Perform 2021 - 'Your financial planning is only as good as your data,' and other timely lessons from Planful customer Trintech

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 16, 2021 Audio mode
These market conditions aren't kind to clunky finance tools. But there's a caveat to agile planning: it's only as good as the underlying data. At Planful Perform 2021, Trintech's Josh Ezagui made the case for finance teams as data storytellers - and how to get there.

(Trintech's Josh Ezagui talking shop at Perform '21 )

Planful Perform 2021 is in the books. The push for better financial planning when we need it most continues.

In my Perform 2021 preview piece, I hit on the show's big news - and burning question (Inside the Planful Predict announcements, and how planning must change).

However, I noted a caveat - all of this is subject to customer use cases. I promised the diginomica team would fan out (virtually) in search of stories, and we did. So far:

Add another to the mix, via my video interview with Trintech VP of Finance Josh Ezagui, who also presented at Perform 2021. Ezagui has vivid lessons to share. But before I get to that, a quick word on Trintech. This SaaS company bills itself as a "leading provider of record to report software solutions for the office of finance."

"With finance, the biggest challenge is data"

Yes, that's quite a catch phrase, but they must be onto something: Trintech now has 3,500+ customers and counting, including the majority of the Fortune 100. With that in mind, Mr. Ezagui, what were your key points for Perform 2021 attendees? Start with this: your planning solutions can only be as good as your data. Ezagui:

With finance, the biggest challenge is the data we have to deal with - getting clean data in a way that we can utilize it. That's really what I talked about: how the finance team [faces that challenge].

But Ezagui's tough-love-data-message comes with an energizing upside. If finance leaders get this right, they shift from data-deluged bean counters to enterprise storytellers. Now you can influence business direction:

I do believe this, because I've been doing it in my career. We are uniquely positioned to drive data in finance and transformation, not only for finance, but for the whole enterprise. That's our job. Every day, I tell my team, and I tell the teams that I've worked with, 'We're the storytellers of the company.' We pull all this different information, whether it's from Salesforce, or the HRIS system for headcount or compensation. You look at bookings and pipeline, what's the story? And you bring all these different things in.

That's how data issues come to a head:

The frustrating and time-consuming thing is when the data doesn't align. Then you've got to figure out how to make it aligned, to present the data in a proper way.

Trintech has been running on Planful for a year. Has it helped with that data conundrum? Ezagui:

Planful has been a tremendous asset for us to do that. I walked in the door two years ago. My current CFO, Omar, joined us in September. When we were producing our reporting, it was taking several weeks to get done. What I was explaining to my finance team at the time was, 'Guys, we've already missed the opportunity to be a good business partner,' because if I'm handing people stuff two weeks after close, it's too late for a manager to do anything.

Want to be a true partner to the business? Start by modernizing your reporting:

One of the first things we had to do was speed up our reporting process. Today, because of Planful, my accounting team can let us know, 'Hey, we're closed. We're done.' 15 minutes later, my team is running reports, and we're able to get preliminary reporting out that day.

CIOs must prove they are business-relevant, while still keeping systems humming and secure. Finance leaders are the same. Closing the books, tax and regulatory filings, fiduciary responsibilities  - that never goes away. Yet CFOs now need to do more. That's what I find compelling about Ezagui's storytelling framework. But in practical terms, what does that entail? Ezagui:

For the first part of my career, I was an accountant; I was a controller. I did AP, AR, payroll taxes - I closed the books. I can probably say today, it's been 15 years since I did a journal entry. I like that, because the exciting thing about finance is, again, it's really about storytelling. What are the numbers telling us? Why are we seeing what we're seeing? What does it mean for the future? And how do we adjust the business to hopefully change that story?

I asked Ezaqui: can you share an example of putting this into action?

I can use a global example everyone is familiar with: COVID. I talked about how we had Planful, and we were able to do our budget, get it done. And then literally two weeks later, COVID happens. We, like everyone else, had no idea what that meant. 

Time for a budget scramble:

We were able to go into Planful and again, we basically redid the budget in two days. 

But the really impactful part was the scenario planning:

Using Planful, we asked, 'What if this happens?  What what's going to happen if the economy shuts down? How long is it going to last?' And we were able to go back in and redesign our budget, our plan for COVID, and then be able to track it on a very granular level throughout each month, as we progressed through.

They got through:

Thankfully for Trintech, we didn't see the worst case scenario that we expected. We didn't know what the capital markets were going to do, or how finance and accounting teams were going to react and what was going to happen. We were pleasantly surprised - I think a lot of people were - with how well remote working land went. And it actually boosted our business, because that's what we can do. We can provide insight into the close process and accelerate that. We were getting a lot of feedback that it helped companies be able to do remote closings and stuff like that.

The wrap - is continuous planning a viable goal?

Switching to a pandemic budget was almost universal. Here's what I wanted to know: was Ezagui's team able to adjust their plans regularly, as pandemic circumstances changed? He responded:

One of the great things about Planful is the what-ifs, and/or variants we could have. We have multiple scenarios that we're able to track in, go up against, and then be able to say, 'Okay, based on what we're seeing, this is the scenario that we need to continue to tweak and evolve, as we the data come in.'

But could we take it further, and push into a continuous planning practice? It's no secret that Planful's vision for finance includes continuous planning. Is that a viable concept for Ezagui, or too aspirational? (On diginomica, Planful CEO Grant Halloran outlined three steps to continuous planning in How to build a culture of Continuous Planning in your business). Ezagui doesn't think the concept is out of reach, but he cautions: you must have a different kind of handle on your data. Otherwise, your agile planning push will come up short.

It's all about the data though. We can talk about using AI and machine learning and all that. But what I found is the only way this works is if you've got clean data that's feeding into the systems of record.

In other words, the continuous planning aspiration puts more pressure on the integrity of your real-time data. Whereas, say, a monthly planning process gives you more time to validate your data. But if you can get the data integrity/velocity problem sorted, then Ezagui is all for agile planning. As long as it fits into a narrative the business can act on.

We've got to have the ability to look at the story. What's the story telling us - and make proper adjustments to that story.

Given that Trintech is in the financial close SaaS business, you might be asking: wouldn't they make a good Planful partner as well? Yes, indeed, says Ezagui - and now they are. Together, he sees an opportunity to nail down that data/planning problem:

The exciting thing for me is on the Trintech side, when I talk about the data, as a finance person, if I have a system of controls that gives me a much better trust factor in the data that I'm getting, then I can feed that into Planful to report and forecast on and budget on, it makes my life so much easier.

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