Whether it's in the middle of tax season or during an audit, accounting firms are increasingly discovering that having automated workflow is far superior to a paper or PDF checklist system.

Moreover, whether it is embedded in a document management system or as a standalone overall workflow tool, firms are discovering how essential an automated system is to the life of their practice. Below, five firms discuss how they chose the workflow system they currently work on -- and the results.

 

Building their own

Firm: SRH Financial Consultants Inc. / Irvine, Calif.

Size: 6 staff

Product: Orglow

Commencement date: January 2011

On record: Owner Saeid Hirbodi

Challenge/objective: Found that 90 percent of overall time during tax season went into collecting information from clients, and wanted a system to get clients more involved in the accounting work, as well as improved productivity and profitability.

Amount spent/costs: There is a corporate and a client portal; corporate portal is set up free for accountants, $19.95 per client per month on the system. Includes nine hours training over three days.

Process: The firm knew it needed a workflow solution for a number of things, not the least of which was the busy tax season, but Hirbodi was not finding exactly what he wanted out in the market, so he decided to build it, starting with a client portal and ultimately adding a workflow component.

"I needed [a system] that identified what the document is, what the status of that document is and if I see a journal entry, what is the source document associated with that journal entry," said Hirbodi. "I just didn't see any of that at the time and I wanted to show that every transaction completed by a workflow is backed up by a document."

After gaining some initial client acceptance, he saw the potential to offer Orglow to other accounting firms and other trusted business partners, such as attorneys and insurance brokers.

Results: SRH currently has 1,000 users on Orglow and uses it for write-up work, forensic accounting, compliance audits, and sales tax collection. "In my office, I have created a workflow to a point where I can see how a document travels in my office, and there are times -- like in January and February -- where everyone is sending in financial statements where I can outsource work to some bookkeepers and we can still all work on Orglow and not have to e-mail files back and forth," said Hirbodi.

In addition, when SRH started Orglow, the firm had 90 write-up clients; it now has 175 and no need to add any staff, space or computers. In addition, customer calls to the office are reduced dramatically and SRH is able to charge write-up clients $500 a month for those who use Orglow, versus $250 when they did not have it.

Next steps: Hirbodi wants Orglow to ultimately be a place where electronic financial records exist and users can collaborate with a professional team. He also wants other firms to utilize Orglow and is currently looking for "significant investment" from a strategic partner to help roll it out more.

 

Looking to improve

Firm: Halt Buzas & Powell Ltd. / Alexandria, Va.

Size: 40 staff

Product: FirmFlow (ThomsonReuters)

Commencement date: October 2011

On record: Manager Carol Mount

Challenge/objective: Needed more user-friendly progress reports and better due date monitoring, as well as improved efficiency.

Amount spent: Starts at $110 a month for five users and unlimited number of workflows.

Process: The firm already had experience with an automated workflow system, but through upgrades the system had become much more complex than necessary; the audit staff also became particularly hampered. "With all of the upgrades that the vendor made to the system, it was basically like trying to drink from a fire hose, plus we lost all of our customizations when they did the upgrade, so it was like starting over," said Mount.

The firm found out about FirmFlow and GoFileRoom as it had been using other ThomsonReuters products for tax research and audit work. An implementation representative came to the office for two days to go through the firm's processes, setting expectations and finding out how documents were currently saved and received. The representative also spent individual time with the heads of the firm's IT department, as well as the audit and outsourced accounting departments, and administrative staff.

Mount explained that the largest challenge was the data migration from the existing system to GoFileRoom and FirmFlow. "We had to make sure we were not losing workflows not completed from the previous product, so we ended up doing the data migration in two phases," explained Mount. "Everything we did through December went in, and then we did another migration in 2012. We were able to go live and use it full-time by January."

Mount also said that since there were different workflows for tax, audit and outsourced accounting, the firm made certain that the heads of those departments weighed in on the design of their workflows.

Results: After nearly a full year of working with GoFileRoom and FirmFlow, Mount claims that everyone at the firm was pleased with the new system, especially the audit department. "The audit department's downtime was significantly reduced, and overall we're feeling more efficient. If a return comes in the door, the right person gets an alert and can assign it to a review pool or individually to get the work done," said Mount. "It's also easy to see how long a 1040 is in an inbox, versus looking around the office to check with individuals on what I'm still waiting for."

Next steps: The firm would like to customize FirmFlow more and perhaps expand its use in other practice areas, but the main issue going forward will be having everyone use the system in a more uniform way. "Sometimes people don't always adhere to where we're supposed to save things and we need to make sure we're all compliant," said Mount. "Business returns get saved in one place, tax returns in others, and we need to reinforce firm standards in terms of what to save where."

 

Centralize, centralize!

Firm: Sally Lindberg & Associates / Clearwater, Fla.

Size: 14 staff in tax season/10 off-season

Product: Office Tools Pro

Commencement date: Fall 2010

On record: Controller Julia Rhodes

Challenge/objective: Despite being small, the firm's tax practice was having difficulty tracking the flow of files and information, with no one having a set process or knowing who was working on what.

Amount spent: Approx. $5,000 with licenses and two-day training.

Process: The firm had struggled with workflow processes for many years, and at one point hired an individual to come up with some standard processes, but knew they needed more. Then in 2009 Rhodes attended the National Association of Enrolled Agents annual tax practice seminar, where she saw a demo on Office Tools Pro. She was very impressed and spoke to the firm's owner, who had also seen the product at a previous conference but didn't think Rhodes or anyone at the firm would buy into it.

Rhodes decided to call the Office Tools Pro representative she met to give a demo to some select staff members. "They were all blown away by what it could do," she said, and the firm made the purchase shortly after.

The representative came to the firm's office for training and to help set up workflows. It took an entire tax season of moving returns through the new processes for everyone to fully embrace Office Tools Pro.

Results: The product helped save time, but efficiency and knowing how paper is moved around and the status of projects was even more important. The firm was also able to centralize information that is shared among accounting staff, including project status and essential client information. "We are a small firm and it's very important we have client information centralized, so if we need to make payroll tax payments or do any compliance work, a staff person no longer has to go to an office and pull documents; it's now in a database with easy access," said Rhodes. "Another nice thing is that a client will call and ask when a return will be done and the receptionist doesn't have to chase down a file or staff member. They can now answer them in detail."

Next steps: The firm would like to improve other aspects of its practice beyond just tracking paperwork. It is still figuring out where other inefficiencies exist in the firm and would like to use the system to abate them.

 

Not just for tax

Firm: Barfield, Murphy, Shank & Smith / Birmingham, Ala.

Size: 75 staff

Product: XCM (XCM Solutions)

Commencement date: January 2012

On record: Founding shareholder Keith Barfield

Challenge/objective: The firm had been paperless for 10 years, and utilized a PDF checklist for routing, but had no workflow tracking and felt the increased need for that in its audit and tax departments.

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

Process: Barfield first heard about XCM in detail last year from attendees at a Boomer Circles meeting and decided it might be worth looking into. He placed a manager in charge of researching the product and what it would take to implement it. Barfield realized that there was also the issue of getting all partners on board with using the product; not everyone was immediately convinced that XCM was the way to go, but Barfield said that opinions changed during a product demo: "One of our managing partners sat down in the demo and said, 'I'm out on the road a lot and if I have to log into this thing, it will slow me down. I want to do what I need to do via e-mail,' so the guy who gave the demo showed him how he could get everything he needed via e-mail. That did it for him," said Barfield.

Once all the partners signed off on using XCM, routing sheets were taken to create checklists for each task in the XCM system. This lasted for approximately a month, then everyone was trained for about half a day and the firm officially went live on the product in January 2012.

Barfield approved of the training, stating that everyone at the firm learned how to view what they had to check off and route. There were also some pre-set roles by engagement leaders as well. "The key was that once leadership said, 'We want to do this,' everyone bought in," he explained. "We had done so many things with technology that have resulted in time-saving that we had a good culture, so there was no resistance."

Results: Aside from everyone feeling more efficient post-tax season, for the first time ever the firm was able to see who did the most 1040 work, which aided in the firm's staff review process.

"We always assumed the load was shared and it was really nice to see top performers, especially at employee review time," said Barfield. "And for first time we can track how we are doing on customer satisfaction. We were never able to see if it got done, and this year we ran reports and came up with important clients that we need to meet with. We set up meetings in XCM that will show up on a to-do list and become a part of their performance review. We can see how many meetings they had."

Next steps: Barfield said the firm would like to improve its open-work-item reporting and may look into tracking how much time using XCM will save during busy season.

 

Taking their pulse

Firm: Krueger & Associates / Tampa, Fla.

Size: 7 staff

Product: ProSystem fx Workstream (CCH)

Commencement date: January 2012

On record: Managing director Kevin Krueger

Challenge/objective: The firm wanted, in one concise screen, to have a better pulse on where projects were in the process, particularly during tax season. Krueger specifically needed to know when projects reached critical points in the process, specifically when things were ready for review or if he needed to request additional information from clients.

Amount spent: $1,840 for the year.

Process: Krueger happened to be at CCH, heard about Workstream, and had a chance to see a demo and ask more about the product. He had already planned on using ProSystem fx Document and Tax and felt that Workstream would integrate well. Once the decision was made, the firm began analyzing its workflow processes, which Krueger admitted took some time, as did set-up of the product, but he felt it "all paid off" in the end.

"If you take the time to analyze the 1040 workflow, for instance, you can build statuses that tell you at a glance about the project. If you don't analyze the workflow at the beginning, you will have difficulty getting it up and running," said Krueger. "The power in the set-up is building the standardized templates or Masters that you can use to create projects en masse. This is a huge time-saving. You can make the set-up as simple or as complex as you want. Getting into the detail of roles and worksteps does take more time and effort and, in all honestly, took several attempts to get it correct and really should probably be evaluated annually for a more efficient workflow as the program improves."

Results: After going through an entire busy tax season, Krueger said that he is pleased with what he has seen so far. He particularly enjoyed that users can each go to their dashboards and quickly see any critical notifications related to their projects. "It's a great time-saver that I can also access documents from [ProSystem fx] Document right on the dashboard as well, and launch the linked tax return for a given project directly from the notification," he said. "We also love the auto prompt [function] to update the project status when we close the return; it is a huge time-saver not having to remember to go and do that. That, combined with the auto reminder about the clock that started running when you opened the return, are wonderful."

Next steps: The firm would like to further evaluate the workflows it has set up to make certain it is what they want and need going forward. Krueger also said that he would like to consider using Workstream for its A&A work, and possibly bookkeeping as well. "The good thing is, we can do as little or as much as we want per type of work," he said. "We have lots of detail [to put into the system] for audit [work], but not so much for tax -- however, the program handles it."

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