Accounting Software Evaluation ProcessAfter discussing a super long list of accounting software features to be consider during evaluation and selection stage, in this post we will discuss short of general features that should not be discounted. Genaral features that could as much as discount most value [or  as little as down-grades] of any superb accounting software when they are not exist. Read on….
The following issues should be considered when purchasing accounting software, but cross over the functionality of any single software module:

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Hot keys for rapid screen switching. An expert user will not want to work her way through a series of windows to reach the required one, but would rather enter a few keystrokes that are specifically related to the screen in question. These “hot keys” may either be pre-set by the software designer or designated by the user.

Linkage to Internet help site. A useful feature is for the software provider to maintain a web site that lists crucial responses to problems that other users have discovered with the software. This may include patches to bugs, lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs), or a complete index of help files. Such sites can be much more informative than the help screen typically provided with the software, and is certainly more up-to-date. This feature works best when there is an access button on the screen that takes the user straight to the Web site.

On-line help screens. The software should always have a complete set of help screens that itemize the various accounting functions and how they are to be used. This should include a table of contents or index that allows the user to enter the first few letters of the topic about which help is needed, which will bring up a list of close matches.

On-line software tutorial. Though the accounting staff may be sent off to training classes prior to using a new accounting system, refresher training is still required for those functions that are rarely used, as well as new training for employees who are hired after the initial training took place. A good solution to these issues is computer-based training (CBT). The software provider should have training modules available for all aspects of its software, preferably including module quizzes that can be used to test the comprehension of the staff.

Pull-down menu options. Though this may seem obvious, some older characterbased software does not contain any pull-down menu system that allows new users to more easily navigate their way through the maze of screens. Instead, they must work their way up and down through a hierarchy of screens to reach a small number of master lists of screens; this is much less efficient than pulldown menus.

Security at multiple levels. The type of security needed for the computer system will vary with the structure of the business using the accounting software. For example, a single computer that houses the entire accounting system will only need security to access the entire computer, since only one person will be using the machine—all others are locked out. However, multi-user systems will require more specific types of security. The most common security system is to set up a permissions profile for each user that allows him or her access to specific applications within the accounting system. More detailed (but less common) security systems can also restrict access to specific screens or fields within screens. It is also possible to specially format screens that only reveal certain fields, which is an alternative approach for providing field-specific security.

Windowing capability. There are a few instances when the accountant may need to flip rapidly between screens of information, or at least set up screen information side-by-side on the computer terminal. If so, it can be useful to have a windowing capability that allows one to maintain multiple windows on the computer screen at the same time.

Did I forget any features? Ugh, oh ya… the report writer… this should be included on the main features, but here some point of report writer to be considered. Read on…

 

Accounting Software Module – Report Writer

Though the report writer is not usually treated as a separate module within an accounting system, it is an extremely important part of the overall system, for it allows one to group and summarize data in ways that cannot be anticipated by the pre-formatted reports that were created by the software supplier. Here are key functions to look for:

Download to multiple formats. Any report format created should download with minimal keystrokes into any of several popular formats, such as *.wks, *.wk1, *.doc, or ASCII. The main point is that the downloadable format available should be the one most used by the company—there should be no need to convert all other electronic spreadsheets, databases, and word processing packages throughout the organization to the format used by the accounting software.

Linkages to multiple tables. There are dozens of different data tables in which accounting information is stored. The most primitive type of report writer will only allow reports to be created from a single table, which greatly restricts the types of reports that can be created. A much better approach is for the report writer to link a number of tables together, so that data can be pulled together from multiple sources.

Pre-formatted reports. There should be a formatting template integrated into the report writer that allows the user to specify different margin and header settings, as well as the proper formatting of rows, columns, subtotals, and totals.

Conversion of reports to HTML. The report writer should allow the user to convert a completed report into hypertext markup language with a single keystroke and then paste the resulting report into a Web page, so that the report can be viewed by anyone with access to the company intranet site.

Automatic report content updating. If the preceding HTML conversion capability is available, the report writer should also have the capability to automatically update the data on the report, so that users can view data in real time, rather than as of the date when the original report was created.

Query capability. Beyond the basic capabilities of the report writer lies the query language. This is a search engine that should allow a user to input a short string of characters related to a search for data that is sufficiently precise for the computer system to return the desired information. The query language can be in free-form text, or in a more rigid format with specific data entry fields. The first format is more powerful but more difficult to learn, while the latter format has the reverse attributes.

 

Accounting Software Evaluation – Additional Factors to Be Considered

In addition to the items just noted, one should investigate the level of customer support provided by the software supplier. Some of this information can be obtained simply by visiting the supplier’s web site, since it is increasingly common for them to maintain extensive on-line help files. In addition, it may be possible to obtain copies of their documentation, to see how complete it is. Also, the supplier should offer a complete set of courses designed to educate users in the basics of operating the software, as well as advanced topical areas, such as report writer usage and the construction of queries.

Further, one can see if there are any active user groups for the software in the local area, and contact their members to obtain unbiased commentary regarding the level of support provided by the supplier. The importance of this topic will increase with the price of the software, since a software package that cost a great deal, but that no one can use, will not enhance the rest of a company’s opinion of the accounting department.

One should also determine the size and location of the supplier’s support staff. If it is too small, it may not be able to handle large incoming call volumes, nor provide answers at any time of the day or night. If it is concentrated in a central location, it is likely to only be accessible during the business hours of the time zone in which it is located.

Another Issue is Its Financial condition!

Any organization without sufficient funding is unlikely to invest enough resources in the continual upgrading of its software, while its customers are also at risk of losing key customer support services if the supplier goes into bankruptcy.

 

Yet another factor is the number of other customers that are using the supplier’s software. If there are few customers, this will impact the amount of maintenance fees collected by the supplier, and therefore its financial condition. Also, a small number of customers does not give a company much of a selection when making reference calls during the software selection process. If there are few customers, it may mean that the software has only just been rolled out, which may indicate the presence of an excessive quantity of software bugs that have not yet been found by customers. A final issue for more advanced computer systems is that the supplier should be able to test one’s software through the use of remote diagnostics, so that its customer service personnel can see exactly what problems are occurring.

Another issue related to software selection is its cost. There are several factors to consider besides the initial purchase price. There will usually be a maintenance fee charged each year that can be as high as 18% of the original purchase price. If the purchase price was heavily discounted, the supplier will probably calculate the maintenance fee as a percentage of the original price, rather than the discounted price. Also, the supplier may offer on-site training classes, though the company must pay for the travel cost of the trainer. This is usually a less expensive option than sending employees to the supplier’s location if there are so many employees to be trained that their travel cost will exceed that of the trainer. Also, it is generally not acceptable to use a “train the trainer” approach, since there will be a loss of knowledge when the supplier only trains a few people and then relies on these employees to turn around and train other staff.

Another cost issue is the programming related to adjustments that the company makes to the software. If this programming is conducted by the supplier, the time required may be somewhat less than if other programmers are used, since they have a better knowledge of the underlying software code. However, the entire concept of modifying software should be discouraged, since it prevents a company from taking advantage of future upgrades to the software package that are routinely issued by the supplier, since an upgrade would wipe out custom programming that had previously been added to the software.

Of all the preceding factors to consider when purchasing new accounting software, the accountant will probably feel that only a small proportion are truly essential to company operations. If so, these key items should be used to judge the worth of each software package under consideration. It may be useful to assign a priority weighting to each factor, so that a numeric score can be constructed for each package, with the winning package being the one with the highest score.

Even though an accounting software package may have received a high score, this does not automatically qualify it for purchase. The buying company should also make reference calls to other current users of the software, using a standard checklist of its own devising that focuses on the issues that are most important to it. It is quite important to call customers of the supplier that have not been recommended by it, in order to gain access to customers who may have had problems with the software. To obtain the names of these customers, one can go to local support group meetings, or call the customers recommended by the software supplier and ask them if they know of other customers who are not on the supplier’s official reference list.

It is also useful to have the supplier conduct an on-site demonstration of the software. If this is done, the company’s evaluation team should construct a set of questions to ask prior to the demonstration that focus on the most crucial functions. Otherwise, the salesperson demonstrating the software will tend to channel the discussion toward the nifty “bells and whistles” that make the software look good.

A final way to review the accounting software is to conduct site visits that take the company’s review team to the locations of other companies that have previously installed the accounting software. It is important to only visit sites where the software has been completely installed, since the point of the visit is to determine the level of implementation difficulty for all software modules, as well as how it has been integrated into the manual systems that surround the software. Once again, the team should construct a standard list of questions to ask before making any site visits, so that the responses to a standard set of questions can be compared, as well as to ensure that all key issues are addressed during the visits. Once the accounting software has been selected based on the preceding reviews, it must be installed. Have you read the previous post [Accounting Software Selection and Evaluation[Part I]? If You haven’t yet, you may want to read it too.