Primarily used for trafficking client tax returns, portals are becoming the chosen method of document delivery and communication for accounting firms and their clients.
The security benefits of electronically sending encrypted files instead of mailing hard copies is also accelerating the standardization of portal technology. We spoke to four firms that are leveraging client portals to streamline their service and workflow.
Why not them?
Firm: Kolbrenner & Alexander LLC
Firm users: 5
Product: CCH Axcess Portal
Commencement date: 2011
On record: Partner Michael Alexander
Process: Michael Alexander learned about Axcess Portal at CCH’s user conference and came back to the office with a mission to implement. The decision to install the firm’s first portal technology was based on clients’ growing concerns about confidential information delivered in the mail — and that there was “no reason not to,” Alexander said.
The firm e-mailed a roadmap to their clients and sent an invitation to register for the portal by inputting a username and password. The first year, roughly one third of the firm’s 1,500 clients used the portals to upload their tax returns, which was more interest than the 10 percent conversion CCH had told conference-goers to initially expect. Since then, two thirds to three fourths have embraced the technology. Alexander estimates that portal adoption splits along generational lines — and not only for clients, as one older partner remains resistant. Regardless, portals are not optional for new clients filing tax returns, helping the firm achieve what Alexander hopes to be a future 90 percent adoption rate.
Advantages: “The delivering of documents and tax returns to clients is seamless,” Alexander said, explaining that Portal’s fit with the other CCH Axcess Document and Tax products enhances the experience, as files uploaded in Document publish to the portal.
When Alexander was working overseas, he also appreciated his ability to publish documents to clients during different times of the day. “From a remote point of view, it’s awesome,” he said.
Challenges: The biggest roadblock in using portals has been client aversion, though Alexander expects that to subside. Otherwise, issues have been relatively minor compatibility or technical problems that are solved with a three-minute phone call to help install a plug-in or walk clients through trouble-shooting.
Next steps: The firm will continue ushering clients to the portals, banking on growing awareness. As Alexander pointed out, “Chase.com is a portal. Why not Kolbrenner & Alexander?”
Firm: Adams, Jenkins and Cheatham
Firm users: 50
Product: SmartVault Client Portal
Commencement date: January 2015
On record: Firm administrator Billy Johnston
Process: After a month and a half of research into different portal systems, Johnston helped Adams, Jenkins and Cheatham select SmartVault as its solution. While the decision was a “natural progression,” thanks to SmartVault’s integration with the firm’s tax software, Lacerte, the implementation process was more challenging, as it was conducted during tax season.
The most time-consuming step involved the initial e-mails to the firm’s 1,000 clients, inviting them to the portal. SmartVault lacks a mechanism to confirm an e-mail was sent, he explained, so it was a more labor-intensive experience to make sure invites were sent to the right addresses.
Following that phase, however, the experience was an “overwhelming success,” with 50 percent of clients signing up in the short span of a few months. Johnston estimates that 95 percent will be using portals by next year or the year following.
Advantages: The biggest immediate benefit, according to Johnston, was paper reduction. The firm put all clients’ data on the portal whether they use it or not, only granting hard copies of returns and other documents when specifically requested. The age of 60 was a general demarcation point between early adopters and those with concerns or aversions to the technology, the firm found.
Johnston appreciates SmartVault’s security e-mails, which he uses to send secure portal links to clients, and the general communication benefits of the portal. While the firm is primarily using the portal to store client data, they will start tapping into the collection side of that data over the next year.
Challenges: Beyond the immediate challenge of e-mail verification, Johnston’s other concerns with SmartVault are satisfactorily addressed by the company’s “great team,” including personal responses from the CEO. Generally these include logical fixes, like listing the years of returns in chronological order.The system was also down for a bit during a peak time of tax season, but it only lasted half an hour and the company responded quickly.
Next steps: In addition to using the portals to collect data, the firm will begin leveraging them for audit work, bringing the total firm users into the 70 range as their auditors begin processing clients there.
Firm: Alfred A. Cohen CPA
Firm users: 2 seats for 3 users
Product: Thomson Reuters NetClient CS
Commencement date: 2015
On record: Owner Alfred Cohen
Process: Cohen, who set up cloud accounting through Thomson Reuters’ SaaS for CS Professional Suite two years ago, saw the company’s portal offering as a necessary extension, especially after attending Thomson’s annual user conference last November.
The firm sent out the notification e-mail to clients, scanned all their 2013 source documents into Thomson Reuters FileCabinet, and uploaded them to the portals. A few days later he sent a Thomson-generated invitation e-mail instructing clients to register their portal. Overall, the process took 10 days. Though portals were presented as optional, Cohen eventually instituted a fee for clients who want a hard copy of older documents: “Basically, I’m trying to force everyone in the portal — and it’s worked.” He also uploads tax returns prior to 2013 if clients request it. There are the expected holdouts, but of the 500 individual returns he processed this year, 50 to 70 percent had at least established a portal. Those who didn’t had the expected reasons of not trusting the cloud or preferring a hard copy, though the demographics were a little surprising. “Senior citizens accepted it faster than young people,” Cohen reported.
Overall, the transition was less difficult than the last technology conversion the firm made, from hard copy returns to CD-ROMs. “It was successful for us,” Cohen said. “I’m very happy with [the transition] this year.”
Advantage: The biggest advantages portals hold over CDs are the lack of compatibility issues with certain operating systems (not to mention the fact that many modern computers no longer have CD drives), and the extra step of remembering to carry and load CDs.
The firm’s preparedness, beginning the transition last November, helped tax season go “very smooth.” Communication was also streamlined, as documents uploaded to the portal could be discussed in a few minutes instead of over e-mail, according to Cohen.
Challenges: With the initial data migration complete, client acceptance remains a small hurdle. “The biggest problem is explaining to them security,” he explained. “I said, ‘Thomson Reuters is a major company.’ Everything is encrypted. I can’t tell you it’s 100 percent hack-proof, but nothing is.”
Otherwise, challenges are procedural — helping clients reset passwords or reminding them to hit the “Submit to preparer” button after scanning in their documents.
Next steps: While the firm will continue pushing reluctant clients to the portal, the savvier ones might even graduate to the mobile app. Cohen is not sure exactly how many clients are bringing up their returns on tablets, but he does expect increased interest.
In the meantime, he is a proponent of the portal and how it integrates within his office’s suite: “For a small firm, it works very well.”
Firm: DePauw Johnson Tax &
Firm users: 3
Product: Office Tools Client Portal
Commencement date: 2011 and 2015
On record: Partner Andy DePauw
Process: While DePauw Johnson first instituted an earlier iteration of Office Tools portals in 2011 before switching to another delivery system, recent enhancements to the Client Portal brought the firm back to the solution in the summer of 2015.
“They have some new features that are really interesting,” DePauw shared. “With the check-in system, clients are able to request an appointment on the portal and we’re able to, on our end, make our availability [visible] on the portal.”
Online scheduling extends to the recently added “lobby kiosk check-in” functionality, streamlining the traditional process of clients filling in paperwork before an appointment.
“Before, in my office, we would print out a client information sheet, hand it to them, and ask, ‘Did your information change?’” DePauw said. “All these questions, the staff would go into the system and make changes. Now the changes get made right into the system. During tax season, we see 20 people a day.”
Advantages: DePauw likes Client Portals’ integration with the Office Tools desktop product, easily sending and syncing files, though “the most important thing to us is security.”
“This is a secure portal that meets all the security requirements of the law. That’s No. 1 for me and our firm; we need to send important data that is secure. The portal gives us that avenue to send,” he said.
Before implementing the portal to process this year’s tax return extensions, DePauw tested it from both the firm and client sides: “It’s really straightforward and easy to use, in my opinion; it’s why I went back to it. And now that we’re using it in the real world, we don’t seem to be having any problems.”
Challenges: Any issues are “challenges with people who aren’t as computer-literate as others,” requiring phone calls to walk clients through resetting a forgotten password. “Some portals allow you to control the password and others don’t; [Office Tools] doesn’t, and that’s OK,” he said.
Next steps: DePauw Johnson will have all 10 members of the firm’s staff on the portal by the end of the year, as well as more of their 1,100 or so clients, adding to the 800 DePauw estimates are current users.
They will also continue to fine-tune their kiosk check-in, adding client questions that will make the process even more efficient, especially as they approach another busy season.
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