How a custom lead-to-invoice solution built in Zoho One increased productivity at ABA Advisors by over 150%

"The time saved using Zoho is incalculable. We are able to perform functions and communicate with clients at a scale and frequency never before possible."

Siloed data and a reliance on manual workflows was stifling growth for ABA Advisors. ABA implemented a custom Zoho One solution which integrated a CRM with automated project management and invoicing solutions and has seen dramatic improvements in productivity, customer retention, and growth.

The Company

Founded in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2011, Accountants and Business Advisors, LLC (ABA) provides business advisory services, including tax minimization strategies and propitiatory cash flow services for long-term financial planning. ABA consistently achieves 10–15% in organic growth year-on-year, largely due to their successful word-of-mouth referral program within their target industry segment of physicians, dentists, veterinarians, and small businesses.

Robert Craig joined ABA Advisors as COO in 2018, tasked with leading its digital transformation and optimizing core business processes to set the company up for further growth. He had a strong technology background and a proven track record of executive-level change management and business transformation in large organizations.

The Challenge

When Craig came on board, ABA was using outdated accounting and CPA-focused software, and they still relied on non-scalable manual workflows in spreadsheets and PDFs for practice management processes like project tracking, billing, and annual fee increases. The billing process involved manually copying information from project route sheets to the legacy accounting system and took up half the team's time each month, while the annual fee adjustment process took weeks and required each client's fee to be updated manually across products and spreadsheets. This data being manually reentered several times during the project lifecycle was placing significant strain on operational capacity.

Siloed data and communication gaps were also causing bottlenecks, as projects were held up due to missing details. A lack of visibility led to high volumes of client calls and emails asking for basic information or updates. The result was that staff had to frequently interrupt their work to respond to internal or external queries, leading to further disruption and delays. These issues were impacting both the speed and accuracy of the services ABA could provide, and they were starting to see churn increase almost as fast as growth.

"We were really siloed and restricted in growth. We were growing, but we had a larger and larger number of clients we couldn't serve efficiently. That's the problem we were trying to solve, and Zoho solved it for us."

- Robert Craig, COO, ABA Advisors

Craig knew that ABA needed a solution that would give their advisors the bandwidth to resolve the service issues that were capping the company's growth. To do this, the software solution he chose had to solve three core problems:

  • Address internal and customer-facing communication gaps
  • Reduce manual workloads through automation
  • Enable frictionless client and project handovers throughout the entire business process

ABA began their digital transformation by implementing QuickBooks Online, which felt like a natural move as they were already using it for client accounts. However, they soon realized that it did not have all the functionality they required for billing the recurring revenue portion of their business. Traditional accounting software in general, Craig discovered, was too rigid for ABA's unique setup. Because this setup was critical to serving their niche market, he did not want to force their newly optimized processes into a solution that was not built for them. ABA needed more customizability and flexibility than Craig had seen in tools he'd used before.

The Solution

Craig discovered Zoho after months of software research. Zoho One was exactly what he had been looking for: a fully integrated and highly customizable product suite that gave them the flexibility to choose which functions to deploy in different parts of their business process. "It was scratching all the places that we were itching," Craig explained.

With the help of specialized Zoho implementation partners, Nimbis and Navigate CRM, ABA constructed a custom CRM, project management, and invoicing system on top of Zoho One. The team leveraged cross-app automations between Zoho CRM, Zoho Projects, the Zoho Finance Suite, and Zoho Analytics to integrate everything into one smooth flowing system throughout the customer life cycle. They plugged in other Zoho One products, integrated third-party software, and added custom functionality through low-code apps built on Zoho Creator until every part of their workflow was incorporated into the solution. "We just kept drilling down and drilling down until it became a very smooth and easy process," said Craig.

ABA gets the majority of its new leads through contact forms on their website, which have a 90% conversion rate. Now, all the leads that come through that form are passed to the CRM, where follow-up tasks ensure business advisors connect with every new lead for a personalized services assessment. The process of converting leads all takes place within the same ecosystem—ABA has fully customized Zoho CRM, adding hundreds of custom fields and a dozen custom modules to store all the financial and legal information they need about each client, down to a very granular level of detail. All the financial documents, e-signatures, and payment details required for conversion are automatically tracked in the Lead or Client record in CRM and the assigned Business Advisor is alerted if any required details are missing.

ABA retooled Zoho CRM's default Deals module and integrated it with Zoho Projects. Now, when a lead is converted into a new customer or an existing customer adds a new service, projects are automatically created from service templates, populated with key information, and assigned to the client's professional services team. Over 1,000 monthly projects are created automatically for business advisory clients and over 3,500 year-end accounting projects and 6,400 tax return projects are triggered in December and January. At these volumes, it's important to make sure everything runs like clockwork, so custom dashboards give users at all levels the visibility they need and ensure there are no cracks for tasks to slip through.

"We were really siloed and restricted in growth. We were growing, but we had a larger and larger number of clients we couldn't serve efficiently. That's the problem we were trying to solve, and Zoho solved it for us."

- Robert Craig, COO, ABA Advisors

The old, manual billing process has been drastically streamlined through automation. When a project is marked as complete in Zoho Projects, a workflow in CRM pushes it to the monthly billing report. Now, the Billing team uses templates to draft invoices directly from the report and pushes them to Zoho Books (for individual charges) or Zoho Subscriptions (for recurring revenue services) for automated billing. The Coupons feature in Subscriptions automatically applies the right referral discounts, removing manual work and risk of human error. Automated invoicing emails are sent to clients and notification emails are sent when payment is taken through the integrated payment gateway, increasing visibility and helping clients stay on top of their cash flow.

Custom Analytics dashboards ensure everything is moving smoothly and the different parts of the system are functioning in sync. If any issues or delays do occur, they are caught early and notifications are triggered to prompt quick resolution before they can impact the end customer's service experience.

ABA has also implemented significant changes in the way they handle internal and external communication. Centralizing client data in the CRM cut out a lot of back-and-forth, and automated email notifications ensure full, accurate data transfer when new projects are assigned. Craig also replaced ABA's "clunky" legacy IM platform with Cliq, describing the move as a "game changer" for the company's fully remote workforce.

They've also improved communication with clients, launching a customer portal where clients can update their details, upload financial documents, download prepared tax returns, access their cash flow statements, and e-sign paperwork through Zoho Sign. Critically, customers can check their information online without having to wait for their services team to respond to an email request. Because the documents are stored in Zoho WorkDrive, which meets the high data privacy standards of the financial industry, ABA was able to proactively address any potential concerns when rolling out the portal. "Being able to give that peace of mind to clients was the biggest piece on the security side," Craig said.

To address the limitations in billing through QuickBooks Online, ABA chose to integrate it with Subscriptions in Zoho One and have gradually brought on more of the Finance apps. They currently use QuickBooks for their company and client accounts, Books and Subscriptions for invoicing and billing, and Expense for tracking advisors' business travel expenses. As the team has become more familiar with Zoho Books, they are now starting to move their internal accounts over, too. They find this hybrid solution model allows them to optimize the technology for their existing processes while maintaining full visibility within ABA for their own financial processes, and full visibility for clients whose accounts they manage.

Benefits and ROI

ABA's digital transformation has been a huge success overall. In the time since it began, Craig reported that the company has grown from serving 600 customers to over 3,000 and its annual revenue has increased by 37.5% between 2018 and 2021, with 2022 on track to continue this trend.

Craig explained that the Zoho One implementation has improved hundreds of processes across the company, and ABA has boosted productivity by over 150% through automation. He attributes at least $2 million in savings directly to Zoho, including staffing costs saved through increased efficiency. For example, automation in Books and Subscriptions has shaved two weeks off the billing process, and leveraging Analytics and workflows in the Finance Suite for the annual price adjustment cycle has cut it from several weeks to just one day. This has freed up time to focus on strategic initiatives to prepare for further growth. "We're focused on the future, not on trying to fix immediate pain points," Craig explained.

Better tracking systems and data centralization within the company have greatly improved ABA's service quality and accuracy, with customer retention going up and the number of issues caused by miscommunications going down. Because advisors are spending less time fixing problems, they can take on a more proactive role in advising clients, even while managing a higher client load.

These improvements have also increased efficiency when a client chooses to terminate services with ABA. Previously, due to information delays, team members would sometimes continue to work on services after a client ended the relationship. Now, updates are almost instantaneous, so no time is wasted. An exit survey email is also triggered the moment a client is marked as inactive, which Craig says has been invaluable in making more data-driven decisions about how to improve services.

Looking Forward

With the custom solution he's built on top of Zoho One fully up and running, Craig is confident ABA is "truly set up for the next decade of growth," but he's still keen to identify opportunities for further improvement. For example, he wants to enable clients to track their tax returns in real time in the client portal and see graphical visualizations of their financial information, imported from Analytics. He's interested in using SalesIQ to track how visitors navigate their website, insights that he believes can help the company start to build a marketing strategy and bring in more leads now that they have infrastructure in place that's built to scale.

"Our systems are set up for scale. That's one of the criteria we've always had as we develop new systems and processes. We're always thinking about the long-term and where we want to head."

- Robert Craig, COO, ABA Advisors

Developing its BI capabilities for more data-driven strategic decision-making is another key priority for ABA. Craig would like to develop an executive dashboard in Analytics that shows exactly where the business stands, how each service package is performing, and what projections are for the next 6–12 months. "We know how to get there, it's just a case of building it out," he explained, noting that they need to invest in growing their in-house analytics expertise so they can support the depth of analysis they want to achieve.

Craig's current priority is building a Digital Enablement team that can take full ownership of the solution and all future enhancements, ensuring its longevity and scalability.