Tasks that used to represent a major burden for small and individually owned businesses, such as keeping tabs on invoices and billing activities, have been made easier in the cloud, where multiple tools are currently available for client and accountant to connect.

The growth of online accounting tools for accountants and their clients has accelerated in recent years, making even the most basic bookkeeping tasks simpler for both parties to use and access. The fact that there is rarely a cost for the accountant to use these products is an added bonus.

Moreover, with a growing number of businesses performing regular back-office tasks themselves, but still needing their CPA for review and advice, relevant online tools have become more essential.

Following are a few examples of how online tools are aiding the simplest of accounting activities, and building a better relationship between accountant and client.

 

Good for the goose

Firm: Iryna Stepanchuk CPA

Size: Sole practitioner

Product: FreshBooks

Commencement date: Spring 2013

On record: Iryna Stepanchuk

Challenge/objective: To stay connected and work better with a growing number of small and new business clients.

Amount spent: No cost to accountant.

Process: Stepanchuk works with approximate 120 clients, performing basic tax and accounting tasks. She first became familiar with FreshBooks at her old accounting firm, where she utilized it internally to track her time.

When she started her own firm two years ago, she looked to FreshBooks once again and was pleased that they had added a connection to banks, as well as the ability to view P&L statements. She then began wanting to use the product for client work.

"Early on, FreshBooks was just for me, but I started speaking to their accounting network and learned more about how to use it for my clients when I started my own firm. I took a webinar and learned more about what it could do," said Stepanchuk.

"Small-business owners don't want to deal with their books. I would bring my clients into FreshBooks or some would even be on it already, and they are looking for the accountant who knows how to work with it, so we got connected."

She also liked the idea of using an online product for these purposes, because she wanted to run as much of a paperless office as possible, since her physical office space was "very small" and it made more sense to conduct as much of her practice in the cloud as she could. She found that this was how many of her small-business clients worked.

"I also have clients in other countries as well, and I don't see any part of my practice not being done online," she added. "I had a conversation with a client who wants to switch accountants because that firm doesn't want to do as much in the cloud."

Results: Currently 60 percent of Stepanchuk's self-employed clients use FreshBooks, and she notes several benefits for working with the product that she felt would likely increase her business over time, and add to overall efficiency: "Using FreshBooks is a great plus because at any time [clients] can keep tabs on how their business is doing. For me, when I file returns I always try to verify that everything is correct, and using FreshBooks helps because bank accounts are connected and it ensures all records are in shape," she said. "Before FreshBooks, I had a spreadsheet I compiled on my own with all the expenses and write-offs; they had to go through all of their statements and manually input it. Especially with some of the more creative clients who are focused more on their work and not their books, this is a great advantage. Every quarter with my small businesses, I now have a more intelligent conversation with them because their P&L is there."

Next steps: If possible, she would like to see bank reconciliations added to FreshBooks.

 

Leveraging the iPad

Firm: Danetha Doe Consulting / Oakland, Calif.

Size: Sole practitioner

Product: Kashoo

Commencement date: Summer 2014

On record: Danetha Doe

Challenge/objective: Wanted to know the best products to use to serve small-business clients, particularly those that worked best on the iPad, as more clients requested this ability.

Amount spent: Free.

Process: Doe's practice provides accounting and business consulting specifically to small and independently owned fashion and beauty companies. Many of her clients are in year two or three of business and want to do the bookkeeping themselves. She in turn oversees bank reconciliations, outstanding invoices and late bills, as well as offering help setting up a chart of accounts. In addition, she will often conduct workshops for small businesses entering their first year, and found she was regularly fielding questions on what products to use on the iPad.

Doe first heard about Kashoo last year while researching the best accounting tools for the iPad. She found that Kashoo came up in good reviews, so she followed them on Twitter and ultimately went through their certification, known as the "Most Valuable Professional" Program. She said the process took "just a couple of hours on a Saturday," after which she was told how she could use branding for her Web site and how to introduce Kashoo to her clients.

"They do weekly webinars on relevant topics for small-business users, too. I did a few of those and even started getting clients from them," said Doe. "I found the Kashoo users very engaged, they would sign up for my newsletter after the webinars and wanted to know more about what I do."

Results: Doe claims that using Kashoo with her clients allowed her more time to be a "business consultant," rather than an accountant, and she was able to market her practice even to those that are not yet ready to work with an accountant.

"It just takes so much off my plate -- I can really dive into my clients' business and help them grow," she said. "With Kashoo, the fact that bank feeds are automatic, clients can access it whenever they need to, I can do more strategy and not just accounting. I spend more time with my clients these days, too, on things like marketing and brand development as well as lender pitches. It really takes the numbers out of the way."

Next steps: Doe is focused on working with as many fashion/beauty businesses in California and nationwide as she's able to. She also wants to use Kashoo to help clients learn to do their books on their own so she can work with them on "the big picture" of their business.

 

Under one roof

Firm: Nathaniel Jacobson / Bethesda, Md.

Size: 10 staff

Product: Zoho Books

Commencement date: Early 2014

On record: Managing director Jeff Morris

Challenge/objective: To respond better to clients who were running their entire business from a laptop or tablet.

Amount spent: Free; can offer product at a discount for clients.

Process: Morris had managed IT in the past and was familiar with the high costs of maintaining servers, hosting and software licenses. He found that more of his clients were in the cloud and, as a relatively new practice, wanted to better serve these clients in a way they were used to working.

He began researching some of the top online small-business accounting products and found Zoho "received high marks." He was particularly impressed with the fact that the company offered a suite of products outside of just accounting to help serve his small-business clients, including invoicing and CRM.

"I liked that as one company, Zoho offered products under one roof, rather than through a third party, that were designed to be easy to use, particularly clients who were novices at tracking financials," said Morris. "Other online accounting products out there are a bit more intimidating to users who don't have some kind of accounting background. The user interface is also very attractive; even going deep into the product you see it cuts through the jargon, and that's even more attractive."

Morris also liked that with Zoho he was part of a network of accountants that could get connected to small businesses around the country, which he noted "was not unique, but it was a big plus."

Results: Although Zoho Books is not the only product the firm works on for accounting purposes, Morris said that he enjoys that it is a "viable option."

"It used to be that accountants mainly just offered one product to work on, but having something like this shows our value as advisors as well," he said. "Being certified with Zoho has allowed us to explore more services, even if the client doesn't select [Zoho Books], the conversation is open for CRM, inventory and other things that we can do in the Zoho family."

Next steps: Morris said that he hopes Zoho Books continues to work on their ease of use and to improve latency to whatever extent they can. He is also looking forward to added capabilities such as interfacing with e-commerce portals.

 

Easy enough for clients

Firm: Debrah Burleigh Accounting / Vancouver, B.C.

Size: 5 staff

Product: Sage One (Sage North America)

Commencement date: August 2014

On record: Debrah Burleigh

Challenge/objective: Looking for solutions to make clients' lives easier and help them stay on top of finances more in real time.

Amount spent: Free to accountants; clients get 20 percent discount.

Process: Burleigh had been certified with Sage for years and had enjoyed using many of their products. She has also offered accounting services for the past 27 years and attends three to four conferences per year to stay current on technology and services for her practice and clients.

Burleigh attended the most recent Sage Summit conference and was introduced to Sage One cloud accounting product. While there she attended an online training for the product, as well as a few information sessions to learn how to better use it. Later that summer she began working with clients.

Several features stood out for Burleigh: "Bank accounts and credit cards integrate easily into the system, just by uploading and clicking 'post.' I also love how my clients can use Sage One Invoicing in addition to Sage 50 Accounting and they can see real-time what they have outstanding for customers. You can assign clients tasks, they can e-mail customers invoices and there's a 'pay' icon their customers can click on so they know right away if it's paid and receivables are updated. Neither party sees confidential information."

Results: Burleigh currently has 30 bookkeeping clients, with seven more set to come on. The majority of her bookkeeping clients are on Sage One. "I've been trying to educate customers who are in shoe boxes or Excel that they need the right accounting system and most of them have no accounting background, so what I find is with Sage One it's so easy," she said. "I have had people who had a hard time writing an invoice who can use this system without issue. If they have a problem, I log in and help them and walk them through. I also love that I don't have to spend for a server or hosting service; it's just a Web connection from whatever device I'm on."

Next steps: Burleigh is currently setting up what she calls "entrepreneur evenings." These are learning sessions for new companies that want to grow their business, during which time she will have speakers, as well as introduce them to Sage One and her overall client services.

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