A Web site rich in financial information can serve as a gateway to revenue-generating services.
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By Richard McCausland
For David Ligotti, CPA owner of Oakwood Business Services in Ann Arbor, Mich., the first step was to lure his clients online.
Using the Creative Solutions Web Builder service, Ligotti was able to populate his site with all sorts of financial data and tools that his clientele would find especially useful. These included a tax due-date calendar, articles (“Limited Liability Companies Offer Tax & Legal Advantages”), links to Michigan tax forms and local brokerage houses, and various mortgage and credit card financing calculators.
There was also the Client Log-in button, for access to a secure portal where a client can review their financial documents including an aggregated portfolio statement, exchange files such as the UltraTax Client Organizer, use the hosted version of Client Bookkeeping Solution, and enter payroll data remotely. Visitors to the site are noticeably more jittery about clicking on that button for the first time than, say, Our Staff or Newsletter, concedes Ligotti.
“The initial reaction is, their eyes glaze over because you’re using words like ‘portal,’” he says. That conjures up all sorts of sci-fi weirdness, which he has to dispel. “It’s not like that,” he tells clients. “Think of a portal as being a page on our Web site that we’re going to design for your use.” Once they see how easily they can access their financial data, and collaborate with Ligotti online at their mutual convenience, “it’s a pretty easy sell,” he says.
These days, every new client goes on NetClient. “That means they’re going to access their bookkeeping software and their financial statements, and probably their payroll reports, online,” comments Ligotti. “Since small business owners are working at home and on the road as well as in their offices, this is a wonderful way for them to simplify what they’re going to do anyway.”
As Ligotti’s experience suggests, a CPA’s Web site can become an online extension of the office so long as there is sufficiently rich, up-to-date financial content to reward frequent return visits by existing clients and browsing prospects. Any number of tax, accounting, and financial planning software providers—along with specialized Web content developers—have programs in place for helping accountants to establish a professional-looking and informative online presence.
Priced at $695 a year, Accountant’s Office Online—from Hauppauge, N.Y.-based AccountantsWorld—will get a CPA onto the Web with a 12-page site that includes email, daily news, a newsletter, tax due-date calendar, calculators, and a Cyber Cabinet for document storage. The site can also serve as a vehicle for additional online services including accounting, payroll, time and billing, sales tax calculations, and stock cost-basis calculations.
AccountantsWorld president Chandra Bhansali cautions CPAs, “They should never have a plain vanilla Web site.” Rather, “It should reflect their personality—what this firm is all about.” But projecting a professional image is only half of the equation, he continues. The site must also, “in some shape or form,” promote productivity and revenue generation.
“Let’s face it, accounting is a commodity service. To be successful, there has to be a perception of value,” says Bhansali. That can be accomplished, he suggests, by providing online services. He explains, “A Web site can become a platform for interaction between the accountant and clients.”
It’s not easy to get clients to change their ways of conducting business, he concedes. “People are always resistant to change,” says Bhansali. Therefore, “It’s the accountant’s responsibility to make them understand how [online interaction] will help them to save time and money.” For instance, online payroll means less paper, and Cyber Cabinet can possibly save a drive over to the accountant’s office to retrieve a document.
Based in Northfield, Mich., Wayne Titus III, CPA, believes so strongly in the Internet and online collaboration with clients that he’s got two Web sites: one for his financial planning and investment clients (AMDG Financial), and one for his tax and accounting clients (AMDG Business Advisory Services). The latter is populated by news and calculators furnished courtesy of Accountant’s Office Online.
There’s also Cyber Cabinet, which has proved popular with clients, according to Titus. “They can log on to the Web site and we can share documents,” he notes. He also makes regular use of WebEx conferencing. He estimates that “maybe 25 percent” of his clients have participated in online meetings, “up significantly” from the previous year.
“This is the way I’m going,” states Titus. “You have to be doing this if you want to serve your clients well.”
“Content Is King”
CCH’s ProSystem fx Site Builder, with more than 300 users, is a Web site hosting service that includes domain set-up, design templates, financial articles, a tax calendar, tax alerts, and calculators. Options include the 2004 Tax Guide. For professionals that already have a Web site, there’s eContent for access to these same informational resources.
Both Site Builder and eContent carry an annual price tag of $895. As Kip Pregler, sales manager for the ProSystem fx operation based in Torrance, Calif., explains, “Content is king. We’re essentially giving the site away for free. This is all about content.”
“People do judge a book by its cover,” stresses Pregler. Therefore, it’s crucial that the Web site have fresh content. “At a minimum, it should be updated once a month,” he advises. CCH helps out by furnishing “articles that look like the accountant wrote them himself,” he notes. He also encourages the posting of Frequently Asked Questions, financial calculators, and access to federal and state tax forms. “The goal there is to unload those unbillable hours” by anticipating clients’ phone queries, he says.
Pregler stresses that a CPA Web site should be viewed primarily as a support mechanism for current clients. “You’re not going to get a hundred new clients a year from your Web site,” he cautions. “That’s not going to happen.”
What will happen is, the CPA will burnish his or her image as a top-flight professional in the eyes of existing clientele. The Web site can then begin to function as a platform for more collaborative services such as the Tax Notebook online organizer, Global fx and CompleteTax preparation, Fileshare document exchange, and GainsKeeper Pro portfolio management. These online services are meeting with varied degrees of acceptance thus far. “It’s about educating the market,” says Pregler, who notes that only an estimated 55 percent of tax and accounting practitioners currently have a Web site.
Recognizing that a professional Web site is only as good as its content, and that continually updated information makes return visits more likely, Dexter, Mich.-based CSI earlier this year teamed up with its PPC affiliate to make the latter’s Tax and Business Alert publication available with the latest release of Web Builder Solution. And in an expansion of its Web Services framework, employees of NetClient users will be able to view electronic images of their pay stubs and W-2s in the newly released Web Employee.
Oakwood Business Services has been beta testing Web Employee among its NetClient/Payroll Solution clientele. Ligotti remarks, “Now we have all their employees who have to see our Web site. The prospects of this are just staggering” with regard to generating new engagements.
Jack LaRue, CSI marketing vice president, says, “Probably the most important thing that an accounting firm can have on their Web site to ensure the client visits it often is a personal, private portal where the client can access their financial information and interact with the accountant in a secure environment, anytime that is convenient to them.”
LaRue notes that CSI has accounting firms specializing in serving franchised restaurants, which are now able to provide their expertise to clients across several states. He also cites an accounting firm in Indiana that secured two accounts, which combined will generate more than $300,000 in annual billings, “simply because they were able to offer anytime, anywhere access to their clients’ financial information.”
The set-up fee for Web Builder Solution is $250, plus a $50 monthly hosting fee. Prices are the same for NetFirm, which enables the CPA practice to offer NetClient portals. Each portal itself starts at $5 a month, with higher charges for advanced functionality. NetClient can work with any Web site, not just those hosted by CSI as part of Web Builder.
While the number of accounting firms offering NetClient remains “in the hundreds,” the number of client portals themselves are “now in the thousands, and [acceptance] is growing very rapidly,” says LaRue.