Tech Tools for Peanuts

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Applications for firms and their clients don't have to break the bank.

Mike Marolt, a high-altitude skier who climbs 8,000-meter peaks around the world every six to 12 months, sometimes leaves his small Aspen, Colo.-based firm for two months at a time.

He's not Superman, but he does have the ability to look at his clients' computers from places untouched by most regular men using GoToAssist Express from Citrix Online.

Partner Insights

"Commonly I'll be out on a mountain top and there are certain things that are time-sensitive. I can tap into the system, run a payroll and pay the taxes. It allows me to be away and not impede on the business," Marolt says. "To leave for any more than two weeks was a huge risk to your practice and it was stressful. With this product it's hardly an issue."

Marolt beta-tested GotoMyPC a few years ago, but recently started using GoToAssist Express, which eliminates the need to load the program on each of his client's computers as long as they grant him permission to remotely tap into their computer the first time he uses it with them.

It costs $69 per month, or $660 annually, but a 24-hour pass is available for $9.95 for accountants who only need to use it on occasion, according to the company.

He often uses it to check in with his junior staff, eliminating some of the anxiety they may experience otherwise if he were out of the office for that long, and letting them watch him fix things so they could take over next time around. For example, he could show them how to adjust an entry in a tax return or change a pay rate for an employee.

"If they're at a computer, they can follow me as I fix the problem. I'm also training them, which is an essential one of the principals we have to adhere to," he says.

It also let Marolt hang on to a staffer who moved to Steamboat, 300 miles away.

"With the product, she was able to keep working for me and in fact increased her hours," he says. "It didn't result in us losing a great employee and CPA."

Yes, even firms that remain financially sound despite the economy don't want to throw tons of cash into technology investments. They're watching their dollars just like every other industry and want to ensure that the money they spend yields a return to their bottom line.

Digging deep into hidden treasure chests to discover some of the low-cost (and free) tools accountants are using to save time or money for their firm or for their clients, the findings run the gamut - from GotoAssist to access client files online to basic Web sites and blogs for better marketing to tools for managing IT security and an array of free Google apps.

And the same tools can be used for different purposes. Jacomien Ford uses GotoAssist to stay in her Toronto office instead of traveling to help her clients sort out their problems with Simply Accounting by Sage, most of which boil down to errors by new users or those who are attempting to do things they normally don't do.

"In the old days, I'd talk them step by step through it with the program open in front of me, but even then sometimes they'd miss it or I'd have to make an appointment to come in and spend half a day there," Ford says. "Now they just call me and say, 'Can you come online and look at my computer.' I can see their screen or I can switch it around so they can see mine if I'm teaching. Everyone I used it with loved the program."

Ford used to bill for millage and time spent out of her office, but essentially lost money on the driving time and the "short" phone calls that could add up over time because she didn't track them.

"Express gives me a report with the date and tracks my time when using it, and at the end of session I can add notes to remind myself of what we did," she says. "You can download that in various forms, especially with Excel, which I can manipulate and add to the client file."

Intuit created a similar product, QuickBooks Remote Access powered by WebEx, which Ruth Perryman uses to work with her clients' files. The QuickBooks Specialists is based in Roseville, Calif., but Perryman has been increasing her work outside the state as a result of her online marketing efforts. Because many clients never met her in person, they feel more comfortable giving her access only to QuickBooks files instead of their entire systems and she's not offended by their caution - actually, she recommends it.

She does like using "always-on" access for some of her clients so she and her consultants can schedule after-hours or weekend work as to not interrupt the clients' daily activities.

It starts at $3.95 per month per computer for just QuickBooks files and $7.95 per month for all applications.

Perryman uses SmartVault - which is free for accountants and starts at $19 per month for client licenses - to transfer paperwork back and forth and attach statements to QuickBooks files. She also uses the QuickBooks Contact Sync for Outlook, a free, downloadable application that transfers data to and from both QuickBooks and Outlook.

"I used to have to enter it twice or copy and paste it and it took forever," Perryman says. Now she just clicks a "sync" button. "It's cool and free. I recommend it to my clients, too."

Recommendations and Rewards

That's not all she recommends.

Perryman has a roster of Intuit products she recommends to her clients who are looking to save money.

Among them are Intuit Merchant Services (whose monthly service fees range from roughly $10 to $20), Assisted Payroll (which is based on the number of employees and payroll frequencies, among other factors) and WorkTrack TimeCard for QuickBooks Payroll, which starts at $8 a month per user for her clients who spend a lot of time on the field.

Intuit is hoping more accountants will follow Perryman's lead as part of the vendor's Power to Get More Done campaign.

"I spend a lot of time working with accountants and trying to encourage them to make recommendations to their clients for tools that could save the clients time and money," says Devin Webb, senior marketing manager.

Since January, Webb has been focusing on free tools Intuit offers to help small businesses get through this tough economy.

For example, they can download a free edition of QuickBooks Simple Start to track sales and expenses and create invoices, get Intuit Online Payroll free for six months (then it's $9.95 per month), and put up a free Web site for 12 months ($4.99 per month thereafter).

There's also a hodgepodge of free online resources and a community for small businesses owners to connect with each other about ways to start out and grow at http://community.intuit.com.

Sage is singing a similar tune, relying on its accountants' network to pass on information about free tools and online resources the vendor introduced in April for small businesses, a market Sage typically has not pursued.

At the center of this initiative is SageSpark.com, and the featured free product is Billing Boss, for creating, sending and tracking invoices. It also lets customers pay companies online using a credit card or PayPal account and is available in seven languages.

"It's for people who aren't interested in an accounting system," says Rob King, vice president of small business marketing for Sage. The way Sage hopes to make money from this venture is that those people will want some of the services offered on SageSpark.com, such as online marketing, merchant services including direct deposit and IT support.

"They are willing to pay for things like a virtual helpdesk to get thier computer running for $60 per month installing and maintaining security updates," King says. When they encounter problems, they can call a toll-free number for immediate support from 9 to 5 in their time zone, though Sage is looking to expand that to 24-hour service at a steeper price tag.

Small businesses can set up a basic Web presence, which serves more like an online business card, for about $100 a year.

"We register a domain name and submit to 20 local search engines. This gives them great exposure in the local market," King says.

Sue du Pay, a Sage Certified Trainer and Simply Accounting Certified Consultant based in Cambridge, Canada, already is recommending Billing Boss to her clients.

"I'm putting it out there to all businesses, even if they are using accounting software. Invoicing is always a paint point. All the information is there for them to process or enter in the accounting system," she says.

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