Whether it's in the middle of tax season or during an audit, accounting firms are increasingly discovering that having automated workflow is far superior to a paper or PDF checklist system.
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Moreover, whether it is embedded in a document management system or as a standalone overall workflow tool, firms are discovering how essential an automated system is to the life of their practice. Below, five firms discuss how they chose the workflow system they currently work on -- and the results.
Building their own
Firm: SRH Financial Consultants Inc. / Irvine, Calif.
Size: 6 staff
Commencement date: January 2011
On record: Owner Saeid Hirbodi
Challenge/objective: Found that 90 percent of overall time during tax season went into collecting information from clients, and wanted a system to get clients more involved in the accounting work, as well as improved productivity and profitability.
Amount spent/costs: There is a corporate and a client portal; corporate portal is set up free for accountants, $19.95 per client per month on the system. Includes nine hours training over three days.
Process: The firm knew it needed a workflow solution for a number of things, not the least of which was the busy tax season, but Hirbodi was not finding exactly what he wanted out in the market, so he decided to build it, starting with a client portal and ultimately adding a workflow component.
"I needed [a system] that identified what the document is, what the status of that document is and if I see a journal entry, what is the source document associated with that journal entry," said Hirbodi. "I just didn't see any of that at the time and I wanted to show that every transaction completed by a workflow is backed up by a document."
After gaining some initial client acceptance, he saw the potential to offer Orglow to other accounting firms and other trusted business partners, such as attorneys and insurance brokers.
Results: SRH currently has 1,000 users on Orglow and uses it for write-up work, forensic accounting, compliance audits, and sales tax collection. "In my office, I have created a workflow to a point where I can see how a document travels in my office, and there are times -- like in January and February -- where everyone is sending in financial statements where I can outsource work to some bookkeepers and we can still all work on Orglow and not have to e-mail files back and forth," said Hirbodi.
In addition, when SRH started Orglow, the firm had 90 write-up clients; it now has 175 and no need to add any staff, space or computers. In addition, customer calls to the office are reduced dramatically and SRH is able to charge write-up clients $500 a month for those who use Orglow, versus $250 when they did not have it.
Next steps: Hirbodi wants Orglow to ultimately be a place where electronic financial records exist and users can collaborate with a professional team. He also wants other firms to utilize Orglow and is currently looking for "significant investment" from a strategic partner to help roll it out more.
Looking to improve
Firm: Halt Buzas & Powell Ltd. / Alexandria, Va.
Size: 40 staff
Product: FirmFlow (ThomsonReuters)
Commencement date: October 2011
On record: Manager Carol Mount
Challenge/objective: Needed more user-friendly progress reports and better due date monitoring, as well as improved efficiency.
Amount spent: Starts at $110 a month for five users and unlimited number of workflows.
Process: The firm already had experience with an automated workflow system, but through upgrades the system had become much more complex than necessary; the audit staff also became particularly hampered. "With all of the upgrades that the vendor made to the system, it was basically like trying to drink from a fire hose, plus we lost all of our customizations when they did the upgrade, so it was like starting over," said Mount.
The firm found out about FirmFlow and GoFileRoom as it had been using other ThomsonReuters products for tax research and audit work. An implementation representative came to the office for two days to go through the firm's processes, setting expectations and finding out how documents were currently saved and received. The representative also spent individual time with the heads of the firm's IT department, as well as the audit and outsourced accounting departments, and administrative staff.
Mount explained that the largest challenge was the data migration from the existing system to GoFileRoom and FirmFlow. "We had to make sure we were not losing workflows not completed from the previous product, so we ended up doing the data migration in two phases," explained Mount. "Everything we did through December went in, and then we did another migration in 2012. We were able to go live and use it full-time by January."
Mount also said that since there were different workflows for tax, audit and outsourced accounting, the firm made certain that the heads of those departments weighed in on the design of their workflows.
Results: After nearly a full year of working with GoFileRoom and FirmFlow, Mount claims that everyone at the firm was pleased with the new system, especially the audit department. "The audit department's downtime was significantly reduced, and overall we're feeling more efficient. If a return comes in the door, the right person gets an alert and can assign it to a review pool or individually to get the work done," said Mount. "It's also easy to see how long a 1040 is in an inbox, versus looking around the office to check with individuals on what I'm still waiting for."
Next steps: The firm would like to customize FirmFlow more and perhaps expand its use in other practice areas, but the main issue going forward will be having everyone use the system in a more uniform way. "Sometimes people don't always adhere to where we're supposed to save things and we need to make sure we're all compliant," said Mount. "Business returns get saved in one place, tax returns in others, and we need to reinforce firm standards in terms of what to save where."
Firm: Sally Lindberg & Associates / Clearwater, Fla.
Size: 14 staff in tax season/10 off-season
Product: Office Tools Pro
Commencement date: Fall 2010
On record: Controller Julia Rhodes
Challenge/objective: Despite being small, the firm's tax practice was having difficulty tracking the flow of files and information, with no one having a set process or knowing who was working on what.
Amount spent: Approx. $5,000 with licenses and two-day training.
Process: The firm had struggled with workflow processes for many years, and at one point hired an individual to come up with some standard processes, but knew they needed more. Then in 2009 Rhodes attended the National Association of Enrolled Agents annual tax practice seminar, where she saw a demo on Office Tools Pro. She was very impressed and spoke to the firm's owner, who had also seen the product at a previous conference but didn't think Rhodes or anyone at the firm would buy into it.
Rhodes decided to call the Office Tools Pro representative she met to give a demo to some select staff members. "They were all blown away by what it could do," she said, and the firm made the purchase shortly after.
The representative came to the firm's office for training and to help set up workflows. It took an entire tax season of moving returns through the new processes for everyone to fully embrace Office Tools Pro.
Results: The product helped save time, but efficiency and knowing how paper is moved around and the status of projects was even more important. The firm was also able to centralize information that is shared among accounting staff, including project status and essential client information. "We are a small firm and it's very important we have client information centralized, so if we need to make payroll tax payments or do any compliance work, a staff person no longer has to go to an office and pull documents; it's now in a database with easy access," said Rhodes. "Another nice thing is that a client will call and ask when a return will be done and the receptionist doesn't have to chase down a file or staff member. They can now answer them in detail."