Software for the Best Practices

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Top-notch practice management software can make a big difference.

by Wayne Schulz

Gather together a dozen CPAs and ask them what practice management system they are using, and you'll likely get a dozen different answers. Ask them how they like their systems and you may find some ringing endorsements. More likely, you'll find a group of professionals in a perpetual search for that perfect system.

Partner Insights

In order to enhance the probability of hitting a home run with your practice management selection, focus your attention on the vendors with the largest numbers of end users and the longest history in their field. Consolidation is a way of life in the software marketplace. If your vendor of choice is a small independent, its chances of being acquired-assuming it offers a first-class system-are pretty good. Ideally, practice management software should eliminate redundancy by using one central database for storing client information, schedules, due dates, billing, and staff information.

Some of the "best of breed" features that CPA firms have been seeking (and getting) are:

Remote accessibility. It's a fact of life that today's firms are leveraging the Internet to enable their staffs to work from outside of the office as much as possible. Most practice management vendors have heard the cries loud and clear. Be sure to verify that your practice management solution of choice offers a remote data entry solution (most do). PDA solutions are nice, but tend to be used by smaller firms with fewer users to support. Accessing time entry, billing, and client data over the Internet should be natively supported and, at the very least, usable via a solution like Citrix or Windows Terminal Services.

Due dates. With so many tax, regulatory, and statutory filings due, it's imperative that you automate the important process of keeping on top of what's due and when. The days of gathering the staff around a paper notebook and leafing through the monthly calendar of due dates are a bygone memory for all but the most archaic firms. Look for a solution that allows an unlimited number of due dates as well as the ability to flag those due dates either via alarms or (even better) electronic mail messages to staff. Flexible reporting is a must-so integration with either a homegrown reporting wizard or a top-notch report writer like Crystal Reports is a must.

Client relationship management. Who told the client that they could take THAT as a deduction? Face it, client litigation is rising. And when technical advice is given, it isn't always during the height of a year-end engagement. Often, you'll provide off-the-cuff guidance within a two-minute phone call. With a convenient place to store all that information, you'll never be at a loss for what you may have told a client. Perhaps the best feature of tracking client information and conversations is the ability to share it among engagement team members.

Flexible reporting. Almost all the reports that you REALLY need turn out to be missing just one piece of crucial information. Long ago, software vendors realized they couldn't please all of the people all of the time. So they wisely began including either their own custom reporting wizards or allowing links to the industry-leading report writers (like Crystal Reports) through ODBC. Wherever possible, it's most desirable to choose a product using an industry-leading report writer. These tools are upgraded constantly-and because they tend to be more widely used by different types of users, their functionality is always expanding, improving, and evolving.

Support and training services. The next big thing (it's actually already here) is using the Internet for training. Because your firm is probably always adding staff (especially during the busy tax season), a product that offers some type of online training for free (or at a low cost) is a lifesaver. Allowing staff to log-in via the Internet to attend self-running or instructor-led training is a powerful way to streamline and improve your firm's efficiency.

Integration with other products. Some practice management products reviewed will also integrate with software such as tax preparation or write-up. This may allow for some additional tasks like setting a timer during tax preparation or seamlessly passing through invoices for tax preparation expenses.

ProSystem fx Practice

CCH has a powerful stable of products, and its practice management system is no exception. The system was offered for many years under the name PACS before it was acquired by CCH and merged into the ProSystem product line.

ProSystem FX Practice

CCH
Torrance, Calif.
(800) PFX-9998
www.prosystemfx.com
Price: $1,275 (1 to 2 users); $1,785 (5 users); $105 (each additional user).

If your firm is a user of ProSystem fx Tax, you'll want to make certain to give this software a look. As you prepare your tax return information each year, you can relax knowing that all updates to client information (names, addresses, etc); won't have to be entered twice-once into the tax system and once into your practice management/billing solution. All updates made in fx Tax flow directly into Practice so that information is kept up to date. Naturally, you'll be able to use start/stop timing during tax return preparation, and have that time flow into the billing system-as well as importing a tax processing charge directly from ProSystem fx Tax.

Offering a remote lifeline to staffers out in the field should be a mandatory part of any system today. The Internet Connect module allows your staff to connect via any high-speed Internet connection (without using Citrix) to view or perform time-and-billing data entry. This is a must-have feature for any CPA firm looking to maximize billable hours by keeping staff out in the field and productive, rather than having staffers tied down to an office terminal keying time.

Reporting through ProSystem fx Practice is flexible. When printing reports, there are considerable options you can select in order to tailor the output to your preferences. When a report doesn't quite fit your needs, the included report writer offers a simple way to design your own with a minimum of fuss.

Any firm that is looking to tightly integrate all aspects of their practice should take a close look at ProSystem fx Practice. It's a winner with its highly flexible reporting and powerful integration with the broad range of CCH industry-specific modules.

Visual Practice

Visual Practice has always been popular with CPA firms of varying sizes. Now that CPASoftware is owned by Best Software, it's likely we'll see additional serious firepower behind its marketing and further development.

Visual Practice

CPA Software
Pensacola, Fla.
(800) 272-7123
www.cpasoftware.com
Price: SQLite version $545 (1-2 timekeepers); $1,095 (3-5 timekeepers); SQL, $275 (per seat).

The screens used to capture time and prepare invoices are nicely laid out with a bare minimum of clutter. You'll be able to have staff working remotely as Visual Practice offers a remote entry and a PDA data-entry solution. The time on each screen can be summarized into management views. Before any time is updated, you can have a supervisor (such as an office manager) review all of the time for completeness and accuracy. Especially helpful is the in/out board where staff can indicate their whereabouts, as well as expected return times and dates. This can be a great efficiency tool that is too often overlooked in other systems.

Time-wasting trips to the office to review CPE, vacation, holiday, or personal time are a thing of the past. Staff can view all of this important information on-screen instantly. Remote users have full access to this data as well.

Since the database type is either Microsoft Access or SQL, you'll have access to a wide range of reporting tools to customize your own reports and tweak existing ones.

Every client has an exhaustive lookup screen full of information available to all engagement personnel. Whether it is copies of past invoices, documentation of conversations, or access to user-defined fields (unlimited), the information-sharing capabilities are impressive.

Because clients seldom grant an open checkbook for their annual engagements or special projects, accounting for total engagement time is increasingly important. The project-tracking features in Visual Practice allows the system to automatically prompt for a project number (optional) when time is entered into the system.

Creative Solutions Practice

Creative Solutions' strength has always been its depth and breadth of product offerings. The company constantly focuses on improving its CPA firm offerings, which has resulted in software that is always among the best available.

Creative Solutions Practice

Creative Solutions
Dexter, Mich.
(800) 968- 8900
www.creativesolutions.com
Price: $1,350.

CSI's practice management offering is no exception. With full integration to the other Creative Solutions Practice modules (Scheduling, Timekeeper, Reporter, Market, and CPE Management), you reduce significantly the number of times you'll have to enter the same data. And an even bigger benefit is that reduced entry time results in fewer potential mistakes.

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