Time and Billing

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When The Going Gets Tough The Tough Get Smarter.

There's a great tendency, especially in smaller practices, to concentrate on getting the work out on time, and catching up on the business side of the business when time permits.

While that's a laudable client-oriented attitude, it doesn't help pay the bills, an increasingly important consideration in today's tough economic environment.

Partner Insights

Making the most out of scarce resources is paramount to surviving when things are tough. That means not only making sure that your staff is being used efficiently and effectively, but that your clients are getting the most for their money.

Revenue management is an important part of that equation. Without adequate cash flow, you simply can't run your business. And unless your clients are doing much better than most these days, they are also looking to stretch their dollars, putting them only where they have to and letting payables go for as long as possible.

Keeping tabs on your practice's receivables, making sure that clients are billed quickly and accurately, and do not fall too far behind in their payments, not only helps your practice, it also prevents your clients from getting over their heads in their payables to you, which often results in losing clients and large receivables write-offs.

Not every practice needs a full-blown practice management solution. And in these tight times, you don't want to pay for more than you really need. For many smaller or more straightforward practices, a time and billing package is a good solution. Not only is it usually less expensive than a full practice management application, often times it is easier to install, easier to configure, and easier to use day by day.

As a bonus, many time and billing applications can provide you data on staff utilization. While unpopular with staff, this information is necessary if your practice is going to survive and even prosper.

What You Need Is What You Get?

At its core functionality, time and billing applications are somewhat generic. They capture time spent by staff on a per-client and/or per-project basis, apply an applicable billing rate, and collect expenses appropriate to those tasks. That data is invoiced to the client where billable, and the receivables due or received are applied against the appropriate balances due.

Where differences in software packages become important is in how a particular package fits in with the way your practice works. Does the package accommodate the way that your practice bills fees? Most time and billing systems let you bill on an hourly or flat-fee basis, but some practices bill some or all of their clients or projects on a bill against a retainer or value billing basis. If your practice uses a less common billing method, you'll need to determine how easily a particular software package can handle this.

Data capture is another consideration. Many accounting practices have very mobile staff. Data entry is most efficient and accurate when it is performed as the service is rendered or the expense incurred. Selecting a package that supports remote data entry from a laptop or even smartphone will be a consideration for this type of practice.

Another area of difference is in reporting. Some of the time and billing applications that we tested provide only a basic set of reports with little or no flexibility for customization. If the selection of reports works for your practice, fine. If you think that you will need the ability to custom format reports, statements, and/or invoices, then the software that you select better have this capability.

Finally, a software package should ideally fit into the way that your practice operates, and not the other way around. In the real world, this happens only to a certain extent. But how much you have to change your practice's workflow and procedures to incorporate the time and billing software is going to have a large effect on how successful this integration is, and to what extent your staff will make use of the application.

To help you in this decision, we tested seven time and billing applications. Two of these are online SaaS applications, and were tested using the standard Windows IE7 browser over a high speed broadband Internet connection. All testing was performed on a Lenovo X200s laptop, a common dual core business configuration running Windows XP Professional, and the laptop was restored to base factory configuration before every install, so the install of each application was started out with a machine that was essentially "fresh out of the box."

Practice Relief

One of the hallmarks of a successful business is the ability to reinvent itself to suit a changing market. AccountantsWorld has done that twice. The first time was to shift from being a vendor of tax prep software to a vendor of accountant-oriented applications. The second was to move their applications onto the Web as SaaS (software as a service) offerings.

Practice Relief is the vendor's latest application and replaces Time2Money, AccountantsWorld's initial time and billing software. Unlike some of the vendor's other applications, which are available in both in-house and online versions, Practice Relief is provided only online, and is billed on either a yearly basis or if needed for a specific client or project on a month-to-month basis. Neither of these is particularly expensive considering that many other vendors charge for maintenance after the initial purchase and/or for yearly version upgrades.

Setting up Practice Management is easy. The application comes preconfigured with a large number of different types of tasks and projects already defined. Data entry is also easy, and you and your staff can perform this from anywhere that you have access to an Internet browser. AccountantsWorld includes a time-tracking wizard that can be installed on a PC or laptop. To use it, just pick a client and start the clock. When you stop the clock, you can enter notes if desired, and next time that you sign onto Practice Relief, the data will be downloaded and posted.

Practice Relief lets you enter expenses just as easily, and setting up a client for flat fee billing is a breeze. Navigation through the application is intuitive, and the need for staff training is minimal.

The included reports let you both manage the cash flow in your firm, and analyze both staff activity and client profitability. While there is a decent selection of reports, there isn't a large amount of customization that you can perform on them. Invoices are pretty conventional in appearance, and you can either print them or email them to your client.

Practice Relief isn't a particularly glitzy application. It's attractive, but very functional. That's fine, as Practice Relief isn't trying to be more than what it offers - an affordable and easy-to-use way to keep track of time and expenses, bill them out to clients and stay on top of receivables.

Bill4Time

Software as a Service, also known as SaaS, is becoming more popular, and Broadway Billing Systems is another vendor that provides time and billing in this format. Bill4Time is available only as an online application, and it's useable from pretty much any PC that uses a standard browser. Additionally, time and expense recording mini-applications called "widgets" are available for download which let you enter data into a laptop or PC and upload this data into the Bill4Time system at your convenience. These widgets are available in PC or Mac format, and are useful if you often find yourself at client sites where there is no easy access to the Internet. Also available are applications for a number of PDAs and smartphones such as a Blackberry or iPhone, which let you enter time and expenses from these devices.

As with many of the other Time and Billing applications reviewed here, Bill4Time is not specifically oriented to one profession, though legal terminology is used in the descriptions of some functions. In this release, "case" management has been updated to reflect client and project management.

Setup and configuration is no problem, and navigation through the system and data entry is also quite good. Most smaller practices which use time and billing, rather than more complex practice management, have fairly simple billing needs and Bill4Time provides hourly and fixed-fee billing, as well as contingency billing, a fee structure not used in accounting practices. It's easy to attach a file to a client record, which is useful if you want to maintain receipts for expense verification at a future time. Bill4Time also integrates with the Pro and Premier editions of QuickBooks, so getting your data from one application to the other is not a problem.

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