Software That Puts It All Together

Practice management applications assemble key functions.


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Not too long ago, a CPA firm might have purchased a package to track due dates for client tasks. If might have also invested in an application to track staff schedules and engagements. Each piece of information in its own database, making the reporting and sharing of common information nearly impossible. Today, those functions are present together in most practice management software packages.

What exactly is practice management software?

Typically it provides time tracking or reporting software, some type of scheduling (both workflow and staff), and elements of Customer Relationship Management, which allows for keeping a myriad of notes about your clients' relationships. Some vendors are now building systems to assist going "paperless," meaning documents can be scanned or stored in a central depository. All packages should share data as well as offering a common user interface for ease of training and administration.

Partner Insights

The practice management marketplace has gotten smaller in recent years. CCH has purchased the former CPASoftware system from Sage and relabeled it as CCH ProSystem fx Practice Management. Commercial Logic is dropping its PowerPM in favor of reselling the Power Project, an English import.

Largely this is due to the mergers of different products as larger vendors filled holes in their software offerings by buying and rebranding software from competitors. Most of the vendors also offer multiple CPA-specific tools such as time and billing and tax preparation software.

Here are some of the things you should look for in a practice management system today:

Market leader. Focus your search on those companies with the largest numbers of end users. While there is no guarantee of success, these typically are the products that are continuously improved with new features and enhancements.

Customizable reporting. Choose a system that features extensive reporting via data exports or flexible reporting tools such as Crystal Reports. Look for systems that can email you reminders as key activities become due.

Verify that the software package offers enough sorting and grouping options, which can greatly increase the variations on the different reports that can be produced without significantly increasing the complexity of the basic report printing process.

Open database access. For rapid access to data, many of the popular systems have adopted a SQL database. The architecture of SQL makes it such that data security and integrity is significantly enhanced while also boosting performance. If your firm employs more than 10 people, be sure to view a demonstration that has realistic data. Once several years' worth of data has been entered to your system, you will undoubtedly see a slowdown. If possible, ask for references of same-sized firms outside of your geographic area, and call them to discuss how their system has performed after serious use.

Suite of products. Strive for a system that lets you enter data once and ensures that it then flows throughout all modules, removing any need to re-enter data. The client database from time and billing should share a common list of client names and addresses with a CRM portion of the same package. For those vendors offering tax software, this common database should extend into that application.

Integration with Office. Select a product that allows for tight integration to each of the Microsoft Office products. Especially useful is any system that tracks the increasingly frequent email communications sent to clients.

Web integration and remote access. A Web browser interface is also important to increasing productivity, as it allows your staff to use any Internet-connected PC to access the system. In general, the less set-up required to access data remotely, the better. The use of secure Internet connections is sometimes slower but is preferred for situations where confidential data is being accessed over the public Internet.

Analysis reports. Closely review the collection of pre-written reports included with the software. At a minimum, you should expect reports detailing profitability by client, employee, engagements, and partner. The inclusion of a custom report writer to create your own reports will be a great help to virtually every firm.

CCH fx Practice Management

CCH acquired the CPASoftware product line from Sage Software in January and has re-branded it as ProSystem fx Practice Management.

This system will replace the former ProSystem fx Practice offered by CCH. It is written using .Net technology and now includes the Crystal Report Writer for custom reporting. The older Practice application will continue to be supported, and the goal is to combine the best of both packages at an undisclosed time.

Included in the renamed Practice Management are time and expense entry, billing and invoice printing, accounts receivable, projects and client budgeting, contact management as well as Crystal Report Writer.

The system uses a SQL database, thus insuring that as a firm's transaction volume increases, the speed does not begin to lag. For smaller firms, there is a mini-version of SQL that ships with the product.

Many firms allow their employees to bank some of their hours accumulated during the busy tax season in lieu of additional compensation. Practice Management will automatically track these hours for you. From the Time Expense entry screen, there is a "Bank Hours" button where individuals can enter their banked hours, which can be retrieved from the same menu when they are used.

Marketing efforts may be tracked much more closely than is seen in many other packages. By using the Marketing Log, you can enter a marketing service code to track and analyze the non-billable time that staff spends on marketing activities. Events entered into the Marketing Tickler are automatically attached to the customer or prospect master file so that everyone within the firm can share the data and be kept up to date. Larger firms with more standardized time-entry procedures will appreciate that time may be entered in either a one-step or two-step posting process. Under the one-step process, the time is entered and posted when the update button is pressed. With the two-step method, time is not committed to WIP until an additional posting procedure is performed. Either method can be secured via rights assigned to each user code within the system.

The CCH ProSystem fx Practice Management software system stands on a powerful database architecture and contains many unique features that will be helpful to firms of almost any size. Future integration to CCH products makes this a package that would be especially helpful to any firm looking to standardize procedures and integrate the software to their tax processing system.

CCH ProSystem fx

Practice Management

Torrance, Calif.

(800) PFX-9998

Price: $280 per user.

Creative Solutions Practice CS

Creative Solutions Practice CS will look familiar from the start, owing to its use of an Outlook-like interface. There are tabs along the left side of the program that are used to select different views of your data. Creative Solutions calls these views a Digital Dashboard.

A different dashboard is available for different views (client, staff, or firm views are available) of your data. Navigation is accomplished via a browser-like interface, and small programs can be added to most screens with a right-click to the dashboard.

Each dashboard collects data such as email, billing summaries, payment history, and staff availability. You can add your own links to each dashboard. These links can be to Internet resources, firm resources, or separate program applets provided by CSI.

The company also offers a separate program for document storage called FileCabinet CS. If you own this product, you can create a link to the online storage of your electronic documents, making fast document retrieval from individual Digital Dashboards a snap.

Included with Practice CS is a time-and-billing system, three Digital Dashboards, and project management. While you are logged into the Client Dashboard, you will see links for any of the Creative Solutions programs that you own (such as UltraTax) and these programs can be launched directly from the respective dashboard. All data automatically flows between Practice CS and the respective application that you are running.

Access to data may be restricted to either people or groups. For ease of set-up, the program allows customized groups to be established. All persons who are made members of this group share the same security rights, eliminating the need to individually assign security as new staff is hired.

Time and billing is an integral part of the program. The time-keeping function can be tailored to each individual's preference. Fields can be dragged and dropped and defaults established so that individual user preferences are retained for speedier data entry. As would be expected, a desktop timer is available to track the amount of time spent on various tasks.

The billing portion supports four methods for selecting time to bill. These include a detail billing method so you can see all individual time and select items to be billed, quick bill for selecting time for multiple clients, invoicing all from one screen, zero bill (write-downs), and standard billing (fixed or not to exceed).

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