex user interface which will require intensive training to operate the system. The system is not cloud based, and only available on one operating system. The product is server based, requiring extensive local IT support and requires additional, third party data backup and recovery systems. It is designed for Windows only and requires extensive training. Due to the inherent complexity, custom exception/summary reports are not available.

Prospect B

Prospect B offers an ample track record, an extensive client base, a large pool of possible employees, is Cloud based, with it’s most striking feature being equal availability on Apple, Android and Windows.

The user interface appears fluid and a moderate level of training is required to operate the product. The product is known for it’s up time and scalability and integrates well with current operations.

Prospect C

Prospect C is a typical old school product. Due to a long track record a large pool of skilled staff are available for recruitment.  

The product is based on twenty year old architecture, which effectively limits deployment to a single server, excluding uniform adoption and requires extensive IT support to maintain back office requirements. It is only available on Windows, is not cloud based and offers no value added features. In addition it offers scalability and integration into operations only at prohibitive cost. To add to its woes it suffers from poor after sales care. It presents itself more as a trust management system than a modern integrated accounting solution.

The purpose of the feature analysis is to allow for objective decision making. The data visualization provides a good look at the software products under consideration. Of course, one could draw up a table of columns and rows and give each desired feature a numerical value ranging from zero (poor) to 100 (best) and use this as a tool, where only those prospects above a certain cut-off value are considered.  Such an approach is equally valid, if visually less entertaining.

Based on the assessment, we can now proceed to decide on the prospect is the most suitable for our business needs.

Carl Holliday is an attorney specialising in practice management and compliance.
carl@zabiz.co.za

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