With online client portals becoming a more common tool for firms processing tax returns and providing compliance work, these solutions are now being employed for more diverse client needs and services. Portals and collaboration solutions are effective and increasingly adopted tools for storing and sharing client documents, from payroll data to bookkeeping files.

We talked to a cloud-based accounting firm, a bookkeeping and payroll practice and an international firm network about how their organizations are using three different collaboration solutions to serve their clients.

 

NO MORE TEARS

Firm: By the Book

Firm users: 6-8

Product: AccountantsWorld Cloud Cabinet

Commencement date: 2011

On record: Founder and managing director James Sosinski

Process: By the Book, which provides bookkeeping, payroll processing, tax planning and tax prep services, primarily uses Cloud Cabinet for payroll document storage and exchanges, while CPA firm Praschak & Sosinski, where Sosinski is managing partner, processes tax returns with the solution.

Both companies use the AccountantsWorld suite of products, providing a seamless integration into Cloud Cabinet, which automatically populates client data. The integration is especially useful for client data coming from AW’s Payroll Relief, Sosinski explained, though the flow of tax data has also created a more efficient busy season for the CPA firm.

“I’m stressing to people nowadays, I don’t need you, I need your documents,” Sosinski explained. “Please don’t come by …. It’s much more effective, in the electronic world, to get me your data so I can process review it so when we do meet, it’s more productive.”

The firm uses Cloud Cabinet, along with other AccountantsWorld and Thomson Reuters tax solutions, to gather data. And while a few clients still prefer to come by in person, others have discovered the benefits of remote engagement. “Just the other day, I had a client in tears who was moving to Florida, thinking they would have to get a new accountant,” Sosinski recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely not!’”

Still, the firm remains flexible: “We give clients options, we can’t just force them. [They] can pick one of six ways to get data, and the Cloud Cabinet option is for people who are more technologically comfortable.”

Sosinski described the implementation process as easy, with a quick set-up of clients in the system and activating the modules relevant for the services provided before the clients receive an e-mail to log in and create a password in the portal.

Advantages: Sosinski appreciates that Cloud Cabinet features separate, permission-based drawers: “There are two types of drawers, and we’re only sharing the public drawer … . We have total control of exactly what they see and have access to.”

Challenges: While most accounting systems will bring a report up in a system window, in AccountantsWorld that information, including check images, is presented as a PDF. Once Sosinski adjusted to that difference, however, he found the PDF format and automatic saving of them into Cloud Cabinet beneficial to his payroll clients, for whom that documentation needs to be handy.

Next steps: Sosinski plans to get more tax clients to see the value in processing their returns with Cloud Cabinet, which will take time and education: “Accountants should stop saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’ to clients and educate them; teach them better and more efficient ways to do things.”

 

ANYTIME, ANYWHERE

Firm: Peterson Business Services

Firm users: 3-5

Product: Citrix ShareFile

Commencement date: 2012

On record: Owner Kaydee Peterson

Process: As a cloud-based practice, Peterson Business Services uses a variety of cloud and hosted applications, with Citrix ShareFile serving a few key functions.

The firm uses the solution to transfer QuickBooks files that are too large for e-mail, and for audit and payroll documents. Peterson had previously explored using online storage service Dropbox, but found its structure of individual accounts with different passwords and the need to pay to even access the service less than optimal.

ShareFile, on the other hand, didn’t segregate access and offered “a package I could afford, for the size my business was.”

Advantages: The portal offers customized branding, and is directly linked through Peterson Business Services’ Web site, which also makes for an easy client access point to log-in.

And it fits the anytime, anywhere access that the firm promotes with its cloud-based services. “Web-based is the way of the world, with access from anywhere, and you can log in anywhere. Clients don’t have to have a flash drive to open files in an office.”

The firm can also manage permission levels by folder and subfolder, to separate out documents like those related to audit.

Peterson also touts ShareFile’s request feature, which automates e-mails with an upload link, instead of requiring her or her staff to manually write out an e-mail with instructions for sending the documents.

Challenges: Peterson’s “biggest pet peeve is the built-in document viewer,” which requires users to download a file to view it instead of offering a more efficient preview mode. “If I’m trying to find a document, I have to click on the PDF to see a preview.”

Next steps: Most urgently, the firm will form a more solidified and standard process for clients’ QuickBooks backup files. The firm uses ShareFile for those documents because Peterson has found that Intuit’s Accountant’s Copy File Transfer Service is not ideal in a hosted environment, though she will keep an eye on any changes to its functionality.

 

A GLOBAL PORTAL

Firm: Baker Tilly International (network)

Users: 5,000 in 40 countries

Product: Huddle

Commencement date: September 2014

On record: Business development manager Ria Aird

Process: As a global network, Baker Tilly International “needed a single collaborative platform” that could deliver on two key things, according to Aird: efficient and seamless collaboration between member firms and their clients, and the protection of that client data.

The 5,000 initial users conduct a lot of audit work through Huddle, as that is the network’s biggest service line globally, though Baker Tilly’s members have also “used it more and more in tax, for the compliance aspect. They are also using it a lot more in more complex areas: consultancy, advisory work.”

Advantages: Huddle’s FedRAMP accreditation (bestowed by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, a government program that standardizes security assessment, authorization and continuous monitoring for cloud products) was critical for its use in these data-sensitive services: “We can trot that out in front of clients: This is how secure your data is — it’s more secure here than your servers,” she said.

“Everyone liked [Huddle] — partners around the world are standing up and saying, we want to use this over our current system,” Aird said. In fact, many firms have set up Huddle for internal use as well.

A primary reason for this satisfaction is Huddle’s intuitive ease of use, according to Aird. Though Baker Tilly launched a training program, she deemed it almost unnecessary, as the average user can be “up and running within 10 minutes.”

Challenges: Baker Tilly’s obstacles have been “much less around the tool itself, but around the general challenges of a project like this,” Aird said. “To launch a single IT platform, across a huge footprint of independently managed organizations with their own systems, processes, language barriers and cultures.” Those particular challenges were why the network chose a cloud-based solution like Huddle.

Next steps: The number of current network firm users has already “smashed” Baker Tilly’s initial goals, with the network’s next target to double that user base to 10,000 in the next year, making Huddle a “global product, a first port of call for anyone.”