Case Studies: Client portals in 2018

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It’s tax season, and practitioners are in the thick of collecting client information and sorting through documents. Client portals are vital not only to facilitate the exchange of information, but also to maintain the security of that information.

Below, four firms share their experiences.


Product: SmartVault

Firm: Powerful Accounting LLC

Staff users: 3

Start date: 2011

Cost: Starts at $30 per user per month

On record: CEO Dawn Brolin

Objective: Dawn Brolin is a tech aficionado, and uses a vast suite of solutions at her firm, Powerful Accounting. The firm uses a couple of different document management products, but wanted a true portal to interact with clients. SmartVault fit the bill because, according to Brolin, at the time the firm searched in 2011, it was the best product on the market.

Implementation: Brolin said that SmartVault’s onboarding process is “very good,” as long as the firm pays close attention. The company places emphasis on its folder structure, and the firm should work closely with the onboarding team to set up client folders in a way that works best for it.

“When we first set up, we had client folders all over the place,” Brolin said. “I said, wait a minute, our tax preparers don’t necessarily have to be involved in that whole structure. Let’s keep it simple. So our tax people now have a tax vault ... and each tax client has a vault.” SmartVault allows the firm to set up divisions, so Powerful Accounting has a tax vault, a small-business vault, an IRS representation and fraud case vault, and so on.

On the client side, everything is similarly clearly delineated, so a client who has a personal return but also their tax business with the firm can see both sets of data, but each in their own separate section.

Advantages: SmartVault integrates with QuickBooks, allowing attached receipts to sync between the programs, a major advantage in Brolin’s eyes.

“I also love the control we have over what the client sees,” she said. “We do have internal folders they can’t see; we control what vaults they can upload documents into. We learned over time that it’s not good to let your clients have rogue access to the portal.”

Challenges: “[Software providers] all get really uptight about it all being in the cloud, but it would be great for clients to get one big PDF of all receipts for the month,” Brolin said, which SmartVault doesn’t currently offer.

She also mentioned, with the caveat that it could be user error, that she doesn’t like having to give permissions and access constantly, a preventative measure against having staff members upload documents into the wrong folders. She’d like to see certain security and permissions functionality automated.

Firm growth: “SmartVault continues to improve what they’re doing,” Brolin said. “For instance, this January, they added [Adobe’s e-signature product] DocuSign. What I love about SmartVault is it’s helping us be more efficient, and be more able to process things that should only take five minutes instead of 30 minutes. SmartVault is looking to the future … and turning the product into something that helps us as practitioners do what we want to do, which is use our brain and advise our clients, instead of investing all our time figuring out how to do an e-signature.”

Product: Thomson Reuters Onvio

Firm: PenCoast Tax Services

Staff users: 1

Start date: July 2017

Cost: With the early adopter discount, $67.50 for the client center, $60 for Onvio documents, monthly

On record: Owner Brandon Ferrell

Objective: Brandon Ferrell founded PenCoast because he had faced difficulty trying to convince his previous firm to go paperless. He gets emotional about Onvio, because as a young founder of a firm, he had been floundering, struggling to manage his client load and keep track of all their documents.

“If you come from a no-tech office, you don’t have proper systems in place,” he said. “Fortunately for me, I am really big on Facebook and Instagram, and by communicating with my friends and colleagues, I took on 200 clients in one year. The influx of all of those new clients and not having a system to manage their documents — I literally used just Microsoft Outlook, and everyone e-mailed everything to me. It was brutal. It was the worst tax season in 13 years, and I’ve been through some bad ones.”

That summer, decompressing from his tax season from hell, he attended a seminar and met a representative from Thomson Reuters. He had observed that everyone in the Bay Area, where his firm is based, does a large portion of their work from their smartphone. He told the rep that he wanted a solution that would allow him and his clients to be mobile like that — Onvio was that solution.

Implementation: Ferrell was assigned a trainer from Thomson Reuters who helped him implement Onvio. Ferrell said the training was good, but as a tax services provider, it was difficult being trained months before the next tax season began. Now that tax season is in full swing, he finds that he needs refreshers. He would like to see a standard follow-up session once tax season begins. He was able to run dummy requests through Onvio to see how it would work out in real-life scenarios.

Advantages: “Having the app for the phone, and the ability to convert documents to a PDF format, has made life a lot easier,” Ferrell said. “In my area, a very tech area, everyone is on the go and no one has a scanner at home. I used to have a two-day lag where someone would have to take their W-2 to work, scan it, e-mail me ... time is money. The app was the whole selling point. My clients can just take a picture, upload it, I get a notification, and I can work on the return when I see fit.”

Challenges: There are some minor issues that Ferrell knows Thomson Reuters is addressing. For instance, if he wants to send a request for a document, he can do so from within the Onvio app, but it doesn’t sync with Outlook.

Firm growth: While last year he struggled with 200 clients, Onvio has allowed Ferrell to easily take on 150 more this year. He is working toward becoming 100 percent remote, and Onvio is a major part of helping him achieve that goal. Currently, Ferrell is using a separate solution for workflow, but he says that once Onvio is fully developed it should be able to replace that solution as well.


Product: Citrix ShareFile

Firm: Clark Schaefer Hackett

Staff users: 400-plus

Start date: October 2016

Cost: Contact vendor

On record: Director of IT Randy Smith

Objective: Accounting Today interviewed Randy Smith last year about Clark Schaefer Hackett’s use of ShareFile for document management. At the time, the firm was using the software in combination with another solution to manage documents, rather than as a full portal. Since then, Smith, as director of IT, has spearheaded the expansion of the Top 100 Firm’s use of ShareFile to be the only client portal Clark Schaefer Hackett uses. The portal product the firm was using before placed too much onus on the IT department, while ShareFile allows each accountant user at the firm to take ownership of creating portals for new clients, instead of waiting for IT.

Implementation: Because the firm is larger in size, the IT department led internal training efforts when implementing Share-File, including writing a user document themselves, tailored to their firm. In order to put together that training, Smith and his team worked closely with their representative from Citrix, who was very helpful.

Smith’s mantra is, “Change is hard — it takes time.” When implementing any new software, there is a learning curve, and in a firm of this size, misunderstandings happen. However, employees are adjusting to their new “ownership” role over their client portals.

The firm didn’t have to move any data over into ShareFile from their old solution, because they are using ShareFile more as a pure portal than for document management now.

Advantages: Outside of speeding up business by allowing the “client responsibles” (the specific accountant responsible for a specific client) to take charge of the portals, ShareFile is also mobile-friendly, Smith said, which encourages compliance from clients. Also, the user interface is much friendlier than the firm’s former solution. ShareFile also integrates with a wealth of third-party apps, Smith said, such as RightSignature. The e-signature app is a big hit with clients.

Challenges: ShareFile allows accountants to send a link to a certain document to a client. Smith is not satisfied with the security surrounding that process, because while no one can access the document without the link, that link can in turn be shared and re-shared, and each new person who receives it does not have to enter a password to view it. It’s a “small security gap,” Smith said, that ShareFile is currently reviewing. The trade-off for changing this is making it slightly more cumbersome for a client to access a linked document — and Smith would like to keep that user-friendly aspect, as well, because of increased client compliance.

Firm growth: “We want to exceed expectations of our clients,” Smith said. “We’re always looking for how we can make clients’ lives easier. That’s a big part of this. It’s our mission. How do we make lives easier for our clients, communities and our employees? ShareFile does that by taking away that IT roadblock.”


Product: LeapFile

Firm: Resurreccion CPA Firm LLC

Staff users: 2

Start date: January 2018

Cost: $20 per month (differs with tiered offerings)

On record: Owner Nick Resurreccion

Objective: Nick Resurreccion runs a small solo practice, and e-mail simply wasn’t secure enough for the exchange of client files. He sought a simple solution that would provide security for sensitive client information. He chose LeapFile for its ease of use, and because it had been given a stamp of approval by the Maryland Association of CPAs.

Implementation: “This is why I like LeapFile — it’s easy,” Resurreccion said. “I didn’t want to get inundated with a complicated implementation process.”

Accountants can make use of several tiers of LeapFile’s product, but Resurreccion just uses the simple client portal feature, which enables file exchange. It works via a personalized link, which LeapFile provided his firm within five minutes of signing up, that he can include in his e-mails to clients in the form of a simple button.

Advantages: The biggest advantage of using LeapFile, Resurreccion said, is “definitely security.” LeapFile also integrates with Microsoft Outlook, so users can send secure e-mails directly from within the program, rather than exiting to use Outlook.

Resurreccion also highlighted the portal’s welcome simplicity and ease of use: “LeapFile lets me know who sent me the file, and tells me the status of the file, like whether I’ve downloaded it or not. It also allows for zip files, which I can drag into the client file on our server. It’s organized almost like e-mail format, with date, sender, e-mail address, subject line and status.”

Challenges: Resurreccion hasn’t faced any real challenges with LeapFile, except the expected learning curve of client compliance. Because LeapFile allows for the portal button to be included in his e-mails to clients, he is getting about 80 percent compliance with document transfer through the portal on the first try. The remaining 20 percent then comply with a simple e-mail back reminding them to use the portal. (The firm only began using LeapFile in January this year, but they expect eventual 100 percent compliance.)

Firm growth: “I do everything paperless,” Resurreccion said. “Our engagement letters are e-signed, which has helped me in that the collection process has allowed us to receive client information quicker. The problem of CPAs is the bottleneck in March, so I’m trying to reduce the bottleneck by getting more information in early. The portal has allowed me to communicate with clients and tell them, ‘Do you have 80 percent of your information? Send it. Don’t wait till you get 100 percent. Just send it as you have it,’ and that allows us to get started.”

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