Advocates of value-added billing have been loudly declaring, at least for the last several years, that time & billing is an application that is no longer needed. Despite all of these protestations, T&B continues to sell very well, and has even added a vendor or two over the past five years or so. That's pretty impressive performance for an application that's supposedly way past its prime.There are a number of reasons for T&B's ongoing popularity. One is that perhaps the pundits are wrong. While value-added billing may make a lot of sense, time-based billing is still the prevalent method.
Another reason for T&B's continued life, however, is that even when your firm has primarily flat-rate or value-added billing clients, it's still important for you to know how much time is being expended on different client tasks. This is the practice management aspect of T&B, rather than the cash generation and flow emphasis. Value-added billing is a great concept, but for any practice to remain profitable, it's important that management be able to easily determine that they are not spending an inordinate amount of staff resources to generate the firm's revenue.
That's not to discount the revenue-generating aspects of T&B - the "B" in the name is very important. While some of your clients may be pretty good about sending your check, most won't think of it if they aren't reminded with a bill.
Timeliness in billing is an important part of the accounts receivable process. After all, if you can't be bothered to send a bill quickly, why should your client be any timelier about sending their payment?
Not always about the money
Actual staff productivity is another issue that both T&B and practice management systems address, though often with differing emphasis. Analyzing a staff member's time entries can uncover a misappropriation of staff experience and capabilities. The old cliché, "Time is money," is particularly true if you are billing for it. And if you aren't billing for your staff's time spent, you'll want to know if the unbillable time is being spent on necessary tasks such as staff development and general administration.
Even if it's not for your firm, you should be up to date on the latest time & billing software. There are numerous clients that would benefit from using the time-tracking and analysis capabilities of T&B software. For example, in many nonprofits, when an executive's time and efforts are spent in activities such as fundraising or training, that executive is required to record time spent on directly expensed tasks for audit and reporting purposes.
Some time-tracking applications don't have any direct connection with billing. For example, several high-end time-tracking applications are designed to provide data capture for other applications, including project management, payroll and job costing. If your clients include these types of operations, you'll want to be able to advise them on effective applications for their business.
Bells and whistles?
There are both differences and similarities in many T&B applications, and it's important to examine these as to how they fit with the way that you run (or want to run) your practice. If capturing data at the source as it occurs is important to your practice and you have staff that travels frequently, you'll want an application that supports remote data entry, either through the Internet or by using a PDA.
If distribution and reporting of time spent is important, you'll want an application that provides easy-to-use classification and reporting.
Keep in mind that none of the applications we tested require powerhouse PCs. They will all run very nicely, even on a computer or laptop that is several years old. Our testing was conducted on a small form factor 3GHz Pentium 4 PC that we keep for just this purpose, using Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 installed. In conducting our reviews, we installed the software and used the vendor-supplied sample client to add rates, employees, and time and expense data. We printed out many of the reports, and, where possible, tried to customize the boilerplate invoices and statement.
None of the applications tested were particularly difficult to install or configure. In planning an installation of a T&B system, however, make sure that you budget enough time. Most T&B set-ups require the data entry of a significant number of activities, rates and staff members. To ensure a smooth implementation, make sure that you have all of this data ready to input.
AccountantsWorld has an interesting history. Originally named Microvision Software, the vendor was best known for its tax preparation solutions. Almost a decade ago, it started developing additional accountant-centric applications to enhance its tax prep software. Over the years, it established a prime Internet portal for accountants called AccountantsWorld, changed its name to match the online presence, greatly expanded its solutions for accountants, and divested itself of its tax prep business. In retrospect, all of these were exactly the right moves, and AccountantsWorld has thrived very nicely over the years.
More recently, AccountantsWorld has been placing more emphasis on its online AccountantsOffice and other application service provider offerings. With the heavy adoption of broadband Internet by both accountants and their clients, this has also been a smart positioning of the vendor. Considering the volume of work that is accomplished at a client site, it simply makes sense to have the application directly available wherever the accountant is situated at the moment.
Time2Money is AccountantsWorld's T&B offering. As with a number of the products included in this roundup, the classification of Time2Money as a T&B application rather than a practice management application is rather arbitrary. While several of AccountantsWorld's applications are available as both ASP and in-house versions, Time2Money resides entirely online, including sample clients and documentation. The sole exception to this is Time2Money PocketPC. This is an application for Microsoft PocketPC-based PDAs to let users record time and expense data on a PDA, then sync this data with the Web-based application.
Time2Money is easy to set up and use. Screens are not as busy as most of the applications we tested, which helps out even when you have a broadband connection and is vital if your Internet connection is slower. You can enter up to five default billing rates, as well as custom rates for a particular bill. Tasks can be picked from a boilerplate list, and expanded with your own. In defining a task, you choose whether it is billed on an hourly or fixed basis.
Reports are very usable and can be printed in PDF format or in RTF or Excel format for further customization or analysis. There are only 13 of these reports, split between "clients," "staff" and "firm," but they do cover all the bases.
Depending on your needs and the availability of broadband connections in your office and clients, Time2Money is a very solid application that's applicable to both small and mid-sized firms. Pricing is based on the number of users of the application, with a per-user charge of $6.95 a month. This eliminates paying for user licenses that you don't use, which is often the case when you pay for bundled licenses priced at user levels.
BillQuick originally started its marketing via the shareware route, and the 30-day demo and free "Lite" versions are still widely available from many of the major shareware Web sites. The more comprehensive "Basic" and "Pro" versions, however, are available directly from BillQuick or from its network of VARs.
To some extent, BillQuick is a modular system. The "Basic" BillQuick 2005 application has an extensive feature set for timing and capturing task data, analyzing it, and both billing it out and reporting on it. BQE Software really doesn't target BillQuick to any specific professional market, and its marketing materials note that the application is suitable for attorneys, accountants, consultants, project managers, construction firms and other types of entities. As a result, the application is somewhat more generic in terminology and task set-up than some of the other programs we looked at. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are looking for the easiest set-up and configuration, some of the other vendors' packages were somewhat more accountant-oriented in this regard. On the other hand, if you are looking for a T&B-style front end for one or more of your clients, you may find BillQuick 2005's flexibility very much appropriate for that purpose.
BillQuick 2005 comes in three different editions. The Basic Edition is the one we reviewed and the most applicable for most small to midsized firms. The Pro Version is a multi-user network version of Basic, and is priced according to the number of users. BQE also offers a free version of the software, BillQuick Lite, for download on its Web site. The Lite version is really very similar to the Basic version, but lacks some of the customizability that the Basic provides. The reports in the Lite version can be altered using Crystal Reports 9, but this software is not included. The Lite version also doesn't have the extensive integration that Basic provides with applications such as Peachtree and QuickBooks, Microsoft SBA, Outlook and Intuit Complete Payroll.
That being said, the Lite version is very appropriate for a single practitioner or small partnership that wants a quick and easy way to bill clients and track receivables. The software itself is free, but if you need support, you'll have to pay the same $220-a-year support fee that is charged BillQuick Basic users, though a special 90-day support plan, priced at $95, is also available for Lite users.
We did not experience any problems setting up and configuring BillQuick, though the more generic nature of its boilerplate tasks might entail spending a little more time in initially creating your firm's task and rates list. Once you are finished with this, the nicely laid out screens let you navigate easily through the application, though the sheer volume of available reports is somewhat daunting to someone looking for basic time & billing. You can extensively customize these reports, as well as the invoice and statement templates that are included.
BillQuick "extras" considerably expand the capabilities of the software. There are add-ons for performing time and expense entry using Palm or PocketPC-based PDAs, and several Web-based utilities as well. Each of these is priced (and supported) separately, so you can build just the right application for your practice.
While many of the current T&B applications were actually designed for law practices, and adapted for use in an accounting or consulting practice, ImagineTime was designed from the bottom up by CPAs for other accountants, financial planners and consultants. The difference is subtle, but it's there if you look for it in the terminology and layout, which follow the way T&B is often handled in an accounting practice. The software was initially developed and marketed by Both Worlds Software, but ImagineTime was split off from the parent company last year, relocated from Florida to North Carolina, and renamed after its premier software product. Much of the staff and management relocated, so there is plenty of continuity in support and development.
ImagineTime eschews the flowchart-like navigation that's becoming the norm in accounting-oriented applications in favor of a simple comprehensive menu that groups tasks into four areas - data entry, reports that are run on a daily or monthly basis, reports that are management-oriented, and utilities. It isn't as glitzy as some of the applications we looked at, but it sure is easy to use and navigate through. This ease of use is evident everywhere in the application.
The pricing structure of ImagineTime allows you essentially to build your own application, paying for only those features that you want and will use. The basic application is priced from $295 for the single-user version, and includes remote data entry functionality in this version. This capability is priced separately in the multi-user edition.
By itself, the single-user package provides an excellent T&B system with fast data entry and a nice collection of very readable and usable reports. The included report generator lets you define the data fields to be used in the report and makes it easy to get only the particular data you are looking for. These reports can be exported into Word or Excel, which makes it easy to create custom reports and perform additional analysis, if needed.
In addition to the base system, ImagineTime offers three add-ons that are very much worth adding if you can use them. The first is an excellent due date monitor, which is a must in many accountable practices. Setting up tax due dates is a breeze, as is entering other client due dates. The due date monitor is available for $195, and is worth looking at even if you already use another vendor's T&B or practice management system. After all, you never want to have to explain to a client why you overlooked one of their due dates.
Another terrific add-on is the contact calendar and Outlook sync. If you currently use Outlook for your e-mail and contacts, this add-on gives you many of the features of a full-blown contact relationship manager application.
Finally, the Palm Pilot Integration, a $125 (for first user) add-on, lets you record time and expense data on a Palm-based PDA. PocketPC users, though, are still out of luck in this area.
As with several other vendors, ImagineTime provides a free demo for download on its Web site. It's very much worth downloading if you are in the market for a T&B system.
Time Matters7 including Billing Matters7 Plus Accounting
When Time Matters was first introduced several years ago, it was more a CRM and document management adjunct than a true time collection system. Over the intervening years, the calendaring and customer relationship features have been expanded with other features and functions that have transformed Time/Billing Matters into a true T&B system. Depending on your needs and the applications that you are already running in your practice, the modular system can be configured to provide time and expense capture either through direct data entry or tight integration with Microsoft Outlook, a Palm or PocketPC-based PDA, remote entry or even a BlackBerry.
As in the past versions, Time Matters provides terrific document and e-mail management, the ability to perform Lexis/Nexis research without leaving the Time Matters application (assuming that you have a Lexis/Nexis account), and extensive scanner support so that you can scan supporting documents into the Time Matters system.
If you need more, add Billing Matters or Billing Matters Plus Accounting. The Billing Matters application adds extensive invoicing and statement capabilities to the Time Matters base. It provides a full complement of accounts receivable and management reports, though these tend to be rather plain-looking when compared to those produced by some of the other vendors' packages. You can customize these by a fair amount by using the included filters, or export the report to Microsoft Word where you can really gussie the report up.
One feature of Time Matters including Billing Matters plus Accounting that really stands out is the ability to customize navigation panels. You can add and delete icons from all of the installed navigation panels, add your own icon bitmaps, and even re-order the menus. This lets you create a truly customized user interface. These custom interfaces can be global (for everyone who uses the software), or even individually customized for specific users.
The accounting aspect of Billing Matters plus Accounting isn't particularly extensive. There's a pretty nice general ledger (with its associated reports and financial statements), and expanded AR, and a very serviceable AP. If you need more capability from your accounting system, it's easy to link to other accounting packages, such as QuickBooks, Peachtree and even the new Microsoft Small Business Accounting package.
TimeMatters is not the least expensive T&B system that we reviewed, but it is among the most configurable and customizable of the group.
Strictly speaking, TimeSheet isn't a T&B application. Rather, it's a sophisticated time entry and analysis system that's generally meant to be used as a front end to another application. In some practices, this will be a mid-level or enterprise-level accounting system, which will actually perform the invoicing. In other uses, TimeSheet might be used to capture time and task information for a payroll system, eliminating re-keying before processing the pay period. In fact, this is such a popular use for TimeSheet that Sage offers payroll-specific and payroll services editions and an edition that is designed to integrate with Abra's Payroll system.
Another frequent use of TimeSheet is as a front end to many project management applications. Of course, both project management and payroll usually have their own data entry capabilities, but using TimeSheet allows not only capture of the task-oriented data, but extensive analytical functions as well, something that may not be as comprehensive in the application that the data is intended for.
TimeSheet comes in two versions - TimeSheet 100 and TimeSheet 500. The two are similar in functionality, but differ in the database systems they operate under. TimeSheet 100 is targeted at small to midsized businesses, and runs under the Microsoft Desktop Engine or Access database platforms. TimeSheet 500 uses Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle database platforms. TimeSheet 500 also provides a bit more customizability in the menu system and enhanced reporting options, though the comprehensive reports in TimeSheet 100 will meet many users' needs. Both editions can be configured to provide Web-based time and expense tracking.
Setting up TimeSheet was a bit more involved than the other applications we looked at. We had problems initially trying to install the application until we wiped the hard disk, reinstalled the operating system, and installed the software on a clean PC. During this process Sage's tech support was very helpful, but we think that the problem was ultimately a result of Windows Registry entries from prior software installs that were never cleaned from the registry.
Configuration is also more time-consuming than many of the other applications reviewed. This is an inevitable result of the very flexibility that TimeSheet provides. To take advantage of this flexibility, you'll have to spend more time setting data entry rules and parameters.
TimeSheet 100/500 is not overly expensive, but it is a very application-specific system. If you are looking to advise a client on a specialized front end for their other applications, it is very definitely worth considering. You will probably need to look elsewhere, though, if you are looking for a strict time & billing application.
Timeslips 2006 by Sage
Sometimes a product achieves a generic status by being popular for a long time. In the consumer marketplace, some of these products are "Scotch tape," which is a trademarked brand name for adhesive tape, and "Kleenex," actually also a trademarked brand name for a paper tissue. In the software market, Sage's Timeslips has also become almost a generic term for T&B. Part of the reason is because the product takes its name from the paper format and method of time and billing that was most popular before PCs came into the picture. The other reason is because the product has been around for almost 25 years, and in terms of units sold, is probably the most successful application of its ilk.
As is true of many of the T&B products on the market, Timeslips was first developed for lawyers. Many accountants learned about Timeslips from attorneys that they dealt with, and adopted the application as well. The original vendor of the software (Timeslips Corp.) was quick to see the value of expanding the market, and made Timeslips more adaptable to any type of business where time was recorded and billed at different rates. While Timeslips Corp. is long gone, the Timeslips application continues to remain popular, and is pretty much the only one of the packages reviewed in this roundup which is available off the shelf.
The original version of Timeslips was simply a computer emulation of the manual process. You filled out little paper "slips" on the computer screen for time or expenses distributed to specific clients and tasks. The computer than made the distribution, maintained client balances, and produced statements and invoices. That model is still being used more than two decades later, by both Timeslips and its competitors. The process has been greatly streamlined and enhanced over the years. Data entry screens are designed so that multiple time and expense entries can be made quickly, and the process largely uses drop-down pick lists that have been previously set up, though it's not difficult to add customers, staff, rates or tasks on the fly.
Timeslips was also the first T&B application to provide pop-up timers so that your staff can track time spent on client matters in real time. Multiple timers can be launched, and the timers can feed data directly into the base application to eliminate the need for re-keying. Other vendors have embraced this feature over the years, but Timeslips still offers one of the best implementations of task timers. You can even install the TSTime utility so that your staff has access to the timers without having to launch Timeslips, or even have the base application installed on their system.
With accountants (and lawyers) being exceptionally mobile professionals, Timeslips has other features that make it easy to capture T&B data at the source. There is a remote data entry capability and an optional module for Pal-based PDAs. PocketPC PDAs are supported by third-party developers.
In fact, the huge base of third-party developers that has grown up around the product over the years is another good reason to consider Timeslips. Chances are, if you or a client needs something special in the way of a report or interface with another application, there is a third-party developer who has already created it.
Timeslips itself has excellent links to many popular accounting systems with its TAL (Timeslips Accounting Link). As with prior versions of Timeslips, there is very tight integration with Outlook, so that you can schedule appointments and other tasks in Outlook and have the data transfer into Timeslips for billing.
We found Timeslips easy to install and set up, with a nice selection of predefined tasks. Considering that Timeslips is generally thought of as a T&B application, rather than full practice management, there is a very comprehensive collection of reports, all of which can also be exported to a word processor for further editing and customization. You can also "print" a report, invoice or statement in PDF format, which makes it easy to e-mail. An Excel export is also provided that makes ad hoc and custom analyses easy to accomplish, and there is an extensive amount of report customization available, including numerous filters, as well as a report design tool for creating your own reports.
This customization also extends to data entry, where you can hide unused fields to speed up the keying process.
One really interesting feature that Timeslips offers is a "memory" of sorts. The application keeps track of what features you don't use, and after a moderate period of time, if you haven't used a feature, the "Smart Configuration" asks you if you want the feature disabled. Over time, you wind up with a very streamlined application, though you can recall a previously hidden feature if you find that you now need it.
As with many Sage accounting products, Timeslips offers an executive dashboard-type display, called Timeslips Today, that gives you an overview of firm data that you may want to track on a daily basis.
Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.
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