[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]In the wake of the scandal involving alleged phone and email hacking by News Corporation, many tax and accounting professionals are invariably questioning the security of their own client communications.

Communicating with clients often involves conveying sensitive financial information through susceptible means, such as email and phone. One of the leading trends, and most reliable alternatives to traditional communication methods, is a client portal.

Why a Client Portal?
A client portal allows a client to log in securely and view all documents that have been imported into their file, including tax returns, financial statements, and other financial-related documents. Client portals also enable clients to upload scanned documents directly into their client file. Once inside the portal, clients are able to send and receive data directly to and from their tax and accounting business without using email, fax, phones, or couriers—saving time and money.

Instead of calling or emailing their accountant, clients now have the ability to directly send messages, schedule appointments, update contact information (address, phone number, and email), and obtain access to their balance, invoices, tax return status, and more. In essence, the client conveniently becomes part of a more transparent and efficient process.

More Reliable than Email?
Overall, client portals are generally more reliable than email, primarily for three reasons: security, the ability to send large files, and document and data organization. While no method of digital communication is flawless, the privacy and protection components of the client portal have advantages over standard email. Client portals are metaphorically like the “cone of silence” from the Get Smart TV show; in other words, the communication is only accessible to two parties, so opportunities for hacking, “listening in,” or being erroneously copied on an email are severely limited.

Speaking of old sitcoms, do you sometimes feel like you’re trapped on Gilligan’s Island while waiting for large files to download—and then waiting further for the email to send? Client portals to the rescue!

Portals typically allow files of any size to be uploaded instantly, which is not the case with most email accounts. Some email systems may allow files from 5-15 megabytes in size to be sent with little effort; however, most email systems will reject files that are larger, including QuickBooks files, multi-page PDFs of tax returns, and other bulk supporting documents. Another limitation of some email systems is the need to encrypt or password-protect files before sending them. Alternatively, a client portal will typically handle the encryption automatically.

Finally, in keeping with our sitcom theme, not everyone has a dependable secretary like Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies at their disposal to organize and catalog all of their emails. However, with a client portal, sending and receiving messages is now done through the portal instead. Email is reduced simply to a method of notification. Any time a new message or file is placed on their portal, a client receives instant notification via their personal or business email account. The email contains a hyperlink that will take them straight to the login page of their portal, where they will be asked to enter their client login name and password to access their portal’s main menu.

On the flip side, client emails within the portal will go directly into the preparer or accountant’s portal inbox, and any documents or information sent by the client are automatically placed in the client’s file without anyone lifting a finger. As a result, messages are instantaneously and securely stored and organized. And, best of all, there are no more worries about receiving distracting junk emails. The portal provides direct communication between the client and accountant, eliminating irrelevant emails.

Where Has All the Paper Gone?
Since the first tree was felled for paper, the paper industry has benefited greatly from the tax and accounting industry, which has traditionally thrived on duplicate copies of receipts, forms, more forms, documentation, and, well, more forms. Yet, increasingly, rather than reproduce mountains of copies to be added to mountains of files, tax preparers and accountants are opting to go paperless by transferring and collecting documentation through electronic means, such as a client portal. And, life with the client portal has become a real page turner, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Once a client’s documents are scanned and automatically placed into their electronic file, their hard copy paper work is returned to them. Accountants no longer have to provide paper copies to clients. Thus, the issue of a “lost W-2,” for example, is now non-existent. In fact, by scanning at the beginning of the process, you no longer need to ever retain a hard copy of your client documents. No more photocopies, no more hanging file folders. How does that sound?

Oh, but what happens if a client forgets a document or receipt? Easy. They can provide an electronic copy (without returning to the office) via the secure client portal—which puts the document directly into their file. This method is much more trustworthy than faxing in a copy, hoping it will be received and filed correctly. Not only is all of the scanning and filing via the client portal more convenient, it also helps save the environment and saves the tax and accounting business money on paper-related costs, i.e. paper reams, toner, bulk file purchases, cabinets, etc.

You’re Never Closed
The client portal also gives clients access to their tax return and accounting documents 24 hours a day, regardless of their location. The 24/7 feature is a major convenience for clients who have busy schedules, can’t always make time for a 9-5 office visit, or are located in a different geographical area.

Consequently, tax and accounting professionals can save money by avoiding overtime costs, all while providing exceptional, round-the-clock customer service. Just imagine that your client calls you on a weekend requesting a copy of their tax return, and with just a few clicks, you can provide them immediate access to their documents. How is that for great customer service?

Five-Star Rating
John A. Terris, Sr., co-owner of Padgett Business Service in Brunswick, Ga., transitioned his office to a paperless process and has noticed the marked efficiency that implementing client portals has brought to his business and clients.

“My clients think it’s great,” said Terris. “It saves them time from having to come to our office to get a copy of any tax return we have prepared for them. Further, it saves us time as we no longer have to search the office full of files for documents. It also saves us money since we’ve eliminated all of our paper-related costs.

“The portal has been such a bonus to our office,” he added. “We can now send our clients any document they need from our portal, as well as receive documents from them via their end of the portal—complete with encrypted files. It’s a fantastic service that I can offer my clients, one that is more reliable than any of the previous communication methods we employed. Once a business owner converts to the client portal, neither they nor their clients will ever want to return to the old ways.”

Whether it be the desire to provide easy access to clients’ information, that overdue goal of getting the firm paperless, or the need to rest assured that sensitive information is safe, secure, and backed up in the Cloud, client portals provide the means to make it happen. Most of all, the technology enables accountants to be more productive, which in turn helps them better serve their clients.

Kim Hogan is business development manager for accounting at Fujitsu. She can be followed on Twitter @ScanSnapKim or met in person at a number of accounting trade shows. She can be contacted at khogan@us.fujitsu.com. Mark Pricco, CPA, is the president and founder of ATOM Software, a company whose tax office management system helps accountants and tax preparers nationwide convert their offices to a paperless process. He can be reached at www.atomanager.com. He is also the president and founder of X-Tax, a Lansing, Mich.-based CPA, PLC, and tax services firm.