Taking the time to find inefficiencies around the office can be a daunting task for most firms, but more are finding that establishing better workflows for most essential tasks - particularly tax work - will save time and, ultimately, money.

The firms that are taking the initiative to improve their workflows are turning to a variety of technologies to do so, some of which they found integrate well with other systems they already have in place.

Below are four firms that until fairly recently utilized people, paper and the occasional spreadsheet or electronic calendar to track the flow of work in their offices.


No more colored folders

Firm: ChurchShield LLC / Noblesville, Ind.

Size: 17 staff

Product: Office Tools Pro

Commencement: November 2010

On record: Kristin Oechsle, office/payroll manager, and Ryan Foust, tax manager

Challenge/objective: The firm needed a more efficient solution to track the flow of tax documents and job status. They had only been using a shared calendar in Outlook, and it was not updated regularly. During tax time, managers also had to wait for colored folders to come to their desks to know when a job was complete. Several people were involved in this process.

Amount spent: 15-user license for $3,400, plus additional cost for two-day training.

Process: The firm had been shopping around for practice management software, and tried a few applications. They had also read trade publications and reviews about Office Tools Pro, and last year decided to test it. "We found it easy to navigate and use. We also wanted a software we could all use," said Oechsle. "You can export and import returns and it shows you exactly where every project is, where we were usually waiting until we went through the billing process to find out the status of a project."

She and Foust admitted to some initial hesitation from others in the firm, and they also had to figure out exactly which departments would be best suited for its use. Outsourced accounting is the largest department in the firm, but with the 75-80unique workflows to track, it was decided that that department would not be placed into the new workflow system, and the firm began using Office Tools Pro for tax.

"I think finding a way to fit [Office Tools Pro] into every aspect of our business was the most challenging," said Foust. "We are a paperless office mostly, so we had to see if Office Tools would show us everything we needed. We used a beta version and it wasn't perfect; with the old system, you did have a folder that showed you when things were done, but it was slower and less efficient."

Once the software was installed late last year, everyone went through two days of training and felt ready for tax season 2011.

Results: The firm processed 106 returns during busy season, versus 60 in the prior year, and plans to do another 100 or so by the end of the year. There were no problems with the system and the firm was able to keep tabs on all tax preparer workflows, including one preparer based in South Carolina, which could not have happened without Office Tools Pro. In addition, no preparer "had to stay late on April 15 either," explained Oechsle.

"The system allowed us to communicate from the desk, rather than getting up and going to a desk. In addition, no phone calls were needed at any time during tax season - all client information is in [the system], rather than looking at backup files," explained Foust. "Overall efficiencies in the office have improved for sure. We do track what we make on each return, and this was our most profitable year in our tax department. Maybe not totally due to Office Tools, but it did not hurt."

Oechsle added that the firm saved "hours" of administrative time, and there is more confidence from the tax preparer staff about using the new system.

Next steps: The firm has nine departments and would like to expand Office Tools Pro to all or most of them. It is currently looking into using it in the payroll department, specifically to track state tax payments, as there is no efficient system in place for doing so.


Going for integration

Firm: Schmidt Westergard & Co. / Mesa, Ariz.

Size: 45 staff

Product: FirmFlow (Thomson Reuters)

Commencement: Installed October 2010; went live January 2011.

On record: Scott T. Wrigley, tax partner

Challenge/objective: The firm processes over 1,000 tax returns a year and wanted to streamline its workflow processes to create more efficiencies, mainly for tax and billing.

Amount spent/cost: Starts at $110 per month for five users and an unlimited number of workflows. The firm received FirmFlow bundled as part of bigger packet and negotiated a portal and practice module as well.

Process: The firm first examined its department processes and realized there were numerous inefficiencies. They were physically handing paper files from office to office, and an increasingly mobile staff made workflow tracking even more difficult.

The firm reviewed many products and preferred one that was integrated with other software the firm needed to use. They found that FirmFlow appeared to meet their needs and had Thomson Reuters personnel into the office for implementation and training, which took three to four days, after which all the necessary workflows were created.

"The one key thing to note about the process was that we didn't roll this out to a test group; it was for everyone," said Wrigley. "We had very good buy-in from our staff; our first month we had lunch-and-learns to see what was working, what wasn't, and help everyone get on the same page. A lot of the process was about learning from others - those that got it could help others that didn't."

Results: Wrigley claims the firm is more efficient and was pleased to see the reports that FirmFlow was able to produce on the status of engagements. "It was all right at our fingertips, rather than having to print out different reports, and the price was not cost-prohibitive," he said.

Next steps: The firm would like to use FirmFlow for its assurance, attest and audit practices, as well as for administrative needs, which Wrigley believes "could be realistic in the next couple of years."


Best season ever

Firm: Braver PC / Needham, Mass.

Size: 150 staff, five offices

Product: XCM (XCM Solutions)

Commencement: February 2011

On record: Suzanne Longone, tax administrator

Challenge/objective: To improve efficiencies around the firm and transition from paper control sheets. The firm processes thousands of returns, and needed any manager to be able to see the status of all returns at any given time.

Amount spent: $65 per user, $3 per client and $3,500 for training.

Process: While at another firm, Longone experienced another popular workflow product and felt there needed to be "something better out there."

The firm then devised a research and implementation strategy by first establishing a "power users" group comprised of tech-savvy partners, tax managers and office reps. This group was involved in the very early stages of evaluating the firm's workflow needs and selecting the software itself.

The group met XCM personnel at an accounting software conference and sat in on product use and information sessions. Longone also spoke to other firms using XCM and decided to use it for her firm.

Once the software was selected, the firm held training one Saturday in January, where everyone in the firm attended in person or via video conference. XCM conducted full training and followed up with other training options as well, including videos and free webinars. XCM then set up a test Web site approximately six weeks before going live, where users could practice with test data and run reports "with the safety of knowing mistakes could be made and we could work through any issues," said Longone.

"The biggest issue we had was just the learning curve, adjusting from dealing with paper control sheets to using the online system. There were challenges in data being divided between the different office groups; that could have been better if all data was not divided by office," said Longone. "Overall, everything worked out well."

Results: "On the last day of tax season, I can say that our president had a meeting of the whole firm and he said because of XCM, he felt this was the best tax season ever, mainly because of the fact we were able to access data on all of our clients at any time," said Longone. She added that even with five offices, the firm as a whole is "a lot more efficient in doing work, especially with lots of partners working in multiple offices. No matter what office they are in, they can function, whereas we were once limited to where returns were physically located."

Next steps: The firm plans to have its assurance group use XCM and is looking into setting up a workflow process for adding new clients and new employees.


'A link to everything'

Firm: Azran Financial / Los Angeles

Size: Two staff

Product: ProSystem fx Workstream (CCH)

Commencement date: June 2011

On record: Joshua Azran, partner/owner

Challenge/objective: This year Azran went through its first tax season as a new firm and realized what was missing was "a link to everything," specifically the ability to track all documents and assign work when needed, complete with due dates and times.

Amount spent: $200 per user per year.

Process: Azran was already familiar with CCH and spoke to them about their ProSystem products. The company introduced him to Workstream and he felt it was the right solution for the new firm.

"Right now, we are extremely lean on staff. We have been taking on more higher-end work, advisory work, complex tax work, and maintain a completely paperless environment," said Azran. "We moved our clients to client portals, there's not a lot of paper generated and we recently experienced a much larger tax season than I've seen in a while. I needed something where I didn't have to ask, 'Did I extend this, did the client respond?'"

Azran considers himself a tech-savvy CPA and began "playing around" with the system with little training, which he said he does not advise new users to do, though it worked for him.

"I liked that the product can be used as a stand-alone, and it integrates with everything else [I use]. You are going to create the initial templates that you need; some are pre-populated for you so you don't have to recreate, say, a large 1040," said Azran. "You then apply each template to individual clients, your quarterly payroll tax, write-up clients, etc. The program can pull proper dates so you don't have to create them, say, for state sales tax, and associate it with a template for those clients. You can also do things not linked to specific dates - management consulting or fraud exam dates."

Azran also said that he liked Workstream's integration with other software, such as tax preparation and document management systems.

Results: "I have no reason to get up anymore - I look right in the program and know where all of my documents and projects are at. No matter how many lead sheets you have, someone doesn't have to mark a piece of paper; the system makes you go through the process," said Azran. "It gives me a lot of internal control, too; that's important to me and my clients. I have projects with very specific compliance requirements and it allows me to keep on top of that."

Next steps: Azran said that he is moving away from having any type of manual monitoring on projects. He said that he currently still conducts some personal oversight.

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