Practicing for Profits

Practice management software is key to improving productivity and profitability.

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Good practice management software can increase firm profitability by effectively managing information. By tying together clients, staff, resources, due dates, and schedules, the software presents a more complete picture of the status of your firm, your people, and, most importantly, your clients. Such software has always been available, but typically came in a different form. Earlier, the software was nothing more than time and billing. Now, however, most systems use time and billing as the hub, and add functions such as contact management, CRM, due-date monitoring, and resource tracking.

Until recently, these modules were often purchased piecemeal. It was not uncommon to use due-date tracking software from one company, time and billing from another, and relationship management software from a third. Today, these functions are usually packaged in one fully integrated system.

Some key features to look for when shopping for practice management software include the following:

Partner Insights

Billing. The system should either include a time and billing option or offer integration to such a package. Since you'll spend a good deal of time in your practice management software, it only makes sense that it handles your billing or allows for easy entry of time into a third-party package. At the least, it should be able to read the data and provide an easy means for time-sheet entry.

Relationship management. Most firms are as busy today as they've ever been. In between returning phone calls and doing the annual work, there are lots of conversations, emails, and potential new business that never gets recorded. The reason most information is never utilized is that it is locked inside the heads of your staff. When they leave at night, so does information about potential new services or urgent client matters. Most practice management systems offer the ability to track this information, which, when attached to a client or prospective client record, can be extremely valuable. When shared, this information often translates to significant service revenues, as otherwise-forgotten opportunities for new or existing business are pursued.

Scheduling. Properly tracking the resources within your staff lets you increase your firm's utilization. When schedules change, it can be extremely helpful if your software automatically sends a reminder to staff members that they need to modify their plans. A great feature is the ability to look up a shared calendar. Often, the software will allow for scheduling of conference or meeting rooms. Integration with Microsoft Outlook is also highly desirable.

Task monitoring and follow-up. Each firm monitors some client due dates. Whether these are for a tax return, annual audit, interim review, or special product, the key to happy clients is to deliver the product they expect on time-or earlier. When you have your key tasks set up with due-date monitoring, you can greatly decrease the chances of an overlooked responsibility. Look for a system that provides email reminders to staff.

Accessibility. A good system should offer the ability to securely log in to your office data via either a virtual private network or SSL (secure connection). In a pinch, a remote solution such as Citrix or Terminal Services will also provide a fast way to remotely connect to your office computers. Find out if these tools allow you to utilize the same functions that you would have in the office. Chief among these is the ability to print the same forms and reports.

Report writing. No package can include every report that a firm would want. Each CPA firm is simply too different for the one-size-fits-all reporting model. Instead, review each product for its ability to create custom reports. The best systems offer integration to an industry-standard report writer, such as Crystal Reports.

Industry leader. It makes sense to review the packages with the largest numbers of satisfied end users. Don't be shy about talking to other users. Be sure you ask whether those operations use the software in the same manner that your firm would.

Also, review key indicators such as firm and staffing sizes to make sure you are making apples-to-apples comparisons.

ProSystem fx Practice

The ProSystem fx Practice suite includes billing, remote access, project tracking, contact management, and custom reporting. If your firm has standardized on ProSystem fx Tax, you'll reap the added benefit of easy data transfers between these applications, as well as having access to one-step look ups while in the tax package itself.

When using the Time Entry module, you can record not only staff time and expenses, but record to-do items as well. As is becoming standard with most PM systems, time can be entered remotely through a Web browser. The software administrator can download time reports, and review them prior to updating the data. This is a nice extra measure of control to ensure your staff doesn't make errant entries to the main billing database. There is also support for synchronized time that is entered via a hand-held device.

To more closely monitor the time being spent on different tasks, you can establish a budget for each project. As staff enter time, this budget is automatically updated with the time that has been posted, enabling you to monitor work via an on-screen work status page. These projects can be carried forward if they are recurring, or used as the basis for new projects for other clients via the copy feature.

Tracking client information is more important than ever to most CPA firms. Through the built-in Contact Manager, you can leverage your existing client database for monitoring all levels of client communications. Up to 250 different user-defined fields can be created to meet your firm's requirements.

ProSystem fx Practice is a nicely designed system with all of the important modules that a growing firm will need. This truly embraces the concept of integration by sharing information so easily between the practice and tax areas, minimizing redundancy and wasted time.

ProSystem fx Practice

CCH Tax and Accounting

Torrance, Calif.

(800) PFX-9998

http://tax.cchgroup.com/Pfx/products/practice/default

Price: $1,785 (five users); $115 (each additional user).

CPAPractice Manager

The CPAPractice Manager suite features time entry, contact management, time tracking, billing, and custom reporting. There are add-on programs that synchronize Microsoft Outlook and the client database, along with a Web-based timesheet entry, integration to ProSystem fx Tax, and timesheet entry via a Palm PDA.

Time entry is completed on one screen. Employees can also be listed as in or out of the office. The system updates time entered against any projects that you've established. The screen is a snap to navigate, and lends itself to self-management of time reporting by even the newest employee. Since productivity is always a concern for both employees and staff, you'll be glad to see the on-screen monthly summary of hours, which displays total hours on a daily basis, along with a summarized total of hours versus goal.

Time billing may be done in detail with an on-screen invoice editor, should you wish to customize each client's billing layout. The WYSIWYG editor lets you work with the final layout, so that the information is arranged in a manner acceptable to the client.

The project management screen allows for easy viewing of budgeted information and switching between views. The left side of the main window is used for selecting how you'd like to view your budgets, whether by client, partner, staff, or project type.

Organizing client information is important to developing and maintaining a great relationship. The Contact Manager tracks the standard name and address information, as well as who in your office is responsible for the work. The notes maintained within the Contact Manager are readily accessible from most other areas of the software.

CPASoftware has a tightly integrated package with smoothly designed data-entry screens. This system won't take your staff long to learn. It lends itself to doing exactly what it advertises-mainly managing your practice!

CPAPractice Manager

Sage Software

Pensacola, Fla.

(800) 272-7123

www.cpasoftware.com

Price: Starts at $1,610 (seven seats)

Time Matters

Time Matters provides practice management and billing solutions to both the legal and the accounting professions. Its suite of modules can track client contact information and projects, and even manage your firm's documents. Basic Billing is included while fuller feature capabilities require an additional module.

With so much of today's communication done via email, you'll be happy to know that Time Matters includes an email client that can either replace or, more typically, work alongside your Outlook inbox. When emails are sent, they can be automatically attached to a client record. This feature provides for true sharing of information across an entire office, especially for those firms with multiple locations and engagement teams servicing a single client.

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