Accounting Software Buying Guide: How to Start Your Search

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This is part one in a series on finding the perfect accounting software for your business. This buying guide is brought to you, in part, by Accountex. This year’s conference is being held November 15 – 18 at the Mirage in Las Vegas. Registrants can save $100 by using the code “CAPTERRA” at checkout.

Capterra went last year and we’ll be there again this year. Come see us and learn something at the same time.

Your business may end up using any number of financial software products. You might have different systems for payrollaccounts receivableinvoicing, investment managementbudgeting, and financial reporting, or you might go with a package that combines a bunch of those into one.

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No matter where you end up, the center of your financial world is going to be your accounting software. This system will track and manage all the nitty-gritty details of your finances. It might integrate directly with your bank or it might live on its own, but it’s got to – at some level – represent what money you actually have available to you.

Standard accounting software features

There are hundreds of common and proprietary features that an accounting software can come with. We’ll talk about a few of the most common features and why they’re useful. Then we’ll cover some options that are on the rise. By the time we finish this section, you should have a good idea of what you’re looking for at a basic-level in accounting software.

Double entry accounting is the basis for most small businesses and almost every accounting system relies on it. You might be part of a small group that’s looking for simple, cash-based accounting, but it’s unlikely. Look for this at the core of your software.

 Importing transactions from your bank account is a must, in my book. Some folks are hesitant to put their online banking details into another system, but with today’s security, there’s not much increase in risk. The benefit of being able to import all your transactions with a click is huge.

Cloud-based accounting software is close to the new normal. Anywhere access, no need install or upgrade, and data automatically backed up is a hard menu to beat. The downside here is that you’ll be buying into a recurring fee. For example, you can purchase QuickBooks desktop version once and just never upgrade – I do not recommend this, but it’s possible – while QuickBooks Online is going to cost you every month.

Reporting tools are the third best reason to buy accounting software – the first is to not go bankrupt and the second is to not have the IRS kick your door in. Easy, useful reports can help you find new ways to save and make money, without requiring you to dive into the details.

Accountant access might not be a strict requirement, but I’m close to calling it one. The ability for your accountant to just access your books at any time makes a horrific and tedious process much easier.

These are what I consider to be the basic requirements of an accounting package for the average small business. Now, we’ll talk about popular add-ons, options, and integrations.

Accounting software extras

Once you’ve got a few base packages in mind, it’s time to pick out some chrome wheels. The smaller, more niche features in this next list are the things that make accounting packages different. Some of the bigger players cover all this ground, but with varying degrees of success. Make sure you check what’s included when you make a purchase.

Payment processing built into the accounting system is a huge feature these days. It makes the software company more money, saves you a step, and increases your dependence on your accounting package. There are plenty of third-party options and they are designed to play nice with most accounting software. Very optional.

Payroll processing is in the same boat. Profitable for the vendor, easy for you. Again, there are a ton of different third-party options out there. Basically, you want to get a small amount of data into your system on a semi-regular basis. Payroll – and payroll tax, specifically – is a massive pain. If you employ more than a handful of folks, I would either get this built-in to the accounting system of your choice or farmed-out to a service provider. Optional for the smaller players.

Multi-currency support for businesses that deal across international lines is a must. Not every accounting software deals with this and some require that you buy in at a certain level to get support for other currencies. This one is pretty clear, and you’ll need it or not, with no grey area.

Mobile apps for accounting on the go can be invaluable for businesses that spend a lot of time in the field. Most of the bigger companies are forced to do this by default now, with mixed results. Some up-and-comers have made mobile a key to their success, so there’s a wide range of quality and integration to be found. Optional, for most.

Invoicing in your accounting software is pretty easy to come by, these days, and can save a great deal of time. Unlike payroll, the numbers change frequently, you bill folks more often, and things have a timeline after issue that needs to be accounted for.  Fewer moving parts means that built-in invoicing is optional, but super useful.

Third-party integrations make the world go round. At some point, you might want to do more than your software is designed for. Add a barcode scanner, capture receipt data in visual form, link into your CMS, or tack on a more robust accounts payable feature. To do that, the software needs to have either an accessible API, an existing integration, or a path to customization from the vendor. While not everyone will end up in this scenario, the flexibility is very nice. Another optional, but super useful, feature.

There are hundreds of other features out there, but these six are the ones that are most likely to come up in some form.

Other considerations

Beyond features, you’ll want to look into cost, support, and workflow considerations. Cost is fairly self-explanatory, but keep in mind that there are many different pricing structures. It can be hard to compare prices when one company charges per login, one based on features, and another is free unless you’re using its payment features. Figure all this out before you commit.

Support is a big one for extra small businesses. When you’ve got eight people on staff, you don’t need them spending five hours troubleshooting. Many providers now offer training in addition to ongoing support, and you should consider both when thinking about your support needs. Reviews can make figuring this out much, much easier.

Finally, make sure you’re not jeopardizing your workflow. You should anticipate some changes, but they should all be timesavers, not time sucks. A system that requires you to enter receipts as images might be great for a small business, but if your huge company doesn’t issue phones to employees, things can get out of hand quickly. Ask yourself, “How does this affect the last day of the month, the last day of the quarter, and a random Tuesday at 3PM?”

In summary

Alright, that was a lot to take in, so let’s do some summarization. When you’re thinking about the software you want, you have to think about a few thing things.

  •         Does it come with the features you want out of the box?
  •         Does it integrate with your existing – and future – systems?
  •         How much does it cost?
  •         What do the training and support look like?
  •         How does it fit into your workflow?

The type of business you run will affect what order you consider these in. For instance, a one-man design studio is probably going to give preference to cost and support, while a thirty-person HVAC maintenance company should be focusing on integration, customization, and training.

Next time, we’ll finish things off with a discussion about trends in accounting software, places to do more research, and a few traps that you’ll want to avoid when picking a package. If you’ve got any other must-have features, let me know what they are in the comments below.  

Looking for Accounting software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Accounting software solutions.

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About the Author

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Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a former Capterra analyst.

Comments

[…] and packages range from single-user plans through to enterprise solutions, so it’s important to make a list to ensure you’ll have all the features you require for your digital accounting […]

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Great post! I completely agree with all your points. What I have learned is that, “one size NEVER fits all.” When choosing the best solution for accounting and collaboration, one must choose the solution that works best for their own specific set of conditions including;

1. Necessary functions
2. Cost
3. Local internet speed
4. PC capabilities
5. File size
6. Security concerns
7. Personal preference
8. Number of shared users
9. Need for simultaneous access

Once this evaluation takes place, they can determine what resource best suits their needs.

I’ve seen in some cases that the best solution may be a hosted product like QBO or similar. In other cases, they may want to keep the desktop look and feel but require a hosted solution to achieve their objectives. If they prefer to work entirely in their local environment but experience the best attributes of the cloud, they can even look at sharing solutions like Qbox.

The bottom line is, “One size does not fit all” and we can all best meet our needs when we are willing to consider their situation first and then apply the most appropriate solution.

Thanks again for your article! 🙂

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