One of my most dreaded rites of summer has always been packing up the kids for summer camp. Regardless of how prepared I think I am, the few days before camp are always spent in a mad rush running around to find those last few "must have" items. This year was no exception; it was chaotic as usual. However as we were sitting on the overstuffed storage trunk trying to get it to close, one packed item in particular caught my attention-the Swiss army knife.
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Looking at this object, I couldn't help but marvel at its simplicity. Imagine-in this age of advanced technology, a non-electronic handheld device that allows you to perform up to a dozen different tasks; all very proficiently! If a camper had but one item to choose to take with him on an all-day excursion, the Swiss army knife might very well be the most likely candidate. The convenience in one item of having a knife, can opener, screwdriver, nail clipper, etc., is sheer design genius.
I view practice management software as the Swiss army knife of the various CPA firm financial and productivity applications. Unlike specific functional applications like time and billing or fixed asset management, practice management software must be capable of handling several different areas successfully. These various applications include time and billing, calendaring, due-date tracking, customer relationship management and project management.
Rather than requiring the purchase of a separate application for each element, practice management software combines them all in a single product that provides tremendous benefit to its users.
As a firm grows, it becomes increasingly important to effectively track information associated with clients, contacts, employees, activities, billable hours and other aspects of an accounting practice. Practice management software provides all employees of the firm, from support staff through partner, a strategy for accessing key firm and client information that assists in managing their day-to-day tasks.
Most practice management solutions offer time and billing functionality as their core, but this is only one dimension. To qualify as a full-blown practice management solution, the product must also provide staff scheduling and due-date tracking, a means of tracking customer relationships and tools to manage projects. Some even offer electronic document management and integration with other products within the vendor's suite of applications. The challenge is blending these related applications together with a common interface capable of providing efficient access to the information necessary to make financial and operational decisions regarding the profitable management of the practice.
How the practice management software vendors meet this challenge represents the latest trend in practice management software: providing direct access to business intelligence and analytics via a single screen. They have redesigned the software to interact more directly with the end user by creating an interface commonly referred to as the digital dashboard.
A dashboard is a user-configurable workspace that simultaneously displays multiple sources of information. This data can include a calendar, task list, email, time-entry information and key performance indicators. The dashboard is fully customizable to fit the specific needs of each user, who can choose which attributes are most significant, and then drill down to further explore the details. Most products featured below use dashboards as their starting point, from which users can navigate to the information they consider essential to their workday.
Selecting the right practice management software is a far more complex process than choosing any single application program. You must first take into consideration the specific needs of the different operational areas of the firm. Then, you need to prioritize which of these needs are most important. If your firm does not already have a standalone time and billing system, most likely your choice will be influenced by how effective time is collected and invoiced to customers. You may decide that scheduling, due dates, ticklers and customer relationship management form the crux of your needs, or maybe you place more emphasis on document and project management.
By identifying your specific requirements up front, your firm will be more successful in evaluating the various practice management software choices.
Each vendor provides varying degrees of emphasis regarding the different components of practice management. The products reviewed all contain portions of time and billing, customer relationship management, project management, employee management, and in some cases document management. All succeed in providing a practice management software system that easily adapts to a firm's practices and procedures, rather than the reverse.
These solutions encompass all practice management needs and just like the Swiss army knife, they provide an all-in-one application for completing a multitude of complex tasks in a very efficient and effective fashion.
FirmWorks is a Web-based application that integrates a firm's policies and existing technology with communication, collaboration and information management tools. FirmWorks connects to a firm's existing time and billing system and other applications to provide information for CRM, project management, scheduling and sales and marketing support.
FirmWorks provides partners, managers and staff with the tools and business intelligence to manage every aspect of the firm's business. The program consists of several tightly integrated applications that work in conjunction with Microsoft Office, Windows Explorer and Exchange.
Unlike many other products reviewed, which feature time and billing as the core application, FirmWorks places more emphasis on its customer relationship management aspects, which handle chores like mass mailings and engagement letters. Other available components are project management, due-date monitoring, resource scheduling, opportunity management and remote time entry. You can choose any combination of these applications to implement.
The layout of the screens and forms provide many navigation paths via icons, navigator panes and shortcuts. The main tab menu provides access to contacts, projects, opportunities, activities and assignments. Numerous icons then direct you to specific tasks, including creating and editing documents, mail merge and email functions and exporting to Word and Excel.
You can create time transactions from anywhere within the application. Most often the time sheet is populated with information relevant to the location where the user is currently working. Time entries can be allocated to projects, budgets and work codes.
Various search methods facilitate access to staff and client information based on entering a few characters or more complete document text. You can create documents several ways, including the Create New button that is visible on every screen.
The activity manager provides centralized access to all activities created in FirmWorks. These activities serve to facilitate knowledge transfer about clients, professional services, firm procedures and other important information from individual firm members to the firm as a whole. Activities can be created from many different places such as emails, client manager, opportunity manager and project manager.
Firm Statistics presents important firm operating metrics in an interactive fashion that allows users to comment and assign action tasks to others. Follow-up assignments for an activity can be delegated to one or more firm members. Notifications are sent via email to the responsible firm members with a description of the action that is required and a link to the activity
Template Manager automates the creation of boilerplate documents based on Word, Excel and PDF file formats. Workpapers and documents created from templates are maintained and controlled through FirmWorks Activities. Templates can be specific to a single FirmWorks module or globally available from any place in FirmWorks.
For the firm interested in a hosted or server-based solution, FirmWorks fits the bill.
It does a nice job in handling its many subcomponents, making it a viable practice management solution for professional firms looking beyond the desktop.
ImagineTime features an extensive time and billing application that also incorporates a comprehensive scheduling and due date monitoring system.
Navigation and set-up options provide efficient movement through the generous menu options and screen choices.
The due-date monitoring screen allows you to report and edit key activities and setup master forms, tasks and status defaults used in the scheduling screen. You can report or view selected tasks and forms for one or all clients. Numerous reporting formats include a due-date report, status report, routing sheet and projected staff schedules. Monthly, quarterly and annual tasks can be setup for individual clients and reported by individual staff person assigned. Tax form deadlines can be tracked by the responsible partner and type of form.
The contact management/calendar scheduling system provides the ability to monitor prospect activity, create client and contact notes, enter personal appointments and tasks and monitor firm due dates. You can also view other staff calendars and create and change staff assignments.
The weekly calendar grid display toggles between all staff appointments for a particular day or individual appointments by staff. From this grid, you can access the appointment/activity details screen or the contact management screen. You can clone appointments and tasks based on the due date and weekday of the current selected appointment, which can then synchronize with Microsoft Outlook.