The need to reduce paper and become more efficient ultimately falls on what systems are in place to help firms do so, regardless of their size. As such, workflow tools -- integrated or standalone - have become an invaluable component in most practice areas, from tax to payroll to accounting and beyond.
Below, several firms explore their need for and use of the latest workflow tools, in some cases having to endure changing from one to another or becoming accustomed to the cloud in their quest to reduce the time spent on necessary tasks -- and even saving money and improving profitability.
Firm:Wendroff & Associates / Arlington, Va.
Size: 7 staff
Product: XCM (XCM Solutions)
Commencement date: November 2012
On record: Managing partner Brian Wendroff
Challenge/objective: Needed to manage more things with the firm, particularly with tax clients, and to move away from using error-prone spreadsheets for all processes.
Amount spent: $65 per user; $3 per client and $3,500 for training.
Process: The firm had found that too many of its processes, particularly when it came to tax time, were tied to spreadsheets. They were using a spreadsheet to keep track of returns and there were often too many errors, or they would get a return done and not be able keep track of when it was completed.
Wendroff is part of a practice management group at the Virginia CPA Society and was introduced to XCM by a member who had been using the product to track processes during tax season. He admits he wasn't "initially sold" on the product after visiting the company's Web site, because it wasn't immediately clear that it was the best fit for him. He instead went with another "all-in-one" product, and after trying it out for a tax season he was not happy. He found that the company's customer service was poor, he was not able to use it in the cloud and it was slow.
Wendroff had considered going back to spreadsheets, but decided to use XCM for his 2013 tax season.
"I was not initially wanting to do it because it seemed overwhelming to change things, but one of my staff took charge to organize our client list, uploaded it, and we used their customer service to help us virtually to get up and running by the first of the year," said Wendroff. "By the second week of January we were ready; we just had a couple of tweaks to make during tax season."
Results: The firm completed 300 returns and found it also had enough time to conduct tax planning with clients during tax season, something that Wendroff admitted is usually done closer to the end of the year.
"Our goal was to have a return done in two weeks from the moment they came in, and we were able to do that for nearly every return we got," said Wendroff. "Also, not one client complained or asked where their return was and there was no Saturday work needed toward the end of tax season either."
Next steps: To continue to take advantage of the efficiencies afforded by using XCM, particularly more tax planning and budget forecasting. "With XCM I can take reports and estimate how many returns we need to do in a month so I can forecast tax revenue," said Wendroff. "I'm also looking at doing recurring tasks for monthly accounting clients. If I'm going to scale, this is going to be one of my best tools to do that and help me delegate."
More with less
Firm: Holdsworth & Co. / Prescott, Ariz.
Size: 10 staff
Product: Office Tools Pro
Commencement date: Late 2009
On record: Owner Matt Holdsworth
Challenge/objective: Needed the ability for staff, including the administrator, to locate client documents more quickly, and to work more remotely.
Amount spent: $3,800 per year for the whole suite.
Process: When a client called in to ask for a status update on their return, Holdsworth explained that there was always a "mad rush" to find where a return was. The firm had six CPAs and it would take up to15 minutes in some cases to locate the right documents. Ultimately a partner would have to resolve the issue, rather than just the admin.
The firm had been told about Office Tools Pro and purchased it on recommendation, but had not begun really using it for workflow purposes until it saw economic times become more difficult toward the end of 2009.
"When the economy turned, more than ever we needed a format where people could work from home and do more with less," said Holdsworth. "Once we realized we had to do this, the hardest part was changing the process. You have to have leaders of the firm implementing, and every time someone displaces part of your workflow you have to get them back on track and get them out of the habit of printing things out and walking it down the hall."
Holdsworth admitted that it took time for everyone at the firm to develop the discipline of using the Office Tools system beyond just organizing documents, but by 2011 the firm was able to have its workflow processes in the system and work more from outside of the office.
Results: Now when a client calls, staff can simply view the Missing Info list in Office Tools and let them know what is still needed, as well as immediately telling them what the status of a return is. Holdsworth can also see how much work the firm has in process at any given time and quote fees for returns before they are prepared since he and his staff already know how long it takes by looking at the history. In the case of work taking longer, staff are able to call the client and tell them what it will cost; other than that, clients are given a pre-quote on a fee. The firm is also conducting work on a cloud-based server, which allows them to collaborate more.
Next steps: More hosting of client data so it is more readily available.
Firm: Schwartz & Associates CPA / Turnersville, N.J.
Size: 5 staff
Product: Practice CS (Thomson Reuters)
Commencement date: 2010
On record: Owner Rich Schwartz
Challenge/objective: Needed a better, electronic way to find out if write-up work was done on time, as well as sales and payroll tax. Also wanted to free up time to focus more on client work, rather than just marketing and hiring.
Amount spent: $500 per month.
Process: Since forming the firm several years ago, Schwartz had a vision of being an efficient, electronic-based firm using "only the latest tools" to be more efficient and effective with his client work. He had decided Thomson Reuters had many of the tools his firm needed to run his practice and conduct client work. He became more aware of what Practice CS could do in 2010, back when his firm went through a re-organization.
"I realized that even if I had the right systems in place, I needed the right people," said Schwartz. He hired a supervisor who got her CPA, a bookkeeper, and a marketing person, and felt that his team was in place. They all received training on Practice CS, but found it was "pretty straightforward" to use once they began populating it with client files and information. "You can take data right from UltraTax. As long as the database is clean, we can have it flow in with little cleanup," added Schwartz. "I had to make sure staff was doing it all every day as well, but we all got the hang of it."
Results: The firm found it was able to be "more hands-on" with clients through the use of the Practice CS dashboard. They were also able to know more about what work was done and Schwartz could set better goals for the firm as well.
"I can now say, 'We need 90 percent of our clients completed by this date' and if we don't get there, now we know why or I can talk about why," said Schwartz. "It's a level of not having to do as much follow-up work -- I can forecast and plan and know where clients are at."
Schwartz has also been able to divide his clients into VIP and non-VIP, meaning clients who only need basic services or year-end work and those that require more services throughout the year. He claims that Practice CS has allowed him to see which clients to upgrade to "VIP status."
"If clients are going to leave us, it's not going to be for lack of service," he added.
Next steps: Schwartz is looking to have more time to market and grow his practice.
Firm: Elizabeth Belinski CPA, and Automated Paycheck Services / Anaheim Hills, Calf.
Size: 6 staff
Product: Orglow (SRH Financial Consultants)
Commencement date: 2012
On record: Payroll processor Lisa Torres
Challenge/objective: Wanted to create efficiency throughout the office, as well as improve productivity and profitability with the payroll practice.
Amount spent: There is a corporate and a client portal; the corporate portal is set up free for accountants, with $19.95 per client per month on the system (can be a service charge to client); includes nine hours training over three days.
Process: The CPA firm has a separate payroll practice and Torres was hired recently to process client payrolls and payroll reports. The firm had started using Orglow last year and once introduced to the system she found she "didn't need big training on it." She was given a login, had the process of using it verbally explained to her, and found all the tabs to use to get what she needed. Clients upload data into the system and the firm uploads its processes.
The Orglow workflow system was developed by the firm SRH Financial Consultants Inc., which had used it internally and began marketing it to other firms last year.
"I found it very easy to use, and even though I only came on a month ago, I got it; there's no second-guessing with it," said Torres. "It's a secure way to communicate between offices and clients. When clients upload something for review, we get an alert; every department can touch it and comment on it."
Results: Since using Orglow, the payroll practice receives fewer phone calls from clients asking payroll questions, and all the reports it needs are in the system.
"I like that I don't have to be pulled away from what I'm doing," said Torres. "Clients also don't know all the info I need to know, and just based on me being new I was still able to find the consistencies in past payroll reports in Orglow, so I didn't have to take as much of their time. This has saved me from having to say, 'I'm new, can you explain this to me?' I can give them the reports they are used to."
Next steps: Torres hopes to learn more about what the product can do and make suggestions on how to improve it, where applicable.
Firm: Martin T. Sullivan CPA / Langhorn, Pa.
Size: Sole practitioner
Product: CCH Tax Axcess & WorkStream (CCH, a part of Wolters Kluwer)
Commencement date: November 2012
On record: Owner Martin Sullivan
Challenge/objective: Wanted to solve the firm's operating efficiencies and product integration issues with cloud products.
Amount spent: $12,000-$13,000.
Process: Sullivan had already been using other CCH products and was introduced to Axcess and WorkStream because he is in their Early Adopter program. He admitted he had some hesitancy because they are SaaS-based, but he found that use and training, with the support CCH provided, "made the transition to SaaS effortless."
"I have looked at another software, which will remain nameless and had support that answers the phone before it even rings, in efforts to cut costs," said Sullivan. "What I determined was that although I would save significant upfront costs, in the long run it would cost me significantly more. Once deciding to go with the CCH products, I can honestly say that I had very few hiccups. Was it flawless? No. Was it dependable and reliable? Absolutely."
He also said that because of integrations, he has the ability to take a client's QuickBooks file, copy stages into Engagement, then into Axcess Tax, and then into Document and/or Portal and keep track of all processes in WorkStream.
Results: Overall, the product integration enabled Sullivan to reduce time spent per engagement from the efficiencies received. "The processes I have been able to implement to this point -- and believe me they are far from perfect - have made me able to operate very efficiently and competitively," he said.
"With CCH, I would save on average three hours on the preparation of a business return from the integration of the products. If I am preparing 75 business returns, that computes to 225 saved hours," he continued. "Factor the savings with Document and Portal on the individual prep side and it was a no-brainer."
Next steps: Sullivan wants to add more client portals and "gain some greater peace of mind as to the cloud and what it offers."
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