Most accounting software vendors go to great lengths to meet the needs of their SMB (small to medium-size business) customers, offering software with enough features and flexibility to address a variety of situations.
Yet despite vendors' best efforts, many accounting software users still find that they need functions and capabilities that differ from, or go beyond, the ones provided by their vendors. That's when it's time to consider customization.
In the early days of accounting software, customization was a difficult, time-consuming and highly technical process, involving direct modification of the product's source code. That situation has improved significantly over the years. Today, many accounting software vendors give customers with relatively modest technical skills the ability to modify various program characteristics in order to improve both functionality and usability.
The best time to address software customization is before committing to a particular vendor. That's why, when shopping for new or updated accounting software, it's important to look for products that allow pain-free customization in the following areas:
1. Financial statements: Most accounting apps give businesses the ability to alter the appearance of financial statements. Yet formatting alone doesn't create a full customization option. You'll also want to have the ability to include certain types of information (values, ranges and so forth) into statements while excluding others, and to arrange all information in whatever style you feel is appropriate.
2. User screens: A company may wish to customize user screens in order to boost staff efficiency and productivity. You'll want software that can help you add or edit data input screens; data labels; menus and tabs on tabbed dialog boxes; as well as the screen's overall screen layout.
3. Forms: Most businesses use an array of different forms, including invoices, checks and tax documents. Your accounting software should be able to generate customized documents that meet the needs of your business as well as the specifications set by government and other regulatory authorities. You may also want to be able to tailor your software to accurately fill in the lines and boxes found on pre-printed forms.
4. Reports: Most higher-end accounting programs offer sophisticated reporting capabilities. The best software allows reports to be generated in an almost infinite number of ways, with rules limited only by a business's collective imagination.
5. User-definable fields: One of the most powerful, flexible and convenient customization features is user-definable field support. Many vendors provide this capability by stocking their programs with blank fields that end users can simply rename and then use for any data input task required.
6. Database: An accounting program can be used as a front end to your business's financial database, allowing designated users to add or edit tables and perform various other tasks. Be sure to use this capability with caution, however, since an unauthorized or devious user could exploit the feature to for illicit personal gain or to create chaos.
7. Help screens: By lessening the need to call for help, customized help screens can assist users at all levels to use accounting software more productively and efficiently. Several accounting programs allow customers to add their own help and hint screens based on staff experiences during actual use conditions.
8. Linking to third-party products: Sharing data between disparate financial and business applications continues to be a significant challenge for many businesses. Locate an accounting program that will allow you to import or export files between applications. Better yet, look for the ability to link data fields between companion programs.
Be sure to actually try a program's customization features before purchasing the product. Although source code modification is no longer widely practiced, customization ease continues to vary greatly between vendors and even between tasks within specific programs. Testing in advance will ensure that customization will be possible with relatively little effort.
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