The road to paperless leads through these packages.
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by Wayne Schulz
The only thing more certain than death and taxes is the continuous evolution of the CPA software marketplace. The CPA software market has evolved rapidly into a survival of the fittest (and biggest). As the market has consolidated, the decision about which software package to select becomes easier—for the choices are now fewer. Fortunately, these choices are also significantly improved over the releases of several years ago.
Sure, there are still independent software vendors,, but those that still exist have the disadvantage of marketing against powerhouses such as CCH and Thomson, who are more capable of offering full suites of products. Several years ago, the larger companies began making strategic acquisitions with the ultimate goal of creating these ultimate software suites: a one-stop shopping trip for CPA firms looking to automate their practices, while simultaneously reducing data-entry redundancy. Trial balance and workpaper packages, sold separately but increasingly linked together, are part of these suites.
How well do these integrated suites measure up? Considering that most have been around for years, you can expect the individual products to be very stable and perform their tasks well under the latest Windows operating systems. Where the differences (chinks in the armor, if you will) appear is in the smoothness of the integration. As in all software industries, purchasing different products and integrating them together is never as simple as users might be led to believe.
When the time comes that you toss out the old DOS standby software that you’ve been using for the last 15 years, just how do you make sure you get a better solution than what you have now? A trial balance application that is well-supported, as well as easy to use, navigate, and (most important) train your staff on?
Here are some of the key areas to focus on during your software search:
Market leaders. Simply put, the software companies with the largest market share (numbers of users) tend to update their programs faster and more often. Their large numbers of end users means they are constantly gathering a wide variety of feedback and suggestions on improving their products. Since these companies tend to own a variety of CPA firm-specific products, they can concentrate their energies on making them all communicate more smoothly than if they had to integrate to systems which they did not own or control the computer source code for.
These well-capitalized companies tend to offer best-of-breed support and they almost always have built a stable of products that integrate with each other. One of the biggest benefits of staying with the top software producers is that they aren’t likely to be bought out by another company and have their product(s) either languish or face “early retirement.”
You should almost certainly evaluate all of the market-leading brands. These are most readily identified by the breadth of their products and widespread advertising and large user bases.
Integration. Re-keying data, whether it is into Microsoft Word for financial statements or your tax preparation program for tax returns, can now be thought of as a thing of the past. The software programs evaluated have evolved to a level where they’ll produce presentation-quality financial reports as well as seamlessly transfer data to tax preparation software packages. Why re-key the data when the software can do the job for you?
Even if you decide that you prefer to manually keypunch data, at some point down the road, a change in firm policies may direct that you’ll need to seamlessly transfer information. In this instance, you’ll at least want the flexibility and peace of mind to know that you could transfer data even if you consciously choose not to make these transfers currently. Almost all of the software allows for data import so that you can read in a client’s year-end general ledger instead of having to delegate the often time-consuming task to an entry-level staffer.
Ease of use. If one of the reasons that you are contemplating a move from your present trial balance software is to get out of the DOS world, then you’ve got a very pleasant surprise waiting. All of the systems have very intuitive user interfaces and have been polished to the point of near-perfect usability. The old days of clunky keystroke combinations to perform specific tasks has given way to the point-and-click mouse era. You can often link in checklists and audit programs from such places as PPC or Miller, further saving a step and moving your firm closer to what may be a goal of becoming paperless (or at the very least reducing your reliance on paper).
Most trial balance systems have been written and improved with the knowledge that a good deal of the work may be done by staff in remote locations. Therefore, you’ll find the ability to bundle together workpapers into an electronic binder a worthwhile feature. Some software is also evolving with a concept of electronic file cabinets. In the future, it is likely you’ll be able to store all of the client data in a disk storage system either at the vendor site or more likely on your firm’s own servers.
Reporting. Customized financial reporting has never been better. The Windows platform (and especially ODBC, or Open Database Connectivity) inherently offers a great amount of flexibility for designing and modifying your own reports. Since each CPA firm has different standards for how their work papers must look, these software packages have adopted a “your way” approach. The packages allow you to customize as many details of the output as practical.
Where the report writers don’t get the job done to your satisfaction, there is always the ability to cut and paste text into different packages. Most of the packages have designed their own report writers. Those that haven’t usually hook into an industry standard such as Crystal Reports.
Tax software connection. Since client financial data is entered once into a trial balance, the next logical automation step is to take that information and pull it into a tax preparation system. The major trial balance systems offer the ability to either export or directly transfer data into the most popular tax packages (which, due to the consolidation of the marketplace, is now a very manageable number).
If your firm prepares a significant number of tax returns, it usually is a very good idea to stay within the same family when choosing software. After all, owning the trial balance and the tax software provides significant incentive for software companies to build super-strong integration into their products.
Support. All of the products reviewed here have been on the marketplace for a number of years. Their Windows versions have been through at least one revision, and each release brings out a stronger and more reliable product.
One of the key things to look for is the availability of an online knowledgebase that is accessible via the Internet. Since a typical CPA firm workday doesn’t mirror the hours kept by software developers, you may find yourself up against a tight deadline needing a quick answer to a software question. The availability of an online resource like a technical knowledgebase can save hours and prevent those annoying missed deadlines that can happen because of a software glitch.
Training. The more users a software package has, the better your chances of finding a training class. The widespread adoption of high-speed data lines means that more and more training will be conducted via the Internet. The larger software companies are more likely to have regularly scheduled courses to bring your newest staff up to speed on their products.
Even in the absence of a formal training class, the odds of your interim tax season helpers knowing a specific software program are significantly increased if you’ve selected one of the market leaders that we review in this roundup. Being able to hire staff (even if they are only part-time seasonal help) that already knows your software program is a huge boost. When you have adopted one of these widely used packages, the odds of finding such a person are significantly enhanced.
CaseWare Working Papers
The two words that best describe CaseWare are smooth and integratable. The program was one of the first to embrace the mundane requirements of producing a trial balance, and added the ability to attach (and track) electronic versions of working papers. Most firms will make heavy use of the ability to check in and out the different working papers they create as engagements progress.
|CaseWare Working Papers
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