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This article is part 8 of an 8-part series on evaluating the best CPM tools for your business. Part 8 focuses on why and when to use third-party rankings from analysts when evaluating the best CPM software applications.

 

While some companies don’t need to go through a detailed selection process to come up with a list of the top Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software solutions for their organization, others have their work cut out for them. If you belong to the latter category, here is a vendor evaluation tool that may be of help.

One of the key items on many CPM product evaluation checklists is to look at how third-party firms, usually referred to as analysts or analyst websites, review and rank vendors.

Below, we will discuss the use of analysts to help evaluate and score the best financial reporting and planning solutions for your business requirements. This type of third-party research can complement the findings and opinions from your internal team.

When analyst firms are of less importance

Before we go into detail about analyst firms, let’s briefly cover some situations where analyst reports with CPM vendor rankings are not as useful and, in some cases, cost extra time and money in the selection process. One such example is when there is already a leading CPM solution partnered with your ERP vendor and offering pre-built integrations and other benefits that outweigh other potential vendor differences.

Another example is when multiple people on your staff have deep knowledge of a leading CPM solution that they have used before, ideally while they worked at a company from the same industry to ensure that there is still a fit.

Which analyst firms should you use?

While there are a few firms with analysts that are CPM industry experts who do months of research every year to analyze trends and rank vendors, there are many more analysts that are a waste of time or are even directly misleading in their rankings.

  1. Examples of professional CPM analyst firms
    • Analyst and survey-driven rankings: Gartner and Dresner Advisory Services
    • User-driven rankings: G2
  2. Unqualified or misleading “analyst” firms
    • Clickbait websites that will come up with their own vendor lists with no proper research, purely to get ranked on a search engine in order to sell advertising or get “sponsorship” money vendors pay to be on (e.g., a “Top 10 CPM Vendors” list)
    • Websites owned by CPM vendors ranking themselves
    • “Research reports” from “analysts” paid for by a specific CPM vendor

So, if you consult analyst reports to help find the best CPM tool for your company, be conscious of who or what is proving the advice.

How do you know if analyst reports are biased or fair representations of vendors?

It is clear that almost all research performed by a human being is biased one way or another, either consciously (e.g., based on vendor sponsorships or who they speak with the most) or unconsciously (e.g., based on the knowledge of the analyst). Even a firm as well-known as Gartner arguably has some bias in their reports because they include analyst comments, and they include vendor revenue as one of the drivers in their “Magic Quadrants” – something which may or may not indicate who a “leader” should be in a specific industry. Especially with the pace of technology changes and acquisitions in the marketplace, the best CPM solution for your business 6 months ago may no longer be the top choice today.

Other analyst reports or vendor rankings are websites that are driven by user feedback as compared to analyst research. You could argue that these websites provide the most neutral feedback although not as detailed and analytical as the major reports produced by full-fledged analyst firms.

Then there are the countless firms that provide “awards” and rankings based on payments from vendors. These are highly biased and should be avoided. It is fairly easy to detect them by reviewing the firm’s website and observing the lack of depth in CPM research and content.

What professional analysts get right (and sometimes don’t)

The top CPM analyst firms typically do one major CPM report per year. All or parts of the data in the report is driven by customer surveys completed by each vendor’s customers. Because of all the work that goes into these reports and because customers don’t want to be constantly bombarded with surveys, the reports will represent data that is up to 15-16 months old. This lag is because customer surveys typically start 3-4 months before the report is released and then the report will be out on the market for a year until next year’s report is out.

Because many cloud software vendors have monthly releases, and new features arrive all the time, these reports could be missing important vendor features. Websites like G2 and others are starting to follow the same model; they are constantly updated whenever a customer decides to leave their feedback. However, they are less detailed and structured.

Examples of analyst firms that review CPM software

There are a number of companies that provide CPM vendor reviews and market research. Here are examples of three different categories of such firms:

  1. Gartner: Analyst + customer survey-driven vendor rankings. Also provides research reports across almost all categories of IT firms. A major CPM report is produced once per year.
  2. Dresner Advisory Services: Customer survey-driven vendor rankings. Also provides research reports. Almost exclusively focused on CPM (they refer to it as EPM, or Enterprise Performance Management). A major CPM report is produced once per year.
  3. G2: Customer feedback driven. Ranking reports are produced automatically on their website (g2.com). Rankings are continually updated as customers enter their feedback on the G2 website.

How much does it cost to use an analyst firm?

Some CPM vendor research reports are free while many are licensed by the CPM vendors themselves and shared with customers. However, be aware that vendors naturally will only license and share research reports that shed a good light on their product, so there is a bias here to be cognizant of.

Some analyst firms also provide selection services, either as paid calls with their CPM advisors or as full-blown gigs where they will lead or participate in the entire selection process as a “consultant.” In past years, they used to then provide clients with RFP templates with hundreds of pre-defined questions. These have become less popular in recent times as both vendors and internal evaluation teams dread lengthy narratives always shaped to sound good, or they can miss entire functionality areas that are up and coming.

In any case, it is almost always beneficial to do your own homework first by listing your current pain points in as much detail as possible and quantifying ($$) the cost and effort of running the current reporting and planning processes. This “homework” should also include the management team’s vision of the business benefits they want to achieve with a new CPM solution.

Conclusion

The leading cloud CPM software solutions have a lot of features and functionality, and changes and improvements are being released all the time. So, when you and your internal team are coming up with a shortlist of the best CPM solutions for the company’s needs, it is advisable to do your own research, review product demonstrations, and make sure the top candidates integrate easily with your ERP and other important systems. If you have special complexities or a lack of time and evaluation skills on your team, then an analyst firm can assist you in various ways.

Links to useful software research and evaluation assets

This article is part 2 of an 8-part series on evaluating the best CPM tools for your business. Part 2 focuses on feature sets within the best financial reporting software applications.

 

Financial reporting software that also offers consolidations and planning functionality belongs to a software category typically referred to as Corporate Performance Management (CPM). Some also refer to this as Enterprise Performance Management (EPM). Since most organizations are either currently planning to or have recently moved their ERP systems to the cloud, cloud-based financial reporting solutions are now more popular than ever.

While native ERP report writers are able to produce financial statements and sub-ledger reports, they are generally not great at formatting and advanced formulas. Plus, since they are built into the ERP system, they can’t report on data in other data sources. So, almost always, companies export some or many of their reports to Excel to finalize and assemble them there.  As a result, an entire industry of cloud-based reporting solutions has sprung up to take companies’ reporting automation and month-end close processes to the next level.

There are numerous software vendors that now deliver independent reporting solutions, either stand-alone or as part of a CPM suite. As a result, during a software selection process you’ll need to carefully choose the solution that is RIGHT for your business. This means that the functionality must be right for your unique business and that it should support your industry-specific requirements. And, of course, the return on investment (ROI) needs to be positive.

When working through a software selection process to find the best financial reporting software for your organization, there are always some features that are more important than others.

Here are some of the top features to look for to find the best financial reporting software

While most vendors can probably showcase more than 100 features in their product (something which can make software selection a painful process), the main success criteria can be narrowed down to a few key areas. Each one is listed and discussed below.

  1. Advanced report formatting

Per definition, all good report writers have a “template designer” to create reusable, parameter-driven reports. In addition to the pre-built reports that leading vendors should provide out of the box, the report designer is where a trained user or consultant can build new templates such as Profit & Loss reports and Balance Sheets specific to the needs of the business.

About half of the CPM vendors offer add-ins to Microsoft Excel where templates are designed. This typically provides the best formatting and layout flexibility. Plus, almost all finance department team members are very familiar with Excel already, so having a report writer built into Excel shortens the learning curve. Other vendors have built proprietary report designers so users can design financial reports, but these never contain all the formatting capability of Excel. A few vendors not only provide Excel report design, but they provide a cloud web portal where end users can run the templates as web reports from any device and with no Excel add-ins needed.

P&L – Variance Report

P&L – Variance Report (Copyright – Solver, Inc.)

Note 1: Be aware of CPM vendors that offer two report designers because that means twice as much training for power users. It can become messy in the month-end close process, report packages, and other areas if templates are created with two different technologies. The reason for two tools is almost always that the functionality in the vendor’s proprietary designer was not enough for their customers, so they later added an Excel designer to handle complex customer models with a lot of formatting.

Note 2: In addition, be aware of sales pitches that use “sexy” dashboards to draw your attention away from questions around great formatting in financial statements. While dashboards are awesome management tools focused on graphical analysis, they are NOT built to be financial report writers that can easily develop and maintain things like GL account structures behind Profit & Loss, Balance Sheets, Cash Flow Statements, and other critical reports.  

Without a report designer in your new planning solution, you are at high risk of significantly having to change your favorite report formats to fit the capability of the vendor’s tool. In many cases, you may even find yourself and your staff relying still on your overloaded Excel spreadsheets because you’ll be exporting reports to Excel and then manually reformatting them every month.

Here is list of about 500 examples of reports, dashboards, and budgeting templates. It is a good idea to ask your vendor candidates if you can see examples from their template libraries. The more examples they provide, the more you can be assured that their solution has a good report designer.

  1. Advanced formulas

Financial reports are some of the hardest reports to build due to diverse accounting calendars, complex or changing charts of accounts, and the custom ratios and calculations needed to measure performance. These formulas and ratios, typically created in Excel, can be difficult or impossible to translate into a solution that uses proprietary formulas or pre-set calculations.

Formula familiarity is also important. Again, Excel is the de facto standard, not just in formatting but in formulas. For this reason, most reporting vendors either create their report designer in Excel or try to mimic Excel formulas in their proprietary tool.

Without a strong and familiar formula capability in your new report designer, there is a high risk that you will be dependent on consultants to help with report design on an ongoing basis, and/or that your finance team will waste hours every month dumping reports into Excel to “fix” them.

  1. Advanced consolidations

While all financial report writers can aggregate data across accounts and departments, a much smaller number of solutions can perform true consolidations. In addition to consolidating financials across subsidiaries and divisions to produce high-quality corporate reports, important features include:

  • Manual intercompany elimination entries with comments and audit trail
  • Automatic intercompany eliminations
  • Currency conversion
  • Roll-up of balances from subsidiaries with different chart of accounts
  • Ability to enter and track additional “topside” adjustments where needed

A best-of-breed solution will also have business rules such as trees and/or dimension attributes that automatically include new accounts without having to manually update reports or run the risk that monthly financial reports are wrong or incomplete.

Some ERP systems do a pretty good job at handling this internally, but usually with a lot less flexibility than a true CPM reporting solution.

  1. Advanced closing and reporting process checklist

While most modern cloud-based CPM reporting solutions offer a workflow module, checklists are rarer. A financial reporting process checklist is typically a chronologically organized list of all the items a controller has to perform or oversee in the month-end close as it relates to reporting. Sometimes this includes 100 or more individual tasks with many people involved.

Major steps include:

  • Closing of the books in the ERP system and transferring the data to the reporting solution
  • Viewing exception and reconciliation reports to flag issues and reconcile items
  • Running trial balance reports
  • Adjusting entries (in ERP or CPM tool)
  • Running of all month-end reports
  • Performing variance and trend analysis with comments
  • Publishing (web viewing, email, or Excel) monthly reports with comments
  • Sending PowerPoint presentations to the executive team

The top reporting solutions offer interactive checklists to help ensure that everything gets done on time. They often include functionality like checkboxes, descriptions, responsible people, links to activity, deadlines, and notifications.

Interactive Checklist for Monthly Reporting

Interactive Checklist for Monthly Reporting

Without a good workflow module and checklists, chances are good that you are spending a lot more time reminding people of deadlines and asking them for feedback or comments. This level of constant follow up can get even more frustrating and complex if you are stuck managing tasks manually in companies that have multiple subsidiaries and large accounting teams involved in the month-end close.

  1. Pre-built ERP integrations

All good CPM reporting solutions, by definition, have to be able to integrate with your ERP system’s General Ledger balances at the minimum. However, not all tools are great at reporting on other data. Along the same lines, some reporting solutions have better integrations to certain ERPs than others.

Here are some questions to ask different vendors during your evaluation process:

  • Is the integration to your ERP in real time or is data exported to the CPM solution’s cloud database? (There are pros and cons of both.)
  • How frequently can the data from the ERP be refreshed within the reporting tool?
  • Is the ERP integration pre-configured or do you have to map and configure it?
  • Does the report writer only work well with GL data or can you also bring in sub-ledger transactions and non-ERP data?
  • Will the integration pick up changes such as new accounts and companies?

When you are evaluating different CPM vendors for your financial and operational reporting needs, you should request detailed information about each solution’s integration to your systems, including estimates on the time and cost it takes to get them configured. A really good, pre-built integration should take at the most an hour to configure, while “toolboxes” can take days to set up and connect to each data source. Which one your vendor offers will therefore usually become clear when you see their estimates for the integration step in the implementation.

Without good, automated integrations to your source systems, your users will end up spending a lot of wasted time on loading and possible “cleaning” of data.

Here is an example of the advantages of a pre-built ERP integration and how it can enable users to get immediate, “day one” benefits from out-of-the-box budget and forecast input forms, reports and dashboards.

  1. Built for cloud

While on-premises financial reporting solutions were the standard technology for decades, today it is cloud solutions that rule. CPM reporting tools that are built with native cloud architecture offer many benefits over the classic on-premises solutions. These benefits include back-end functionality such as multi-tenancy to allow for efficient and frequent upgrades, spreading of processing and data loads across hardware resources, and otherwise taking advantage of what large public cloud data centers and platforms have to offer.

As an example, in the old on-premises world, it was normal to do an annual upgrade for your software, while in the cloud world it is the norm to expect completely free and automated monthly updates. These regular updates also provide users with a continuous stream of new features and bug fixes.

Highly flexible cloud solutions will still allow end users to run and view reports in both Excel and their web browser (no software installation needed on users’ computers). Make sure that both interfaces use the same report definitions (not two different reporting technologies) and allow for live drill-down into transaction details whenever the user needs to analyze at a deeper level.

Without a purpose-built cloud architecture, a vendor will fall behind their competitors over time. A number of the legacy on-premises vendors did not rebuild their technologies to be optimized for the cloud and, as a result, they will at some point have to rebuild their product or their customers will migrate to other vendors.

How much does a financial reporting solution cost?

While it is important to do your homework to ensure that the vendor you choose has the key features needed for a successful deployment, it is also important to consider your total cost and savings in time and effort, as well as the solution’s potential to improve decision making at your company.

Here are some things to think about when you get prices from your vendor finalists:

  • Does the annual subscription from each vendor contain the same user count and modules?
  • If you are receiving a discount, how long until it resets to the list price?
  • Does the vendor have a written policy for annual price increases?
  • Are the implementation estimates from each vendor for exactly the same work?

A good rule of thumb is to ask each vendor for the total subscription cost for the first 5 years. Make sure this includes any potential price increases. And, if the vendor is owned by a private equity firm, chances are that they will be sold while you are still a customer. In these cases, it is a smart choice to ensure that you receive a document that states their policy for price increases in the future, including if they are sold to another company.

Here is a tool to help you compare vendors and calculate return on investment (ROI).

Why not use Excel or the financial reporting functionality in my ERP system?

Excel is by far the world’s most popular reporting tool because it is free (if you already own Excel), incredibly flexible, and almost all accounting and finance professionals know how to use it. If you have a simple chart of accounts and not too many business units and departmental users, Excel may very well be the best financial reporting software for your business.

However, everyone knows when it is time to replace their homegrown spreadsheet reports. Warning signals include:

  • Painful manual report distribution
  • Troubles with consolidation of spreadsheets
  • Broken links
  • Poor reporting flexibility
  • Lack of user security
  • Versioning issues
  • and so on…

All ERP systems have basic reporting functionality, but these tools usually fail at great formatting, their ability to include non-ERP data, and their flexibility to manage account and company hierarchies dynamically within report definitions. The truth is that, regardless of an ERP vendor’s promotion of their built-in reporting features, companies almost always end up back in Excel for some of their reporting even after they buy a brand-new cloud ERP solution. Then, when Excel gets too painful, they acquire a CPM solution.

Conclusion

In summary, choosing a new financial reporting solution to automate monthly reporting, as well as to cover other management reporting needs, promises to ultimately drive better and faster decisions at a company. This is why financial reporting ease is increasingly becoming a strategic priority for organizations across all industries. As we discussed earlier, certain features are more important than others and can be key drivers of success in addition to a well-executed implementation process.

Links to useful software research and evaluation assets

LOS ANGELES, CA. – July 21, 2020 – Solver, a global leader in cloud and web-based Corporate Performance Management (CPM) for mid-market ERP systems, today announced their recognition as an Overall Leader in the Customer Experience Model and a Trust Leader within the Vendor Credibility Model in Dresner Advisory Services 2020 Dresner Wisdom of Crowds® Enterprise Performance Management Market Study.  Dresner Advisory Service, an independent industry resource for Performance Management, Business Intelligence and related markets, annually conducts an in-depth analysis of the enterprise performance management (EPM) market, including trends, deployment options as well as current and planned industry capabilities.

Enterprise performance management remains an important technology, helping organizations to understand multiple metrics and optimize their business,” said Howard Dresner, founder and chief research officer at Dresner Advisory Services. “We congratulate Solver on their performance in their first year of inclusion in our annual assessment of the EPM market.”

In this year’s study, Solver received a perfect recommend score and is considered best in class for consulting continuity.  Specifically, Solver scored higher than the overall sample in categories such as responsiveness, , value, integrity, flexibility/accommodation, business practices and support.

“We are excited about the results of the Dresner Wisdom of Crowds research and the high scores provided by our customers,” says Nils Rasmussen, CEO at Solver. He continues, “With the rising domination of cloud as the platform of choice for corporate planning and financial reporting processes, we will continue to deliver what customers are asking for in order to help them move towards digitalization of the Office of Finance.”

The study noted that the use of enterprise performance management software increased in 2020 with fifty-five percent of survey respondents currently using or considering using EPM software.  Notably, the study also found that annual financial budgets are the highest priority planning capability requirement for EPM software.

Solver’s corporate performance management solution for automated budgeting and forecasting gives organizations a comprehensive planning tool for future investments, cost control, reporting and analysis.  Companies able to accurately estimate financial outcomes and managing financial expectations for the future gain critical insights and competitive advantages.  With budgeting ranked as the most important planning capability for enterprise performance management software, Solver’s advanced, cloud-based functionality delivers clear financial insights, enabling world-class decisions company-wide.

 

About Solver

With a quickly growing community of thousands of global customers and hundreds of partners worldwide, Solver provides a leading cloud Corporate Performance Management suite for Microsoft Dynamics 365 Finance and Business Central, Acumatica, SAP Business One, SAP ByDesign, Sage Intacct, Sage 100, Sage 300, Sage 500, Sage X3, NetSuite and other ERPs. Solver is ranked in the leader quadrant in the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) Software Grid on G2, and as a Microsoft Gold ISV Partner, Solver has won countless awards, including the Microsoft BI Partner of Year Award, recognition on the Gartner Group CPM Magic Quadrant, and Best Places to Work for a workplace culture that celebrates customer service, integrity, and innovation. Solver was named best in class for consulting continuity in Dresner’s Wisdom of Crowds EPM market report.  Solver is sold through its 12 global offices and a worldwide network of partners. For any questions, visit www.solverglobal.com or contact Solver at info@solverglobal.com.