When asked about what challenges he faces when trying to stay abreast of the latest tax laws and developments during the busy tax season, David W. Aucoin, CPA APAC of Kenner, La., was quick to the point. “Finding the time to sift through what is pertinent to my practice,” says Aucoin, a ProSeries customer whose firm serves about 200 individuals and 50 businesses. His solution is to receive information via tax alerts and tax updates from the Louisiana Society of CPAs.
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Aucoin likely echoes the sentiment of many other tax professionals. This is largely the reason why tax software vendors and other industry players have been hard at work developing tax resources to assist paid preparers during crunch time.
“We need to make sure we are giving them relevant information and not just quantity of information,” says Teresa Mackintosh, senior vice president of Thomson Tax & Accounting Professional Software and Services.
Adds Brian Scheffer, product manger for Orrtax, “I think the problem [tax professionals] face is having a branching point. It is more of a problem of finding the information.”
Looking to help tax professionals quickly find answers to tax questions and facilitate an interaction among peers, Intuit launched more than two years ago the site TaxAlmanac.org.
Mirrored after the highly popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the content on TaxAlmanac.org is written by tax professionals. The site includes such research information as the Internal Revenue Code, Treasury Regulations, Tax Court Cases and thousands of articles.
The site currently has 22,000 registered users, meaning they are able to contribute to the site and edit material, says Tim Doyle, product manager and moderator for TaxAlmanac. Last season, the site experienced 5,000 to 6,000 visitors a day. Du`ring the height of the season, that number reached 8,500 visitors.
According to Doyle, one feature of the site that has proven extremely popular is the discussion forums. Visitors to the site’s discussion forums will find more than 16,000 different topics, including a discussion on “S Corp Owner Salary vs. Distributions.” This topic is among the hottest with 255 replies and more than 24,000 page views.
“The neat thing is that you can sort by the number of views or the number of replies so you can see what people are talking about,” says Doyle.
In browsing the “feedback” section of the discussion forums, it is evident that professionals are in need of efficient resources to help them in their practice.
“Getting feedback adds confirmation and guidance on tax issues that I’m encountering for the first time and is helping to build my confidence. One person can’t know all of the tax regs in depth but does need to know where to find the answers. TaxAlmanac is a great benefit to accountants and tax preparers as well as their clients,” stated one forum participant known as “MLG,” who is a CPA who started a firm and consulting practice in 2003.
“It gives us a start in the right direction on some questions and, should there be a wrong answer, someone is very quick to come along with the right one. There aren’t a lot of schools or places to find answers. And the IRS certainly isn’t much help, besides being on hold forever. I have found NATP [National Association of Tax Professionals] to be very helpful, but that can also be costly,” adds another forum user and small business tax preparer known as “Tess.”
Also to help tax professionals find answers to their tax questions, Intuit has developed product-specific communities that can be accessed through each product Web site (Lacerte, ProSeries and QuickBooks), adds Jorge Olavarrieta, group product manager for full-service firms.
Last year, the software company added to its resource arsenal the E-file Atlas, available at both the Lacerte and ProSeries sites. This tool functions much like a news aggregator and provides accountants with information on sending e-filed returns, tracking returns, troubleshooting, IRS “drain times,” and a calendar of processing dates.
“Customers always have a number of questions on e-filing and that information was scattered in many places ... so we started taking that information and put it into Atlas,” says Olavarrieta.
When asked what tax resources she uses, ProSeries user Kathy Gipple, LPA, president of KG Consulting in Ankeny, Iowa, says Gear Up tax classes in November and IRS newsletters and e-news for tax professionals. “Gear Up deals mostly with new tax laws and e-news is a quick read on topics that you are interested in. I think the more information the better. I like things that have an index so I can scan and read what I need to,” says Gipple, who serves about 100 tax clients.
Looking to help industry members — especially independent tax professionals and tax business owners—share best practices and find answers to tax business questions, Charles McCabe, chief executive officer of Peoples Income Tax Inc., recently launched the new Tax Industry Talk blog. The first topic of discussion: “The AMT Patch Delay-Implications for the Tax Industry.”
“It is important for those in the tax industry to share ideas,” says McCabe, who, in 2003 founded the nonprofit organization National Alliance of Tax Business Owners, which represents independent tax business owners. “We can share best practices and share ideas on how to deal with issues and resolve them.”
When asked why he chose to develop a blog instead of another format like an e-newsletter or alert, McCabe says he “wanted to present the issues and create a dialogue among the community.”
“Many of these professionals want to remain independent rather than become a member of one of the national franchises. However, they are still affected by the same issues that impact the larger competitors,” says Catherine Mueller, EA, executive director of the NATBO, which currently has about 100 members representing more than 1,000 offices. “Resources such as Tax Industry Talk will enable them to benefit from the experiences of other professionals and to keep abreast of industry trends and issues that could potentially affect their business.”
One such tax professional who is benefiting from Tax Industry Talk is Jay Malik, EA, of Uncle Sam Tax & Accounting Corp. in Easton, Pa.
“What happens is we have a lot of resources we can get information from. The issues come in with running the business part. I think this [Tax Industry Talk] will be a great source for us,” says Malik, who is chief executive officer of the three-person firm that serves about 300 tax clients.
For example, when the news broke about the AMT patch delay, Malik turned to the blog for help. “How do we handle it with clients? What do we tell them? This is the kind of information that I got from [Tax Industry Talk],” Malik says.
Adds Mueller, “The ability of small operators to react faster to potential threats or opportunities than the industry giants is a major competitive advantage. However, in order to benefit from this advantage they must be aware of industry issues as soon as they appear.”
Thomson’s Teresa Mackintosh says her company is still experiencing a great deal of activity on its Accountants Resource NEtwork (ARNE) that was established as an electronic bulletin board for Creative Solutions users in 1986.
In addition to ARNE, the company keeps its clients in the know by sending out news bulletins through the homepage of its UltraTax CS software package. The vendor also has biweekly tax season e-newsletters that about 20,000 firms subscribe to for such information as tax tips and IRS updates. And on the Web site there is an area that houses e-filing guidelines for each state and entity.
“People need a filter and a way to catalog information without being overwhelmed,” says Mackintosh. “As a resource they like relying on each other, but when it comes to the software they like that in an email or product pages.”
In May 2006, Thomson Tax & Accounting announced that it had combined the PPC and RIA brands with its online tax research platform Checkpoint to provide users greater access to a wide range of integrated information. Checkpoint products integrate with other Thomson Tax & Accounting products such as UltraTax CS and GoSystem Tax.
Petz Enterprises is in the process of developing a searchable database of forms and publications that will be made available through its Web page. How it will work, according to Charles Petz, vice president of tax software development, is that it will enable clients working within the tax software to conduct an online search of the database without having to exit the tax software program. The database will likely be integrated into the software application during the fall for use during the next tax season.