Column: The Small Business Consulting Advisor
From the Sept 2011 Issue
This year is shaping up to be a big year for innovation in the world of accounting services and client business processes. I’ve been researching several companies lately, and I’m learning how they view the market, how they build solutions, and what technology approach they believe will win the most customers today and into the future.
Have you ever noticed how some companies decide to lead customers while others just develop what customers ask for? Apple is the perfect example. Nobody ever asked Apple to develop a device that would hold all their music in their pocket (the iPod), or for a phone with applications (the iPhone), or a digital tablet with Internet and thousands of applications (the iPad). But Apple is really good at leading the marketplace and developing technologies and products that people will want as opposed to the product features people ask for. If Apple had wanted to give people what people wanted, they would have made a Windows PC. I’m a former Apple Evangelist, and it really got into my blood that true innovation comes only when you’re willing to do things that customers do NOT specifically ask for, but rather provide something that SOLVES their needs and becomes what they WILL begin asking for in the future.
In the accounting software world, nobody is specifically asking for some of the hottest new innovations coming to market these days. But I predict the most successful companies will be those whose innovations solve many of the less-than-obvious customer pains and those who focus on the entire business process. When I say “entire” business process, I mean they must pay attention to not only their product, but also to how their product fits into the rest of the business system customers require. Even if that means they have to provide extra integrations to make their product work well with other, sometimes competitive, products.
The successful companies break the rules and give us a new way of working. They lead customers instead of just giving them what they ask for. But leading also means they need to make their products compelling enough to make us change our processes. For example, the idea of printing and mailing checks to vendors is really gut-wrenching to those of us who have seen the light and begun using online bill payment services like Bill.com. But for some, the idea of changing their bill payment process is really a scary concept, filled with fear and doubt.
The driving force behind so many of these new and innovative products is what I call, for lack of a better term, a new world that completely changes how we use technology. In my July 2011 column (www.CPAPracticeAdvisor.com/10278833), I described the new world and discussed how it forces us to rethink our standard ways of working. Probably the biggest step forward is mobile devices and smartphones. The rate of adoption of mobile solutions is mind boggling, and it’s quickly becoming accepted that there’s an “app for everything.” This means we can assume everyone has the ability to access and interact with information anytime, anywhere … even without a computer. That’s HUGE.
As we think about the practice of accounting as well as client business processes that touch the general ledger, we suddenly have incredible new tools that allow us to design and implement interconnected applications, mobile apps, data feeds and portals that enable us to collaborate with and serve clients in ways that were simply impossible just a few years ago.
For several years now, we’ve been using systems where customers and vendors can enter accounting data for us when they place orders on our web stores, or when they send us electronic invoices. Compared with our old world of faxes and paper documents (both sales orders and vendor invoices), in which data is manually entered by the bookkeeper, that is a significant leap ahead for efficiency, accuracy, and reduction of the cost of bookkeeping. This is the trend at the core of what I mean by “zero entry.”