Most people's top-of-mind brand association with Zoho is CRM. But there are plenty of finance leaders who would contest that. With Zoho's Finance Platform hitting several milestones - including 500,000+ businesses across 60 countries, it was a good time to catch up with one of those finance leads.
When I learned that Canada-based Liberty Security had implemented Zoho Finance without any outside consultants, that really sparked my interest. The deep end of the skills pool makes for a challenging project, but it's also a good test. Let's face it: today's business users aren't adopting your software en masse if it takes an army of consultants to configure it.
For Liberty Security, the challenge didn't end there. When Anand Pandarinath joined the company six years ago, he had no prior Zoho experience. Now the VP of Finance, it was Pandarinath's job to lead the Zoho Finance implementation (Liberty Security is a Zoho One customer). Yes, Pandarinath took the leap. As he told me:
I had never worked with Zoho in my entire life. They just said, 'Here you go. Please implement this module. I had a completely non-technical crew. Our finance team was all low-level technicians, you know, just analyst-type people.
Finance is changing - "We've made a lot of our financial interactions front-facing to our customers"
Add another twist: Liberty Security, which bills itself as "Canada's choice for smart home security and business alarm systems," has a modern, subscription billing model with considerable nuances - the type that can flummox old school accounting software. Pandarinath continued:
We actually have a relatively interesting billing and financial element to our business, which I can explain a little bit. And that's why Zoho seems to fit for us. So we went literally from soup to nuts. We went from the very first implementation of: let's switch over our old accounting software to the new one, and our old billing software - all to the Zoho platform. And we did it without a consultant.
"I'm not sure if that was the best move," jokes Pandarinath, and we'll get back to that. But what Pandarinath told me about Liberty Security's leadership really struck me. When they decided to move from Quickbooks to Zoho Books, empowering business users wasn't the only driver. It was a recognition that finance is changing. Now, there is a customer-facing element to consider. Pandarinath explains:
The mentality that they took when they made the switch, is that we've made a lot of our financial interactions front-facing to our customers, as opposed to this back room accounting voodoo that most companies seem to do.
That was the general principle of going forward. How can we basically take non-technical people, customer-facing staff, and get them to start taking care of some of the financial transactions? We've kept to that principle right up to now.
Pandarinath has a deep accounting background, but he's not technical, and he's not a CPA. That's a good Zoho Finance Platform test:
I was a really good guinea pig, because if I could figure it out, that means they were on the right track... I was able to ask a lot of the questions that junior people would ask, right out of the gate. That really helped with the implementation, because we did have a lot of people ask those questions.
The Zoho Finance project kicks off
Liberty Security went live on Zoho Books quickly, but like any enterprise finance project, the transition took time:
We did it in stages. Zoho Books - we switched on day one. It was the charge of the finance and accounting team primarily to do it... We did split up a little bit. I had my payables and receivables teams, with their respective expertise, take a look at the portions of the module that affected them. We would meet on a pretty regular basis as a team.
There was some trial and error that was involved, just to get things going. But we did utilize the Zoho development team a fair bit of that first year. So we probably got the Books module really flowing in about 12 months, you know, between going through the year ends, and comparing to other numbers. We still had to keep our previous information just to make sure everything was balanced out, before we turned everything off.
The subscription billing aspect could have been the big project glitch, but it wasn't:
The other phase that we brought initially was the subscriptions module, which is a really unique thing. There's only four or five really decent subscription billing modules out there on the market, that cater to this kind of audience. That was actually very successful.
Zoho One is one of the only enterprise products where you can easily expand into different areas - without changing licensing. Has that paid off?
Since then, we've since rolled out other elements of the suite. They've actually gone extremely well, because now we know the ins and outs of the platform. So we've rolled out the expense platform, the external billing platform and the inventory platforms. And they all just kind of folded into each other. Once we got the most difficult one done, the rest were actually surprisingly easy.
Zoho One made it a lot easier, because you had access to the different products easily. It was all there. We didn't have to really go and look and find and explore. They were just in front of us, and super fast integration. The administrator just has to turn it on or off, which is great.
Self-service, customer-facing finance?
Another payoff of the Zoho One approach? Getting business users up to speed quickly:
The other thing we found: at least in the finance suite, each of the different modules has a fairly similar look. When you jump back and forth, you're not having to teach people new things... Certainly from the back end, from the administrative side, I can read the backend really clearly. When we do think about training very junior people like front-facing customer service staff on this stuff, we can bounce them between modules extremely quickly, and they don't even know the difference.
It wasn't too hard to configure. I have junior staff set up the subscriptions, and put them into place right there on the phone with the customer. Any changes that are made, they can make it on the phone with the customer right there and say, 'Hey, John, I just changed the date, because you got a new job, and you're now being paid every third week' or something - it makes all the adjustments for you.
Self-service, customer-facing finance sounds intriguing, but what does it look like in practice - where is the payoff?
Zoho Finance also allows the customer to have a portal. So the customer can see everything, which is the only piece of software I found that has that. We give all our customers a portal. Lots of times, we can just tell them, 'Hey, instead of calling in the next time, just open up the portal that you've been sent. It's catered to you; you can see a history of all your transactions.
You can change your billing, if you like; you can change banks; you can change your credit card; you can change your home address, and it flows to the whole system. They don't even have to call in anymore. So for me, that's huge, because managing 30,000 customers every month, it's a lot of labor.
The wrap - on results, Zoho Analytics, and spreadsheet addiction
Every project has its highs and lows. At one early point, the system sent out an unintended email to 30,000 customers. But once Pandarinath gained familiarity with Zoho, those configuration changes weren't hard. I wondered if providing that self-service info had a potential to backfire, creating more customer support pings. On the contrary, says Pandarinath:
Since I implemented Zoho, I took my team and I dropped it by 50%. I shrunk my team by half, because I got the system to do most of that work for me. For a lot of that stuff, we put automation functions in. We utilized the workflows that Zoho implements. And the notifications - we put all those things into place, because in the past, I've actually had people that would go through and put things through Excel, and then send people emails and all that kind of stuff. Now, that's just gone.
One challenge all finance leaders can relate to: Excel addiction/attachment. "We've had resistance from above; we've had resistance from below." But even here, Pandarinath sees progress. They still allow Excel, but Zoho Finance is the system of record. Excel is becoming a data dump sandbox. Zoho Finance allows for a longer term collaboration: "We're happy with 80% of what you're given us, if 100% of the people can use it long after you're gone." Pandarinath says that message is starting to resonate.
So would Pandarinath do it again, without a consultant? No - he advises customers to get a skilled pro in, to help with the initial migration. He also advises making good use of the Zoho development team. As Zoho Finance comes of age, that dialogue has proved important:
They've been super receptive to our feedback. They never tell us that they're going to do it right away. But they put it on there; they put it on their roadmap. And we usually do see results along the way. I've been pleasantly surprised in the last couple of years to see what they've responded to. That's not something that we're used to, I think, in business anymore.
Next up for Pandarinath and team? Zoho Analytics. He plans to pull in all their CRM, customer and vendor information. "We're going to start going deep in the (w)hole of cost accounting, and an analysis of that." That will open up a different level of financial modeling and projections - and, perhaps, a resounding win for what's possible when you move off of spreadsheets. That's a worthy ambition for any finance leader.