Thankfully, the days when a CPA or CPA firm had to acquire dozens of disparate applications to manage its practices are over. Now it’s unusual for firms not to focus their software usage on a full suite of integrated programs. Typically, these programs readily share data between the members of the software suite and provide shared data entry. Most practice management systems have a high level of integration. The days of remembering to enter a client name and address update to time and billing, then to scheduling and again into the mailing list are gone. And if you’re still doing that type of tedious data entry, keep reading because one of these suites of products may save you from having to hire and train a full-time data entry clerk.
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What is a suite and what should you expect? Suites are shorthand for the concept of integration. You should expect that by purchasing a software suite you’ll save on redundant data entry—you enter data once and it flows everywhere it needs to be updated. The smartest practice management suites also link directly to tax preparation and scheduling software. If you need to import or export data in order to share it with other suite modules, then you’re being sold a bill of goods. True suites integrate and share their data without any effort by your staff.
The components most commonly found in practice management software are time and billing, project management, due-date tracking, reporting and administrative features such as mailing lists and contact management.
When reviewing the individual systems listed, here are some of the key features to keep in mind. Their use can significantly increase productivity in your firm.
Dashboard. The dashboard is a fairly new concept which rehashes a really old tool. The concept is to take a report and present it graphically—and call it a dashboard. Typical data that you could expect to see on a dashboard would vary by employee level. A data entry clerk, for example, may see a dashboard that shows missing time sheets or time that is below the standard number of total hours for a week, while an executive may be presented with a dashboard showing aged receivables, un-billed work in process or other similar higher level data. Ideally, you should be able to customize these dashboards by the role of the person who will be viewing them.
Report writer. Since no two CPA firms are alike, you’ll almost always wish that you could either tweak the included reports (add a field, hide data or manipulate sorting) or create your own customized reports. The easiest way to do this is via the use of a custom report writer to modify an existing report. The standard report writer used by many systems is Crystal Reports by Business Objects, which is user friendly and also offers a lot for power users. Some practice management suites rely on their own report writers. However, these tend not to be as full- featured. It can also be more difficult to find and hire someone with the skills to use a proprietary report writer.
Remote access/thin client. There are two main ways to remotely access programs. The first is via the quick, cheap and easy method of gotomypc.com or logmein.com. Both are easy to set up. The downside is that you must dedicate one active machine for each remote user. For this reason most firms turn to Citrix or Terminal Server, which allow multiple remote users to dial in simultaneously to one host computer. While remotely connected, each user sees the desktop as if they were controlling it locally. The administration of such remote sessions is generally easier the more users that you have. At a minimum, you should ensure the suite you are eyeballing supports both Citrix and Terminal Services.
Time and billing. Most practice management suites include a time and billing package. Those that don’t have a native solution should include a seamless link to a billing package. If the company doesn’t offer its own time and billing and instead states that it “links” or “exports” to another system, ask lots of questions. Inquire about exactly what is required to create the link (is it an export to Excel and a subsequent import?). If data import routines need to be created, then have a clear understanding of whose responsibility it is to create the import routine.
Standard reporting. The availability of a custom report writer is always a desirable feature. Additionally you want to make sure that any existing canned reports are flexible enough that you can modify parameters (sort, select, adding columns) without resorting to custom reporting. The system should provide a base level of reporting that is flexible enough that most of your staff does not need to attend report writer training just to tweak the report slightly.
Integration. Enter data once. Have it flow everywhere. That’s what a good practice management solution does. When you change a client’s address in the billing portion of your system, it should flow to tax reporting, due-date reporting and project management. The market has become sophisticated enough that integration like this should be expected.
Scheduling and project management. Having a central place to store and track client due dates is vital. Again this is the spot where a full integration to practice management software pays. When data is shared between applications you’ll suddenly find that keeping track of deadline-intensive tasks is a snap. The best due-date trackers will allow for various ways of alerting your staff to pending deadlines. The ability to alert staff via email to pending tasks is something you should require.
The approach that Knowledge Concepts takes to practice management is both unique and innovative. Founded in 1996 by noted practice management guru Tom Davis, Knowledge Concepts has created practice management software that works the way most firms do, with a strong focus on work in process and accounts receivable.
Instead of incorporating a complex time and billing program, Firmworks interacts with your existing billing system to create dashboard-like monitoring screens. The software continuously imports and synchronizes billing data so firm billing information is always up to date. There is also an area to enter time transactions, which are then ushered out via the Firmworks’ interface to the time- and-expense-entry portion of your time and billing software.
The four areas of Firmworks’ focus are practice development, resource management, firm management and, most importantly client service. The Practice Development features build in the best points of leading CRM (Customer Relationship Management) packages and allow you to track leads, manage opportunities and even make forecasts as to when business is expected (hoped) to close. With these tools, firms can pro-actively manage the most important parts of their practices. A centralized area holds all of the promotional documents that the firm’s marketing efforts might require, including proposals and firm brochures.
Knowledge Concepts has just significantly beefed up the software’s scheduling portion so that task assignments can originate within Firmworks. An email can be sent to the employee, and simultaneously be transferred into that employee’s Outlook calendar. Scheduling data is also retained within the application so that an employee or manager can instantly view the pending workload of any employee for any day. All synchronization between Outlook and Firmworks happens automatically and in the background.
The software is hosted at your company. Since it uses a Web browser to access the data, the remote capabilities for accessing your data are pretty flexible. During testing, I was able to log into the Firmworks test software via my MacBook Pro and Firefox Browser. This is not an officially supported configuration and you’ll have some issues if you try to use a Mac to integrate with other programs like Office. But it’s an excellent example of the flexibility and power built into the Firmworks foundation.
Lexis Front & Back Office
By packaging together Time Matters with Billing Matters, LexisNexis can meet the needs of many of the smaller firms without a need to integrate more deeply into tax or audit software.
While the focus of LexisNexis is the law firm market, its practice management tools can translate to a CPA firm with a little tweaking and a willingness to wade through some of the legal terminology.
Time Matters is the program in charge of your front office work-flow. It manages the collection of critical client name and address data, contacts and calendars (scheduling) and also integrates to mobile devices. Mobile access to data is supported via the use of the Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Palm PDA.