In a sign of the times, CCH iFirm is adding connections to other vendors’ accounting software in a bid to improve efficiency for accounting firms. While accounting software for SMEs has long used API connections to integrate with hundreds of other business apps, practice software has tended to stay within its walled garden.
Xero and then Intuit were the first to open up their free practice management tools to third-party apps for notifications. But both tools are only suitable for very small firms. In Australia, iFirm is the cloud suite with the most potential to fit firms with hundreds of employees.
It’s a great move by Wolters Kluwer and one that couldn’t have come at a better time.
The dramatic statements revealed during MYOB’s aborted acquisition of Reckon APS showed that the two companies are years away from developing a full-blown cloud practice suite.
CCH iFirm, made by Wolters Kluwer, positions itself as next-in-line for the throne. It includes an online tax module, which neither MYOB nor Reckon have matched.
However, iFirm has lacked a major drawcard – a tightly integrated, cloud accounting app for SMEs. Xero’s rapid accumulation of market share has encouraged firms to consider the free Xero Practice Manager before iFirm. The software company could capitalise on this winning streak by expanding its practice tools to firms of all sizes – but it’s not interested.
Xero stated to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that it didn’t want to invest in making software for firms with more than 20 staff.
There are two interesting aspects to this development. How deeply is Xero prepared to integrate with iFirm? Initially the connection is just to Xero Tax; will it eventually connect client files to another vendor’s practice suite?
And then there’s the Microsoft Power BI integration. What exactly can you do with a BI tool when it is natively integrated with your practice software?
In this edited transcript, Russell Evans (CEO of Wolters Kluwer Asia Pacific) and Daniel Wyner (regional director) give a frank assessment of the market and where they intend to take integrations for iFirm.
- Integrations with Xero
- Azure Migration and Stability Issues
- Power BI and Deeper Reporting
- MYOB, CCH iQ and Document Management in the Cloud
Integrations with Xero
Russell Evans: What we’re hearing from particularly small and medium sized firms is that they’re looking for real efficiency gains in workflow. Let’s assume (firms are) moving toward fixed price engagements, if you’re only getting two and a half thousand for a job that you used to get 4000 for, that’s all about hours on the job. Now, given that Xero have captured a good slice of the market in the small and medium firms with their tax product, it makes sense for us to support our clients who want end-to-end efficiency. Xero Ledger into Xero Tax and running the job on iFirm practice management. We’re just starting to do that now. Initial indications are it’s going to be a winner for the market and therefore good for us.
Digital First: What exactly are you launching?
Daniel Wyner: Effectively it is an API connection. From within iFirm’s practice management screen, you will see the client database from Xero Tax. You can also launch that client’s tax return from within iFirm’s practice management screen. It will also show the relevant meta tax to say that a return has either been filed or lodged, signed, etc. You don’t want to be flicking between different products to see the status of what’s going on, so we’ve managed that workflow entirely within iFirm’s practice management solution.
Digital First: That sounds great.
Daniel Wyner: You can assign your staff to whoever needs to do the job, add all the necessary checklist programmes, procedures, jump out to Xero Tax and do your tax return by launching it from within CCH iFirm. That’s phase one. Phase two, which will come Q4 in Q1 next year, will be adding CCH iQ to Xero Tax. The myth that “I need to be with one provider” from the desktop days has been blown away. We want to facilitate whatever the practices want to do.
Digital First: Will there be deep links from workflow screens in iFirm to the Xero client files themselves?
Daniel Wyner: Just Xero tax.
Digital First: Do you think you’ll get to a point where you have deep links to say, Xero, QBO, MYOB? If you click on the file and just open that client’s cloud files – is that the vision?
Daniel Wyner: I think anything is possible. It comes down to us proving out that this is the right workflow and that value proposition. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t.
Russell Evans: It also comes back to the use case. There’s a lot of collaboration at the moment between the accountant and the general ledger. Rather than waiting for the end of the year to do the adjustments in June or waiting for a tax trigger, accountants are using it on a monthly basis.
When MYOB come to market with a cloud tax product, and accountants want an end to end MYOB ledger and MYOB Tax plugging into iFirm practice manager, if our clients start banging on the door and saying “We want to operate support in that open environment,” we’d absolutely be behind that as well.
Digital First: What’s the reason for not pushing the Xero integration globally? Is that an internal decision as opposed to a technical one?
Daniel Wyner: We’ve only focused our discussions with Xero locally and therefore it’s really been focused on the Australian market.
Russell Evans: I think it’s also a maturity curve decision as well. Look at the proportion of small businesses that have made the shift into a cloud based accounting application. Australia and New Zealand are a long way ahead of other markets, so therefore the customers that we’ve been engaging with have been far more vocal about that desire to work in an open environment, to be able to plug in different applications for greater efficiency.
Russell Evans: There is an intensity in our conversations (with firms). This is a kind of anecdotal number, 60% of accountants have a copy of the Australian master tax guide on their desk. Over the last six years we’ve had a very strong focus on digitising the master tax guide and getting it into the market and we’ve done that with CCH iKnow. Last year we plugged iKnow into Xero Tax. Our quest is really to provide accounting firms across the region with a digital experience. Plugging into providers like Xero makes sense for us because then we’re still relevant to accountants.
Digital First: What were the engagement stats like for iKnow with Xero Tax? That integration has been out about a year?
Daniel Wyner: I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but a significant number of firms have signed up to either a paid subscription or a premium offer. It’s well over the hundred mark. The next phase is making it far more actionable. That’s where IQ comes into the piece.
Digital First: You’re saying 100 firms? That doesn’t seem like a lot –
Daniel Wyner: It’s in the hundreds, I just don’t know.
Digital First: Okay. Enough proof to turn around and invest more in integrating CCH iFirm more closely with Xero. Are you intending to do that with any of the other products, like QuickBooks Online?
Daniel Wyner: Yes. We’ve had conversations with multiple providers about where we could look at that. Say accountants (use iFirm and) run their books on Xero or QuickBooks. At the moment you can run (your firm on iFirm and use Xero for the firm’s accounts). That integration’s been there since well before we acquired iFirm because of the old days of Acclipse and Xero starting out together.
Digital First: Clearly there’s overlap here between Xero Practice Manager and iFirm. What size firms are you targeting?
Daniel Wyner: When you’re over five staff, firms have a willingness to spend a little bit more money because they know that it’ll be something a little more sophisticated. Up to that 50 user mark, the politics within a firm, the number of partners and so forth, it’s an easy decision making circle. They can drive the change management. Changing the practice management solution, which is at the heart of a firm, it’s no small undertaking at all. Our data historically have suggested firms stay on a solution for about eight to ten years because they don’t want to go through that change management.
Azure Migration and Stability Issues
Digital First: I did hear some stability issues with iFirm over the past 12 months. I was wondering what the story was with that and if it’s been resolved.
Russell Evans: Yes. So in July last year we moved from our own data centres into the Microsoft Azure environment. We did a huge amount of pre-planning around that and we thought we’d anticipated everything. But some part of the transition didn’t go according to plan and as a result some customers experienced latency issues and performance issues. We’ve thrown everything at that and we’ve now stabilised that platform.
Digital First: Okay.
Russell Evans: And look, we’ve been very open with our customers. We’ve understood the frustration that’s caused to them. We’re past that now.
Digital First: Why did you move to Azure?
Daniel Wyner: It’s as much about scalability as different times of the year. In peak tax periods we have to scale the service up and down. We needed to have more of that flexibility Azure can give us. There are global Azure support teams that now manage “around the sun” everything that goes on on that platform. The relationships we have with Microsoft and to leverage that platform enables us to do some really great things for the client.
Power BI and Deeper Reporting
Digital First: Like what?
Daniel Wyner: One of the things that we’re focusing on for the back half of this year would be really tight integration with Microsoft Power BI over practice management data. Now that we’re in the Azure environment we can leverage off their technology stack. Microsoft is spending millions of dollars on making that a great tool that allows you to plan utilisation. Why would we waste our time trying to compete with that?
The biggest reason why bigger firms hold back (from moving to iFirm) is that they’re used to having the flexibility of slicing and dicing the data.
If you look at the legacy platforms they’ve got that ability to pull their own reports. We haven’t gone down that path until now. We give firms the ability to export data as and when required, but with (Power BI they can) work out how they want to build their own dashboard.
Digital First: When will this Power BI integration be ready?
Russell Evans: In Q4.
Daniel Wyner: Yes – that’s Power BI connecting to the practice management dataset, not to build it out for their clients’ data.
Digital First: What can you do with it?
Daniel Wyner: I can dig in to see the types of jobs that make me more profit, and the ability to manage workflow. The bigger firms are wanting to manage their staff more around KPI management. Power BI can give them a custom report about how they want to run their businesses.
Digital First: What’s the largest firm on iFirm?
Daniel Wyner: I think it’s about 160 users.
Digital First: Okay. Would you go bigger than that?
Daniel Wyner: At the moment, probably not.
Digital First: Why?
Daniel Wyner: The main reason would be that reporting.
Russell Evans: The more complex firms need to slice and dice their performance by partner, by director, by manager, by team member across different lines of business. At the moment iFirm isn’t designed to do that. By Q4 we’ll be able to support that.
Digital First: Will you launch a marketing campaign to sell iFirm to larger firms?
Russell Evans: Yeah, and look, I think we’ll be very successful demonstrating tangible business benefits in the connection with Xero. Then if we see the opportunity to roll out the Microsoft BI platform with a really strong offering for those firms with 100 to 300 staff, there’s nothing to stop us moving to that space.
MYOB, CCH iQ and Document Management in the Cloud
Digital First: What other integrations are you working on with competitors?
Daniel Wyner: Firms are saying to us CCH iQ’s great but to change their tax product is not a small undertaking, in particular for some of these bigger firms. So we’ve rolled out integration of the iQ functionality into the MYOB Accountants Enterprise database. Every time you lodge a tax return it is populated into the iQ database. We’re seeing some really nice results. Firms can move into compliance advisory without having to lift up their entire tax process onto a new platform.
Another thing we rolled out right at the beginning of this year which has taken off better than we initially thought is a cloud-based document management solution on Office 365, tightly integrated into iFirm as well.
Digital First: Has it done well?
Russell Evans: Can’t give you customer numbers, but I will tell you it’s going gangbusters. It has really exceeded our expectations.
Digital First: Why do you think that is?
Daniel Wyner: I don’t believe there has been a credible, fully functional cloud solution. MYOB document management solution had the full Sequel type functionality that depended on the way that you viewed it, it’s got folder structure and so forth. That functionality has not been available in the cloud until more recently. And there is the adoption of Office 365 by more and more firms. You have tight integration with email management and link all your emails to the relevant clients, with filtering and full mail merge functionality so that your engagement letters are automatically captured and sent out the right way.
Digital First: Would you say you have reached feature parity with MYOB Accountants Enterprise or Reckon APS yet? If not now, when?
Daniel Wyner: I don’t know that we’ll ever have feature parity because just replacing what is currently there on desktop is not the smart way of doing it. We want to look at what’s available and what the user needs and how we can facilitate a quicker outcome.
We can say, “You may be used to clicking these three times to get this type of report, but why do you need that report? You can make the same decision with a dashboard.”
Digital First: It is more use-case parity, isn’t it?
Daniel Wyner: Yes, that’s right.
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