Accounting firms of all sizes are embracing portals not only as a means to collaborate with their clients more efficiently—especially during tax season—but also to remain compliant with current data transfer and security laws.
There are, of course, firms that are continuing to weigh their options, or others that are not quite on board with the use or importance of portals. To help spur them on, several firms have shared the reasons behind their decision to use portals - and the results.
Firm: Juravel & Co. / Alpharetta, Ga.
Size: 4 people (3 full-time, 1 bookkeeper)
Product: CCH CS (CCH)
Commencement date: November 2009
On record: Managing partner Phil Juravel
Challenge/objective: The firm wanted to remain compliant with current data privacy and file transfer laws. MP Phil Juravel also serves on the American Institute of CPAs' Privacy Task Force and thought using a portal would be a good business practice.
Amount spent: $900 for the first year. The firm initially added "a slight increase" to fees for every tax return to help offset the cost.
Process: The firm used to send clients their tax returns and source documents as PDF files with passcode access. Since this is no longer seen as secure, Juravel decided to research portals. He did not have to look far, as the firm was already using CCH's tax products, and when they viewed a demo on how users can go from the tax program to CCH CS, Juravel simply said, "I'm in."
CCH hosts mandatory online training for the portal, and Juravel claims that within two hours he had all the information he needed to create portals for clients. Since CCH CS is a hosted product, there was nothing to install. It took a short time to create fields for name and contact information for all of his clients, and then to verify all of the e-mail addresses. Once complete, all clients received notice that the firm was using a portal to store and exchange their documents. "Any new clients that came in, we told them this is how we do it, it's not negotiable," Juravel said. "But we still have a handful we exempt from this rule because they simply aren't on computers."
Results: The firm is using "far less paper," and Juravel explained that there are "hidden savings and efficiencies," as clients can regularly send the firm files safely as well. The firm also has clients in Israel and Spain that can file their taxes by placing all of their documents in their portal. There are also monetary savings: "If I push out 400 returns, that's $600 in savings in binders alone, not to mention paper and postage," Juravel said.
Next steps: Aside from a handful of clients, this year the firm is taking a "no exceptions" approach to using the portals for all exchanges. Also, it will no longer mail IRS communications to the client, and will instead scan them and place them on their portal. The firm is also going to improve on its file descriptions when they upload to the portal.
Second time around
Firm: Harshman Phillips & Co. / Atlanta
Size: 12 people
Product: SmartVault Portal (SmartVault)
Commencement date: December 2010
On record: MP Bruce Phillips
Challenge/objective: To deliver tax returns to all clients for 2011 on the portal and have it integrate with the firm's tax program.
Amount spent: $119 a month for up to 10 users; 30GB capacity to be shared with unlimited guests.
Process: This was not the firm's first time attempting to use a portal service. In early 2009, the firm decided to use a hosted portal from a vendor whose products, including tax prep, the firm already used. The firm experienced some set-up issues and integration problems between the portal and the tax program and opted out of using it for the 2010 tax season.
"It's a good product; it just didn't work right for us, so we had to hold off on using portals and went back into research mode," Phillips said. "We spent six months talking to vendors, trying to figure out our integration issues. This is when we came across SmartVault and it looks like it's going to work."
Results: Phillips said upon testing there have been no integration or set-up problems with SmartVault, and the firm is ready for the 2011 tax season. He expects to process nearly 500 returns this year, and will deliver and receive all documents using the portal.
Next steps: "We want to deliver all of the returns on the portal and get all of our clients used to using it," said Phillips. "We will take all of our clients paperless one at a time. Every client I deliver a tax return to will have adopted this. Last year we did everything by e-mail; this year it's all SmartVault, and will continue to be if it all works out."
From payroll to portal
Firm: Kinzey & Arndt / Nixa, Mo.
Size: 5 people
Product: CyberCabinet (AccountantsWorld)
Commencement date: December 2010
On record: MP Scott Kinzey
Challenge/objective: Until recently, the firm did not even have a Web site, and only began using e-mail three years ago. The firm wanted to "jump into technology," specifically Web-based accounting, and do so cost-effectively, according to Kinzey.
Amount spent: $2,200 per year for everything but payroll program (Payroll Relief).
Process: After some online and trade publication research, the firm discovered AccountantsWorld, which had a suite of products to help the firm run its practice. Originally the firm wanted to use the Payroll Relief program to offer payroll services to clients. They found that payroll files were automatically sent to the CyberCabinet portal and they enjoyed the ease of use and the cost. Once the firm chose to pay for the suite, which includes a write-up program, the portal, time & billing, and financial planning, it had to educate clients.
"We had some clients that really didn't get it, so instead of telling a client just to log on and then walk them through it over the phone, we called them in and did it with them," said Kinzey.
Results: "Since the client does a lot of the work, it's less data entry for us," said Kinzey. "We now have approximately 50 payroll clients, 30 using the portal, and 50 using the write-up and year-end tax service."
Next steps: The firm wants to use its new tech savvy to gain new clients and build a user forum to see what they could do better.
Firm: Randy L. Crews CPA / McAllen, Texas
Size: 2 people
Product: NetClient CS (Thomson Reuters)
Commencement date: November 2009
Amount spent: $150 a month for 1,000 portals
On record: MP Randy Crews
Challenge/objective: Clients wanted to e-mail attachments, and e-mail programs have limits on size, in addition to the increased regulation on sharing sensitive files via e-mail. Also, all year long the firm had clients requesting some document or another, and they needed a better way to deliver them.
Process: The firm reviewed several technologies. Crews had heard that Thomson Reuters had a portal service, as his firm had already been using the company's UltraTax program. After running the numbers in Thomson Reuters' Practice CS program, Crews discovered he was paying staff more to visit with clients, pull files, make copies and phone calls, and everything else involved, than it would cost for a portal service.
It took six months to get clients properly educated, since all of his business had previously been in person and on paper.
"Initially, clients were hesitant about doing things this way, but a few months of saying, 'I can give you all of your things online, would you like it?' eventually worked," said Crews. "I do have clients that are not as savvy with technology and that's fine. I take them in and we do paper, but that's a big minority now."
Results: Crews has over 200 clients currently using NetClient CS and, as anticipated, it has saved the firm time and expenses.
"Once you get your ROI, you realize how it's worth it. ... Clients always have their bank statements, or whatever they need they can print and save any time they want, just like on banking Web sites," said Crews. "Think about it: If you had to go to your bank to get all of your statements, you wouldn't like it. This is what clients are expecting now."
Next steps: The firm wants to not have to give source documents back, and instead have source documents on the portal, so clients can download them when they want.
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