By Richard McCausland
Like what you see? Click here to sign up for Accounting Today's daily newsletter to get the latest news and behind the scenes commentary you won't find anywhere else.
Jim Schaefer is almost surprisingly candid on the point: "We have never obtained a new client through our Web site." Even more surprising, he doesn’t mind a bit.
|Avoiding Web Site Woes|
Here are points to consider when designing a site:
• Check your page links.
• Proofread your site.
• Use light colors for background.
• Keep text attributes (font type and size, use of italics, etc.) consistent.
• Use fonts supported by the major browsers.
That’s why Schaefer’s firm went online. "It keeps us competitive," he says, explaining, "If I’m a client and see you don’t have a Web site, that suggests to me you don’t think disseminating information to your clients in an efficient way is important." Fortunately, aid was available to help the firm craft an effective Web identity.
Assistance was crucial, because Schaefer and his crew had already designed a Web site that he concedes "was not very good"--little more than so-called brochure-ware, with grainy photos and, worse still, outdated information. "We learned that a not very good Web site is more of a liability than an asset," says Schaefer.
Three years ago, the firm hooked up with Execusite (since acquired by CCH parent Wolters Kluwer) to create www.schaefer-cpa.com. "For a very modest sum, we’re able to use their template to produce a modern, sophisticated, adjustable, and regularly updated Web site," states Schaefer. There’s a firm profile, list of client services, newsletter, financial tools (calculators and estimators), contact information, and links to such sites as an accounting software database, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Google search engine.
Rebranded by CCH as the ProSystem fx Site Builder, the Web site service has "dramatically changed" Schaefer’s tax practice, largely due to its integration with the CCH Tax Notebook online organizer. "Our Web site is the gateway to that capability," notes Schaefer. "We receive much better information, [and] don’t have to be concerned about the quality control of re-entering the data. [Our clients] type out their questions and concerns for us to address in a focused way, and they can print out their completed organizer."
Schaefer’s experience is anything but unique as several tax and accounting software publishers--ATX, Accountants
World, CCH, Creative Solutions, Drake Software, and Universal Tax Systems among them--move beyond simply cajoling their users to establish a Web presence and launch site-development programs with attractive branding and online client collaboration opportunities.
"Whether accountants like it or not, they will have to move to the Internet," declares Chandra Bhansali, president of Hauppauge, N.Y.-based AccountantsWorld (which recently absorbed Micro Vision, the sister company that markets the Tax Relief package). The question is, how? If they opt for a generic site that does little more than describe the practice, "basically they’re wasting their money," he says. Instead, by making available an assortment of online services, "they need to be able to interact with anyone who has Internet access anytime, anywhere," with Bhansali putting a noticeable emphasis on "interact."
He believes, "If used properly, a Web site can be a very powerful practice-building tool."
"Moving accountants online is about getting them to market in an electronic environment," comments Rich Walker, director of the Accountant Services Group at Intuit, headquartered in Mountain View, Calif. It’s never enough to put up a Web site and say, "I’ve built it, so that’s done," he explains. "Rather, they need to view it as a real-time communication tool to use with clients and prospects."
That said, getting CPAs or their small business clients online isn’t easy. Intuit found that out, and quietly transferred its year-old QuickBooks Web Site Solutions program to partner VeriSign. "That is not a part of Intuit’s online offerings any longer," confirms a spokeswoman.
Others are more than ready to pitch in, however. TaxWisepartners.com, for example, is a free Web development and hosting service from Rome, Ga.-based Universal Tax Systems. The service went live only this past June.
"We want the preparer to be able to establish a relationship with their customers and foster a loyal customer base," says professional products vice president Joe Angebrandt. For example, clients will be able to schedule an appointment online, and the tax preparer can e-mail reminders and thank you cards.
Currently, a site includes a Home page describing the firm, a services page, financial tools including links to IRS publications and forms, and contact data that features a link to Mapquest. Future additions will include calculators, a scheduling calendar, e-mail, and the ability to print a tax return off the Web site. Some add-on services will carry a fee. "All of these features will enable the tax professional to interact with customers in a whole new way, building a relationship that can last year-round," comments Angebrandt.
Among the first to sign on was Richard Lukens, a KPMG alumnus who recently started his own practice in Springfield, Va. "I felt I needed a Web presence" to which he could refer prospects wanting a "quick overview" of his experience and services, he explains. He’s eager to add financial tools to the site, such as mortgage calculators and tax estimators, so that clients with those concerns can be assured, "If you can’t reach me, here’s a place to figure that out."
Installing the Base Online
Roughly 30 percent of the Creative Solutions installed base have Web sites. The Dexter, Mich.-based vendor would like to get that figure higher, and so has launched Web Builder Solution. Features include customizable templates, a library of images, sample text, calculators, e-mail capabilities, and newsletters. Price is $50 a month. "We have seen significant growth [with the program] these past few months," reports marketing vice president Jack LaRue.
Web Builder is strategically linked with CSI’s NetClient service, whereby end users can access their accountant’s Web site, click on the "clients only" link, and enter a secure, personal portal after presenting their ID and password. NetClient allows for around-the-clock file sharing, use of the online UltraTax Client Organizer, and remote payroll entry and check printing.
The client sees only the accountant’s name and logo, featured prominently on the Web site and client portal for branding purposes. The CSI name doesn’t appear, because as LaRue explains, "It does no good for a firm to use their Web site to promote the brand of another company."
That approach is welcomed by users like Milton Dean of Dean Accounting Services in Fulton, Ky. "I much appreciate [CSI’s] putting us first," he says.
Clients are using his Web site (www.deanaccountingservices.com ) "quite a bit" as a gateway to such NetClient services as document retrieval, payroll, and check printing. "The last two clients I brought aboard were a result of having NetClient," he notes.
Dean particularly values the automatic content updates overseen by CSI. "For those of us who aren’t up to speed on HTML, they’re taking a lot of that work away from us," he says.
At Drake Software, approximately a fourth of the customer base offers electronic filing of tax returns via their Web sites, "and this number is continuously increasing," says Dorothy Glover, online filing coordinator for the Franklin, N.C.-based company. Drake makes it easy for them with its www.1040.com Web-hosting initiative. Price is $9.95 for preparation, filing, and printing of a 1040EZ, and $14.95 for a 1040 or 1040A.
The 1040 Web program "gives taxpayers the opportunity to search and find out about preparers in their area at their own convenience," comments Glover. She adds, "A tax professional who has a Web site is not only reaching these customers, but is also showing that they are keeping up with technology."
Moreover, by offering 1040.com Online Filing, tax pros are associating themselves with a recognizable branded service, according to Glover. "The name itself will help users have confidence in using it to prepare their tax returns." She notes the service also includes preparer access to timely tax data and the latest forms.
With a Web site that piggybacks 1040.com, Fiscal Tax Company in Indianapolis likes its "straightforward" look. Along with the corporate logo, there’s a description of the practice and its services, tax information (including news, forms, and calculators), an Online Filing link, and contact data.