In 2008, payroll is a more challenging service than ever before. There’s more competition in the marketplace, falling prices among some vendors, and a possible recession that’s spelling leaner times for the core market for these products, small to medium-sized enterprises. Starting just a few years ago, competition on the basis of features gave way to competition solely on price, a sure sign that consolidation and lower profitability lay ahead for vendors of payroll services. In the past year, this price-only competition has been compounded by the re-energized entry of Intuit with a QuickBooks-centric product and the entry of nearly every major bank in the country into the payroll business.
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This leaves accounting firms that are performing payroll for their clients a choice of three major strategies for the years ahead:
Exit the business. This is not necessary, given the number of businesses that don’t want to deal with payroll themselves. But it is one that some firms will have to consider as prices fall and competition rises.
Do the limbo. This is the middle ground, in which accountants continue to offer payroll services at a profit by following those vendors who will take their prices to the lowest possible levels. It's a valid strategy, but care must be taken not to get stuck with a payroll services vendor that lowers prices by so much that it folds, goes so low that they fold.
Expand the business. This is the more likely choice for many firms. The addition of human resources services can enhance payroll-only services and build a platform for a more secure client relationship in the future. To achieve this and protect profitability, accounting firms will need to stay abreast of technological changes, such as the move to Web-based services, electronic filing and payment at the state level, and become more versed in the more legally-oriented HR processes.
While some prices are clearly dropping, other vendors are expanding into HR services. Overall, our review of eight top-shelf products in this market reveals strong choices in all three strategies.
Paychex Online, a tightly-integrated suite of Web-based services, offers exceptional, live human support to its robust and easily navigated service.
The online site itself features multiple rates of pay, complex deductions, integrated 401(k) benefits support and workers’ compensation and offers integration with a host of other accounting applications, including an interface to post payroll data into general ledger programs, including Accpac, Creative Solutions, MYOB, Peachtree and QuickBooks.
In addition to stronger layers of security, recent enhancements have focused on the Paychex Online Message Center and Dashboard. Message Center users will see new sections and links such as “Tools for Managing Your Business,” “Resources,” and “Paychex News.” The dashboard has evolved, presenting customized content that ranges from secure access to data and forms to other information and services. Accountants will receive specialized content and links from Paychex while continuing to rely on the Message Center for client-specific information on products and services. Additionally, accountants may choose to direct their clients to the message center to access an array of information and services.
A wealth of reference material is supported by educational programs in 14 practice areas. There are even referral sources for employee assessment, pre-employment screening, health insurance and other small business services. And a General Ledger Reporting Service provides the option to concatenate multiple files into a single file prior to downloading the payroll data into the accounting package, useful for accountants who have multiple clients using Paychex payroll products.
Paychex has been selected by American Institute of PA Business Solutions as the preferred provider of payroll and retirement services for CPAs and their clients through 2011. Participating CPAs are offered service discounts and guarantees which they alone can pass along to their clients. Its well-crafted interface, award-winning performance and compatibility with a wide range of accounting systems make Paychex Online a strong contender in an equally strong marketplace.
Paychoice Payroll Suite
Paychoice has worked hard to move beyond its roots as a service bureau and address the growing needs of small businesses in the areas of time management and human resources. To that end, the company has repositioned its products into five general categories and launched two new major brands in its PayChoice Payroll Suite and PayChoice HR Suite.
The five categories of products and services encompass payroll and reporting; tax filing and compliance; HR and employee management; benefits solutions, including workers compensation, retirement and 401(k), and flexible spending accounts; and payroll extras that include time and attendance, custom reports, debit cards, merchant services and identity theft protection.
The payroll suite is geared to the small business that needs payroll calculations and tax management, compliance and HR tools, and features the ViewChoice customer reports generator for reports on cash analysis, check register, tax liability, timesheets, a simple GL report and vacation-sick balance. Also included are direct deposit, debit card and custom check logo support, as well as an HR support center with forms and letters, sample employee handbook, and HR laws.
The HR suite adds employee self-service, the PayChoice Online Employer HR Suite, online timesheets, expanded HR tools and access to HR Consultants. While the payroll elements are largely the same for both suites, the HR suite offers additional ViewChoice Online reports (including departmental summaries) and HR elements that include Asset Management.
Payroll Associates has made a striking move in the right directions with its latest product lineups, though the lack of information and pricing data will make it more difficult for accounting firms to place it at the top of their list for consideration. But for depth and breadth, PayChoice Payroll Suite of the expanded Human Resource Suite are product lines worthy of attention in the payroll arena.
PayCycle Accounting Professionals program is the next generation of the company’s efforts to further expand into accounting partnerships with a wholesale offering. It combines the best elements of the PayCycle Wholesale Service and PayCycle Client Retail Service in a fast, simple and cost-effective program that has proven increasingly popular with accountants serving small business clients with up to 50 employees.
In addition, there is a 1099 e-file service that operates without special forms, filing up to 50 forms per client for a single charge and supporting boxes 1, 7 and 14.
PayCycle has moved firmly to the Internet, offering accountants the choice of running payroll under their own banner and offering a client portal with the accounting firm’s brand; or setting up clients to handle their own payroll with the accounting firm retaining remote access to the client data.
The system handles the full range of payroll functionality, from paychecks to requisite government filings, in a simple but effective interface. Once completed, the payroll detail including both paychecks and tax information can be downloaded to QuickBooks, QuickBooks Online, QuickBooks for Mac, Quicken, Microsoft Money, Peachtree, the ATX accounting suite or CCH ProSystem fx Write-up.
PayCycle is a product that combines a simple, low-cost solution with continuing development and evolution. Though to geared toward the expansion into HR services, it is nonetheless one of the most appealing solutions for its accounting-centric design and ease of use.
Payroll Relief, an accomplished and well-structured payroll system, makes maximum effect of its Web-based architectures and its accounting-centric orientation.
The result is a system that has taken leadership in the marketplace for low-cost, high-value client services. Clients or their accountants enter the basic data, and the accountant provides full services from check printing and direct deposit to electronic and other payments.
It’s a particularly robust service, featuring data entry by the accountant or by clients, a wealth of forms and publications to assist in the technical details of payroll, and a payroll management center to assist firms in managing larger payroll practices. Sporting an attractive light-green interface and navigation via top-screen icons or menus, Payroll Relief does a credible job of covering the basics and more in a Windows-look-and-feel application.
Recent enhancements include the addition of a secure employee portal that allows employees to check information, pay stubs and W-2s; support for contractor payroll with generation of the 1099-MISC at year’s end; and after-the-fact payroll support. Other significant enhancements in recent months have been the addition of payroll debit cards; expansion of e-filing capabilities, including automatic e-filing of all supported forms; and the addition of 401(k) Relief, the first step in the company’s expansion into HR services with support of full-service retirement and benefits planning services.
In addition, the company has staked its position in the marketplace by introducing two fixed-fee options. The first enables accountants to process up to 5,000 paychecks for a cost $1 per paycheck. The second option offers processing of up to 20,000 paychecks for volume processors at a cost of 50 cents per paycheck.