Choosing an Implementation Partner for your New Accounting System

software implementation partnerOne of the most important decisions you’ll make during the course of an accounting system upgrade is that of your implementation partner. Typically this will be an accounting software vendor, a value added reseller (VAR), a CPA firm, an independent consultant, or another trusted advisor. 
Of course, many users attempt to conduct the accounting system implementation themselves. I would only recommend that if you have experience in the current version of the software and a thorough knowledge of the industry environment you are working within. In our relationships with clients we would always point out that they typically knew their needs and environment, but we knew the software. Yet neither of us “didn’t know what we didn’t know,” so to speak.
We might be able to suggest functionality or business processes the software accommodated that made the client's jobs easier and leveraged their software investment. Likewise, they would often push us to get the software to do things that it maybe wasn’t designed to do, at least at first glance. It is truly a symbiotic relationship. I don’t think there was ever an installation where we didn’t learn something from the client, and also imparted our accounting system knowledge to them.
Typically an accounting system vendor will have a certification process to train installers at one or more levels of certification. This might include “Certified Consultant,” or other formal status. Check with the vendor to see what their certifications are, and maybe get a list certified installers in your area. Oftentimes the individual or firm who has helped you through the due diligence and acquisition phase may be the defacto service provider. This makes some sense, as they have hopefully gained much knowledge of your business throughout that process. However, if you are unsure of their qualifications it makes sense to do a little research. Also a little friendly competition amongst competing installers may give you some leverage in gaining more value for your project budget.
Another important aspect is how many implementations of the accounting system has the service provider conducted? Most installers will be able to provide you the requisite 3 references – and you should follow-up with those. But does the installer have experience in your industry? Have they installed the most recent version of the software? Do they have multiple certified installers on staff? The greater their breadth of experience in environments similar to yours; the better the chance for a smooth installation.
One question we frequently encountered involved technical support. In some cases our prospects would inquire as to whether we provided 24/7 support, 365 days a year. That always seemed a little extreme – only the largest of vendors might offer that. But making sure that multiple methods of support were available, perhaps including a tech’s cell phone number for emergencies, is appropriate. These alternate methods may include an on-line knowledge base (which is available 24/7/365!), adequate on-line help, manuals, 800-telephone support, e-mail support and customized user guides. This last item is particularly helpful in on-going training of new staff or when cross training is required. 
Of course you’ll want to complete a Needs Analysis. If you have not completed one, many vendors have one they will walk you through. In fact, even if you THINK you know what you need, it sometimes helps to talk to the vendor to see what their other clients have done to make their systems more efficient. Using the software selection tool on CompareAccountingSoftware will help you identify many of your needs that you can later discuss with your vendor.
Many prospects utilize a RFP process to garner vendor responses. If you do this keep one thing in mind – some of the best vendors don’t respond. They don’t have to. They stay busy keeping their clients happy with billable work! Requiring a vendor to complete an extensive RFP with hundreds of basic questions such as “Does you system print checks?” saps their resources, and some of the best refuse to respond. They also point out that without a dialog about system capabilities versus needs, you may not be asking the right questions (“Ever thought about EFT for vendor payments?”). If you insist on using an RFP, keep it brief and highlight only unique capabilities that may differentiate the systems. Better yet, use the selector tool provided on this site. That’s precisely what we do!
After you have reviewed the needs analysis you might want the vendor to provide a Statement Of Findings indicating where their systems address your needs, where any gaps may be between your needs and their solution, and how they would recommend addressing those gaps (such as third party solutions or custom programming). 
Every successful implementation begins with a solid project plan, and you should make sure your partner utilizes one. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet of sequential steps, or as elaborate as a Gantt or PERT chart. But make sure one exists, and that everyone is in agreement regarding the timeline and responsibilities. Everyone knows a chart of accounts will be required, but who is going to design it? Who is going to set it up? And if it is the installer, how much time are they budgeting and what will that cost? There should actually be several parts to the implementation plan. 
The start is what we refer to as the “Roadmap,” or the overall timeline and process of the ENTIRE process, including due diligence, approval, acquisition, conversion, etc. A good partner will anticipate the time needed for this and set expectations accordingly. Too many times an installer will say, “We can do an implementation in 3 weeks!“, but they actually mean they can do an install in 3 weeks. This may not be adequate time for the aforementioned steps. So be realistic, and require that your installer be so as well. 
The second part of the plan is to develop a chart or spreadsheet showing the individual tasks – Design Chart Of Accounts, Enter Vendors, Convert Beginning Balances, etc. These will have associated task responsibilities and time frames. Again, make sure there is buy-in and agreement from all parties involved and that adequate resources are allocated.
Finally, there are the Workpapers. These are the tools the team uses in actually performing the work, and signing off on their completion. These would include a copy of the finalized chart of accounts, a trial balance of beginning balances, a list of initial vendors to set-up, etc.
A somewhat unique, but very valuable concept is that of a conference room pilot. This involves setting up a fully functional (or nearly so), working model of the final “go live” system. It is done in a test environment (for instance a conference room) and transactions are processed, procedures are hammered out and documented, reports are designed, etc. In doing so, you work out the bugs and have a more tested process to roll out to end users at the go-live date. 
Of course, with the installer on-site and everyone having access to “the pros”, everything tends to go well. It’s when your mentor leaves that things may go awry. That is why in addition to your on-going support you should schedule a 30 and/or 90 day review, as well as an annual review, as part of the initial project. The time to find out that payroll accruals are not clearing as expected is in Period 1, not Period 13. The benefit to this minimal investment can not be overstated. This can usually even be done remotely to minimize expense. 
The team you assemble to participate in your implementation is just as important to your success as the application you select. Make sure you insure your success by including these important steps in your implementation plan.