Before switching to LexisNexis' Time Matters six years ago, CPA firm Fenstermacher & Co. was manually tracking its time and billing, which not only proved to be time consuming but likely resulted in unaccounted for revenue and time spent-or wasted-on clients. "I would say that [switching to Time Matters] had a substantial impact on revenue and profits," says W. Chad Fenstermacher, CPA, a partner at the Kennett Square, Pa.-based firm. "The benefits were realized in a short period of time and have continued in each subsequent year."
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While Fenstermacher's firm realized years ago the need for a time and billing application, many firms are stuck in the dark ages.
"The big challenge still remains that a large number of firms still see [time and billing software] as a necessary evil as opposed to being a key application that is central to everything they do," says Matt Jagst, product manager for Practice CS by Thomson Tax & Accounting, which includes a time and billing component. "Surveys still show that half of CPA firms are not using a true time and billing application."
Chandra Bhansali, president of AccountantsWorld, agrees that many firms-especially smaller firms-have yet to take advantage of an such tools.
"A majority of smaller CPA firms are still not using a time and billing system." says Bhansali, who notes that many firms are using such applications as Excel to track their time. "For us, it has been a challenge to show them it is a need." As of last year, AccountantsWorld stopped selling its Time2Money time and billing solution as a separate package and made it part of the company's Accountants Practice Online suite.
Regardless of the firm's size, time and billing remains a key application. After all, being able to accurately track time spent on practice matters ensures that professionals are paid for every minute spent with a client, and enables firms to see where time is not wisely spent.
But the Internet and remote computing are altering the face of software. Many manufacturers are setting their sights on enhanced remote data entry and additional functionality, and some applications are beginning to look like CRM software.
For example, Thomson Tax & Accounting (formerly Creative Solutions) recently launched a new Client Management module that is an add-on module to its Practice CS.
"Firms want CRM functionality. What we were trying to accomplish is to provide a tool to help [firms] remain close to the client and strengthen that relationship," says Jagst.
The module can record the details of client activity, and organize, store and access all client interactions, including work-in-progress, billing, prospecting and cross-selling.
With the increasing use of mobile devices, the ability to enter time remotely is in demand.
Professionals who use a PDA or other handheld device that has Microsoft Outlook contacts can sync it with Practice CS to avoid redundant data entry; however, Jagst says that remote time entry is not yet available. He says that is likely to change in the foreseeable future. Being able to enter time remotely is "definitely something we have been hearing quite a bit," says Jagst.
Similarly, this fall, AccountantsWorld will launch remote access capability for the Accountants Office Online, with the ability to sync the system with handheld devices so those working in the field can enter time remotely.
"That is a trend we are seeing that other people are using, and that is a very helpful functionality," says Bhansali.
Practice CS user Darren Root, CPA, CITP, managing partner of Root & Associates LLC, who says his Bloomington, Ind.-based firm views time and billing as a critical piece of the business.
"Time and billing is essential in our business and especially Practice CS. It allows me to be more flexible in how I fix time entry issues, see staff productivity on a daily basis using dashboards, and since we do daily billing, it allows us to keep our time in real time, and bill immediately following the project, which helps our cash flow," explains Root.
Root would like to see a firm dashboard that displays in real time which projects employees are working on.
Shafat Qazi, chief executive officer and founder of BQE Software, whose flagship product is BillQuick time and billing software, says one of the biggest challenges is not competing with rival vendors but converting those firms who continue to approach time and billing the old-fashioned way, like using pen and paper.
"The biggest challenge is the realization that they need to track time. I hear, 'I have six clients who pay, why should I track?'" says Qazi. "A lot of people think it is only for companies with a lot of employees."
To educate firms on the value of time and billing software, the company began in April offering monthly Web casts that explain the importance of such applications and why it is an investment that pays back.
Much of BQE's focus is on promoting the value of time and billing software versus features, but that is not to say that new features are not important. Earlier this year, the company announced that BillQuick 2007 has more than 130 new features and many "under-the-hood" improvements. Perhaps the most obvious enhancement is a new data engine powered by Microsoft.Net 2.0, which the company said speeds performance by up to 400 percent.
Enhancements include the ability to maintain a chronological list of all of the important steps taken during the life of a project. Through a partnership with Innovative Merchant Services, firms can process major credit card payments from within BillQuick. The package also now enables users to establish time budgets for specific engagements, displaying estimated hours for each task, time already spent and time remaining.
"In terms of features, the big need we see is an overlap of workflow software and time and billing software," says Qazi.
When accountants are out of the office, they can remotely enter data via the BillQuick Web Suite, BillQuick Palm, BillQuick Pocket PC and BillQuick Mobile capability. In addition, BillQuick 2007 integrates with the 2007 editions of Microsoft Office Accounting, QuickBooks, Peachtree, and MYOB (Australia).
Pamela Chapman, managing member of Park City, Utah-based ChalkCreek Consulting, really had no system for tracking her time and billing. She would jot down her time spent on anything available, whether it be Post-it notes, scrap paper or on her Palm Pilot. That was until she began using BillQuick three years ago.
"I was losing income because I was not remembering the hours I spent and didn't record [them]. I didn't have a convenient system, especially a system that I would only need to enter information one time and could produce billings from that one-time entry," says Chapman, who serves about 40 clients from many professional services such as retail and contracting.
Workflow is also on the agenda for CaseWare International. The current version of CaseWare Time is version 2006. Version 2007 is currently in beta testing and is expected to launch in the fall.
However, major development has been under way with a SQL version of Time planned for release in 2008.
"We are looking more at the firm management," says Lynda Ward, product manager of CaseWare Time. "Partners want to see the firm's financial data in one area. We have developed a workflow area, which we are enhancing."
Also with the SQL version, CaseWare will launch a Web-based timesheet application. Users will have the option of running it on their firm's server or remotely.
CaseWare Today links data from Time to Outlook's contact management and personal management features so users don't have to duplicate records. Handheld capabilities will be included in the SQL version, along with enhancements to contact and project management, report capabilities and internal accounting.
ImagineTime president Fred Lindsley believes that ease of use and a flexible interface are among the key features users desire in a time and billing software application, not to mention added functionality and integration.
In recent months. ImagineTime has implemented additional Outlook options for remote users. Those with Outlook or Exchange Server can now exchange data with the ImagineTime Calendar while in the field via a Smartphone, Blackberry or other PDA device. The ImagineTime calendar will read calendar changes from the remote PDA device as long as the active sync remote feature is turned on and the user's computer is "listening."
The company also recently added engagement totaling options to the time slip bill, and Superbill formatting issues with sales tax have been addressed. Going forward, users will likely see additional enhanced document management tools and increased integration with Microsoft Office.
ImagineTime, which features a due-date monitor, integrates with QuickBooks, eliminating the need to re-key deposit and monthly journal entries.