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Customizing Accounting Software

I am often asked “what’s the most important feature to look for when evaluating an accounting software or ERP solution?”. Hey, that’s easy. In my opinion, customization capabilities are the most important features to consider when selecting accounting software. The basis for my bold statement can be traced back to comments made by Doug Burgum (Founder of Great Plains Software) at the 1991 AICPA Technology Conference in New Orleans. At this conference I moderated a panel of accounting software presidents in front of approximately 450 participants. During this session, Mr. Burgum pointed to the other presidents and stated:

“The entire accounting software industry, including those seated on stage, have spent a good part of the eighties adding every conceivable feature they could think of to their accounting software packages. The main idea is to add more features so your product would rate higher than competing products in the “feature charts from hell” comparison reviews included in many computer magazines and trade journals”. According to Burgum, "the unfortunate consequence of continuously adding so many features to an accounting software package is that you ultimately produce a product that is bloated and too difficult for most users to easily use.”

Departing from this older line of thinking, Burgum (and later many of his fellow accounting software publishers) went on to pursue a different strategy by producing new accounting software products that contain only the most popular and widely used core features right out of the box. These products were basically designed to meet 80% to 85% of the needs of a common business right out of the box; and thereafter, the publishers expected customers to use the product’s built-in customization tools to tailor the product further to meet up to 95% of their needs. This approach has worked very well and today, publishers who have adopted this strategy have found that their products have wider appeal and usability across multiple industries. This approach has also enabled hundreds of thousands of businesses to purchase off-the-shelf, all-purpose accounting systems and tailor them to meet their specific needs.

Customization Beats Source Code Modification

In the eighties, the most successful accounting software products required the end user to modify the source code to add additional fields, calculations, and other capabilities to accommodate the end user's unique needs. Some of the more successful packages of that era included products from Real World Corporation, Open Systems, Inc. and SBT Corporation. It was a good strategy at the time, but this approach had several drawbacks, as follows:

  • Modifying the source code is a very involved process that often required many months of programming and costs tens of thousands of dollars.
  • While modification was successful for many customers, too often the results were less than desirable for others. Modification projects often resulted in blown budgets, exceeded time frames, and non-functioning, buggy code.
  • Poor programming often led to unsatisfied customers that eventually adversely affected the product's reputation.
  • Customers who modified their source code often found that doing so prohibited them from upgrading to future versions of their accounting software package. Much like painting yourself into a corner, modifying your source code left you no path to move forward without losing all of your modifications. As publishers released new versions of the accounting software, their customers were unable to migrate to these improved releases - thereby freezing the capabilities of the product. This was a problem for both the customers who were not able to implement new product enhancements, as well as for the publishers who were unable to generate additional revenue by selling new releases to their existing customer base. By contrast, today’s customization tools are far easier to use and they allow the customers to upgrade to new product releases while retaining their customizations along the way.

Methods of Customization

When it comes to customizing an accounting system, there are many methods as follows:

  1. Customizing the financial statements
  2. Customizing the reports
  3. Customizing forms such as checks and invoices
  4. Customizing user screens
  5. Insert blank user definable fields
  6. Customizing the database itself
  7. Integrating or linking the system to third party software products
  8. Customizing the help screens

These methods are described below.

The graphic image above depicts the flow of information through an accounting system. Users input data into data input screens. There are approximately 6,000 to 10,000 data input screens in the typical mid-range accounting package. The data is held in a database (which is basically a collection of tables that are related to one another, hence the term relational database). Filtered queries are used to extract certain data from the database to be displayed on the reports and forms. For example, filters may be used to extract balances for certain customers for a certain data range, and the results are arranged logically on a customer statement, complete with the appropriate formatting.  It is essential to understand these various elements of an accounting system before evaluating the following customization capabilities of a given product.

  • Financial Statement-Level Customization – The most simplistic customization capabilities involve the ability to customize financial statements and reports. This process usually entails the ability create new financial statements or edit existing financial statement formats. Some products also allow you to change the font, add lines, and even add graphic pictures, such as a company logo, directly to the financial statement. This type of customization is fairly common as most products do offer this level of customization; however, some products offer much easier-to-use tools than others. You should evaluate your prospective products by asking the reseller to demonstrate the process of inserting a new column and moving an element on both a report and form.

Some publishers seem to they think that their product is customizable simply because users can format the financial statement or insert new columns. Yes, this is a form of customization - technically speaking, but it falls well short of the more powerful forms of customization which include editing the user screens and underlying database.

This type of customization also involves the ability to customize the accounting system forms such as checks, invoices, picking lists, packing slips, etc. This ability allows the end user to edit the form formats by adding new information to the form or rearranging the information so that it will print properly on pre-printed forms. As an example, this ability might allow a user to continue using an old box of pre-printed checks, even though the company has just upgraded to a different accounting system. As another example, this feature would allow a company to tailor their customer invoice to contain exactly the information they desire.

  • Screen-Level Customization – This method allows the user to edit, change and add to the data input screens. You should evaluate your prospective products by asking the reseller to demonstrate the process of changing data labels, rearranging data fields on screen, changing the tab order of the fields, inserting new data fields, setting defaults and inserting new tabs on tabbed dialog boxes. It should be noted that some products provide full control over the data input screen design while others do not. For example, both QuickBooks Pro 2004 and Peachtree Complete Accounting 2004 allow you to set up a handful of user-definable fields; however, neither product allows you to change terminology or rearrange the non-definable fields on the screen. Other products such as Simply Accounting allow you to toggle between terminology typically used by accountants and terminology used by the layperson. Still other products such as Solomon, Navision, and Macola provide greater customization capabilities. The more sophisticated customization tools allow the user to validate data as it is entered into the system, force data (ie: the user can not leave the data field blank), and even calculate data based on other data entered elsewhere in the system. Other sophisticated capabilities include the ability to set the tab order of the user fields, insert drop down boxes, and embed third party applications with the accounting software user input screen.

“Blank User Definable Fields” are one of my favorite features. This form of customization is strong because it allows a user to tailor the accounting system to meet their particular needs. For example, a boat marina operator may insert data fields to keep track of the name of the customer’s boat, the slip number where that boat is parked, the boat mechanics name and phone number, and a number of other useful bits of information. Products such as MAS 90, Great Plains, and even QuickBooks provide this capability.

Along with editing the user screens, this type of customization usually involves default settings as well. Many accounting software products allow the user to specify default settings on a field-by-field basis. For example, a company that works primarily in Georgia might pre-configure the customer and order entry screen to automatically display Georgia as the default state for each new record. This can save time and improve accuracy. At first glance this might not seem to be much of a time saver, but consider this. Many companies process tens of thousands of invoices each year. Without a default setting, your order entry clerks would need to enter “Georgia” or “GA” tens of thousands of times – once for each order. How many hours would it take for you to simply type out the word “Georgia” or “GA” fifty thousands of times? Assuming that it takes only one second to perform this task, it would still take 14 hours to type “GA” 50,000 times. A default setting such as this would allow the user to simply tab over the data field altogether and skip the data entry portion for this particular field. Now multiply 14 hours times all of the other fields where default settings are likely to apply. Most companies have default terms, shipping methods, categories, sales person codes, currency codes, etc. By simply establishing default data, even modest sized companies can save hundreds, if not thousands of hours each year in data entry time. As a twist to this feature, some accounting packages allow the user to setup Boolean lists, or drop down lists to improve speed and accuracy. Still other products enable the user to setup automatic calculations, which enter the default data on the fly. For example a product may use the system’s date and payment terms to automatically calculate and enter the discount date or due date.

  • Database-Level Customization – Stronger still is the ability to customize the underlying database. The most customizable products found today provide this capability which includes options to edit and create new tables and fields within the database itself. This level of customization is much more complicated to build into the product, but the results are that users can freely adapt a product to their specific needs with a little effort from some experienced programmers. Typically, this is not a feature designed for end users – instead this type of customization is intended to be performed by the reseller or consultant. Products that are particularly strong in this area are Navision, Solomon, ACCPAC ProSeries, and Axapta. Navision in particular has earned a reputation for extremely powerful, yet fairly easy to use when it comes to this level of customization.
  • Third Party Integration Customization – Yet another aspect of customization capabilities that is important to consider is that of integrating third party products with the financial application. Some products are much better than others at achieving this feat. Many popular products have an import feature that allows you to import a comma separate value (CSV) file from another application like Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. For example, Peachtree Complete Accounting 2004 provides this capability. Still other products provide a higher level of integration by providing tools that allow you to link data fields in the accounting software to data contained in outside applications. For example, Navision provides a dataport feature, which allows the user to link Navision data fields to virtually any outside data source. ACCPAC Advantage is another product with a good reputation for third party integration capabilities.
  • Help-Level Customization – Some products offer the ability to enter additional text directly into the help screens. If done correctly, this can be a great way to enhance the system. Novice users need only click the menu sensitive help buttons to access specific instructions pertaining to their company. This feature is contained in many popular products and not by others - a few of each are summarized below:

Products With
Help Level Customization

Products Without Help Level Customization

Open Systems TRAVERSE
BusinessWorks Gold
MAS 90 & MAS 200
Macola Progression

PeopleSoft II (formerly JD Edwards)
ACCPAC Advantage Series
MAS 500

ACCPAC ProSeries
BusinessVision 32
Visual AccountMate
Peachtree Complete Accounting 2004
QuickBooks Pro 2004



The ability to customize an accounting system is not just a perk today, it is part of a deliberate and insightful strategy to deliver solid financial accounting systems which contain the core features used by most businesses today, coupled with customization tools that allow end users to tailor systems to the their particular needs. This approach enables publishers to keep the core accounting system clean and lean; and avoids building bloatware. If you are in the market for an accounting software solution, you would be well advise to evaluate the system’s customization capabilities before making your final selection.

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