Purpose built, cloud-based practice management software has a number of advantages over using general cloud-based job/project management software. These include
- Reduced setup time as all of the data fields you need should already be in place.
- Deadlines and workflows are designed with your work in mind.
- Reports are built to provide you with the information you need.
- Integrations are in place with other systems you use.
However you may find that while you gain in those aspects, you compromise in other areas, such as customisation.
In this guide, we cover various feature groups relevant to cloud-based practice management that we feel are important and relevant when assessing options. In that sense this is an early-stage research tool. At the end of the guide we also provide some high-level next steps if you are considering introducing practice management software, or switching from an alternative provider.
Communication, both internal and external, is key to delivering services efficiently and meeting client expectations.
Being able to send and receive communications with clients from your practice management system is useful because you don’t have to switch between where you work and where you communicate. Email is a given, text messages is a nice addition, and integrated alternative communications such as WhatsApp will be an interesting roadmap conversation to have.
Further to send and receive, communications should be automated where appropriate so that time spent on repetitive admin tasks can be reduced and your clients get consistent service.
Where communications are stored is also key. Ideally you want the ability to store communications against both the client, as well as the specific job (or jobs) that the communications relate to. They must be accessible across all staff working on that client in order to provide an audit trail and accountability.
So what communications features should you be looking for?
- Integrations with Gmail and Office365 to send and receive email
- Assign email to jobs and clients
- Assign emails to team members
- Searchable email history
- Manage on mobile
- Prioritise inbox according to the relative importance of the client or the urgency of an outstanding job
- Create contacts and work from email
- Send text messages and text reminders from your practice management system
So far the options for engaging with clients using platforms other than email and text from within your practice management system are sparse. But in the future it’s likely that other platforms for communicating such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Slack will be more integrated, so you can provide more choice to a client on how you communicate with them.
Even meeting booking technology isn’t yet integrated. The benefits of this would be to enable tracking of time for a client automatically, where all of the other information around them is stored, making it easier to value the relationship and price.
- Automatic client reminders. These should be configurable at both a global (think templates) and at a client level (amend template, switch on and off).
- Client tasks that they can complete, with reminders for them and notifications once they’ve completed them.
- All communications should be visible at a job and client level through timelines so that it’s easy to see a history of what has happened.
- Being able to add notes to clients and work
- Having defined teams, roles, and team/role-based communication (i.e. send to managers) makes communicating with the right people easier.
- Notifications for team members if you mention them in a conversation, assign work or email to them.
This is an essential integration for your Practice Management system to have. It will support you both in setting up new clients and jobs, keeping details up to date, and providing a quick and easy way to search for information. So features are we looking for in this integration?
- View live companies house information
- Access documentation stored at Companies House
- Create contacts from Companies House information
- Create work from Companies House information
- File directly to Companies House
Contact management is really at the heart of all good practice management software and is critical to the system as a whole. This is your one place of truth for all data about your clients and it is incredibly important that it is up to date, and can be accessed easily by the relevant staff. The user interface is therefore particularly key for this element of the software.
- Does the data structure facilitate segmentation by using contact types, for instance separating prospects, clients, suppliers, and can you further define those into client types such as Ltd/Sole/Charity etc?
- Can you associate different contact types with each other, so that it’s possible to see relationships? For instance the relationship between an individual and a business, or a business and a business?
- Does the system have built in contact fields for all of the business and tax references that you need? Setting them up yourself might not take too long, but it’s a job saved if you don’t have to!
- Can you add in custom fields (or tags) for things like industry sector to make it easier to segment clients?
- Is it possible to send segment-based communications (i.e. to all VAT clients)?
- Can you download contact information across all clients with all fields so that you can update your mailing software?
- Can you restrict staff access to information on certain clients?
Because communication is integral to practice management, it follows that documents are also important. So what document management features could be relevant?
- Document storage is offered so that you can find and view relevant documents linked to contacts and/or work items. This storage might be offered by the software itself or a third party integration. Documents relevant to a client or job might either be uploaded, found via integration, or extracted from communications such as email attachments.
- The ability to search for documents, ideally using a global search function, or otherwise within the client record, is useful if storage is being offered.
- A client portal that allows you to share documents with clients.
- E-signature and client portal really go hand-in-hand.
- Document creation is probably best left to purpose built software outside of the practice management system, so this is where third party integration becomes useful, either with Google Drive, OneDrive or other document management software.
It’s unlikely to be the case that you use your practice management system as your sole repository of documents, but if you were planning to then you need to consider the long term implications. Questions should be asked around access to data if you terminate your agreement. You may be able to download individual documents easily, but what if you want to export everything?
Forms are a really useful way of gathering data from clients which is stored against their contact record, and keeping that data up to date. Using forms is far more effective than email at data gathering because a well constructed form will facilitate automation, reduce mistakes and misinterpretation.
- A range of question options – i.e. short text, long text, checkbox, radio buttons, email, phone.
- Internal / external completion, meaning that both clients and staff are able to complete forms.
- Conditional questions so that only the questions relevant to previous answers appear. These keep the form relevant to the user.
- Forms populate contact fields within the software so that you don’t have to re-type the information.
Proposals & Engagement
Not all practice management software has built in proposal and engagement tools, so this is an area where integrations with GoProposal, Practice Ignition, MyDocSafe, or other proposal software should to be considered.
Workflows between proposals & engagement and jobs are key to providing a smooth onboarding experience for both your new clients and your team. Relevant work items should be automatically deployed following the acceptance of a proposal.
You’ll know the information you want, so make sure you have that noted so you can question the providers on how to get that on a demonstration. Key reporting features would include:
- Good work filtering capabilities with the ability to save the views that are shown for quick access in the future.
- Being able to track work based KPIs such as target deadlines, items overdue, average completion time, job profitability, WIP.
- Understanding the volume of communications and response times for clients, relative to different service levels.
If you track time against jobs you’ll want an easy way to do this, and see it against the job. These are some key time related features:
- Is there a built-in time clock with a stop/start linked to the job you’re in? These might not be everyone’s favourite but if it’s what you like then it’s worth asking the question.
- If you don’t use a time clock then you’ll want the ability to update time manually.
- Once time records are in, you might want to review and approve time, either for jobs or for an overall time-sheet for a staff member.
- Of course what goes alongside time is a budget, so having job related time-and-cost budgets is important.
- If there’s not a built-in time recording function then an integration is the next thing you should be looking for, though this may increase the overall costs (TSheets is free for accountants and has a Karbon integration).
Work and Work Templates
For work items there are certain standard expectations such as ad-hoc or recurring tasks, and due dates, which will be ubiquitous across providers. What are we looking for in a work template?
- Target deadlines in addition to statutory deadlines, that can be reported on.
- Large description fields are useful in making work templates the training manual for your practice. These should permit any additional guidance media such as documents and videos to be attached/embedded.
- Structure is important for task management. Having different levels such as sections, tasks, and sub-tasks can make it easier to group tasks and update the status of the job based on the completion of tasks within a group (section).
- Recurring jobs are a given for any solution, but it’s an added bonus here is if you can carry over amendments or notes made in the previous job to the next recurrence, thus amending the template at a client level to tailor the tasks to the client.
- Status’, ideally customisable, that show progress on a job at a glance, such as Planned/To-Do/Waiting/In-Progress/Completed. Colours can also be useful if you like visual representation of progress.
- Automatic status updating on task/section completion. This really ensures that as long as tasks are being updated, the status of the job should always be accurate.
- No practice management software has thus far managed to integrate so far as actions in other systems update the tasks/jobs in the practice management software, but we expect this will be something that becomes more available in the future. Tasks will be related to actions within other software. For instance a VAT return filed in QBO would mean the task is completed in practice your practice management system.
Why are integrations important?
- Reduce manual data input and potential for error.
- Extend the functionality of the product
Integrations with an accounting platform could serve various purposes including:
- Syncing contact data to make sure it is consistently up to date
- Viewing client invoice data
- Creating invoices and syncing them to the accounting platform
- Quick links to go to the client’s accounting system
- Provide a summary of data from the client’s accounting system within the practice management system
Zapier has a real breadth of use cases for practice management. These can include:
- Maintaining data consistency across multiple systems,
- Populating or extracting contact/job related data fields
- Triggering actions on work items
App Advisory Plus are the UK’s only Zapier Certified advisors that work exclusively with accounting practices and their clients.
This is far more subjective than the other areas we’ve covered. But this area should cover things like:
- Design – is it nice to look at? If you’re spending a lot of time in the product you want it to look and feel good.
- Navigation – is it easy to understand where to go to find what you’re looking for? It should generally take no more than 2/3 clicks to get from where you are now to where you want to get to.
- Search – how powerful is the search functionality, and what does it cover? The more that is available to be searched the better, and if you can filter the search that’s a bonus.
It would be advisable to have various members of your team use the software during the trial period so that they can give feedback on the ease of use
In isolation the price of the software is completely irrelevant and should really only be considered in context of the benefits that implementing and using practice management software can bring to your practice.
Of course you will need to make an attempt to quantify those benefits and then relate them back to the price of the software. That is why it is important to map out your workflows using process mapping software such as Skore, and estimate time and cost involved. Estimate time savings and likely increased revenues from more time
Other considerations such as improved client experience, team satisfaction, and being able to take some more time off work could be other factors to consider aside from cost savings and additional earning potential.
If you’re considering switching practice management software then here’s your next steps:
- Map out your workflows
- Rank the features in order of importance to your workflows. You could use the simple ranking of essential/desirable/unimportant
- Use our comparison tool to compare features across up to 3 apps
- Ask our Help Desk if you have any questions
- Shortlist apps for demos, and send questions in advance.
- Include a number of different staff members in Demos in separate groups and allow staff to try the software out and provide feedback. This early engagement with staff, in particular those who will be key to the success of implementation, should help win support and make change management easier.
- Prepare data for import
- Check samples of data for completeness and accuracy
- Import data
- Check samples of data for completeness and accuracy
- It may be helpful to run the legacy and new system side-by-side for one quarter to pick up on any errors.