Whether it's trying to keep better track of the status of client tax returns, managing engagements, or simply ordering specific supplies - technology to manage these workflows remains one of the core product decisions a firm can make.

Depending on the size and needs of your firm, one workflow product may not be a fit for all. We are finding more firms switching from one particular system in favor of another, rather than just transitioning from paper or spreadsheet methods. More often than not, this move is to a cloud solution -- be it part of a suite or a stand-alone product that can integrate with systems already in place.

Below are four firms of varied size, but with familiar issues, that sought out current workflow technologies to solve them.

 

Aiming to collaborate

Firm: McDonald Jacobs / Portland, Ore.

Size: 30 staff

Product: CCH Axcess Workstream

Commencement date: December 2013

On record: Audit manager Jessica Yoder

Challenge/objective: The previous workflow system did not offer the ability for staff to work collaboratively.

Amount spent/pricing: $255 per year with pricing tiered based upon the number of users.

Process: The firm does tax and assurance work as well as accounting, and often has several engagements at the same time. Some staff were involved in Boomer Circles and attended CCH user conferences and became aware of Axcess Workstream, but moreover "knew what we were doing wasn't serving our firm best, so we formed an additional group of people to go out and research tools to use," explained Yoder. "Workstream became one piece of what we needed."

Once the decision was made to start using Workstream in Fall 2013, the firm had what it defined as "heavy users" go through training and begin using the product. They then set up test clients and tested things out at the same time, customizing how they wanted everything to work together.

The firm then had to identify best practices for using the system and began "extensive testing," which lasted until the end of the year. Trial data was initially entered into the system before migrating all data.

"We definitely hit bumps, but we would check in with the core user group and every week we would check to see what the problems were - divide and tackle. We had a number of trainings on using the system," said Yoder. "We mainly struggled with creating new processes; it was a new system and we needed to say what do we want it to be versus what we do currently. Knowing we could add bells and whistles at a later date, we had to get to that point first."

Yoder also noted that the firm had planned to use Workstream for time entry, document management and most of its tax work.

Results: "Not only are we able to work collaboratively, but we can manage projects we work on and since we integrate with the Axcess suite we can track work steps against a budget," said Yoder. "Also, we can send alerts and have a centralized holding place for dates. We track filing due dates, engagements, audits and reviews. Within those, we have smaller work steps and are now able to track all the planning and field work, wrap up and delivery." She also noted that for client accounting work, they are able to track monthly financial statements and accounts payable deliverables.

Next steps: The firm is still "tweaking things in the system," and would like to move away from manual processes, such as having alerts and notifications, rather than typing out e-mails to make changes or enter data. Yoder also noted that the firm would like to possibly use Workstream for internal processes and client work.

 

An everyday tool

Firm: Pittman & Brooks / Portland, Ore.

Size: 25 staff

Product: XCM

Commencement date: January 2013

On record: Practice manager Tina Christen

Challenge/objective: The firm knew it could function better overall and wanted a system to track everything it does.

Amount spent: $7,000 (software and services).

Process: The firm discovered XCM at a conference in 2012. It had been using a different system for workflow, and even then it was only for certain clients. The decision was made shortly after the conference to switch to XCM, but much like any transition between systems, it was not without its difficulties.

"We did underestimate what it would take to get up and running for the 2013 tax season; we had projects set up one way and had to learn a new way. It wasn't apples to apples," said Christen. "Being in two systems initially, we had to run different reports. When we first set it up, we had a consultant that went though it all with us. The end user training is very easy, but you need to figure out how you want your workflow to go, and as a firm we needed to decide that."

She also noted that all of the partners were invested in having all staff use XCM, which aided the transition process and garnering 100 percent buy-in for the product.

After the 2013 tax season, the firm was able to work to convert all of the functions into XCM, rather than both systems, and did so by September of that year.

"You don't always know what you want, and you need to go through and see what it can do. It was good we started with a smaller chunk of our data, using it for individual returns initially," said Christen. "Staff buy-in happened, as it's the culture here and we held people accountable. We did weekly reports and had to have status updated. We're not going to assume they did something to move on the work; it's in the system and if they didn't update it in the system, they'd hear about it."

Results: The firm now uses XCM for every tax return, any project or task it performs for a client, any administrative function, quarterly estimates, bank reconciliations and client accounting. It also uses it internally for health care plan renewals, its own bookkeeping, monthly management meetings, reviewing the Web site and the internal newsletter.

"We log into it in the morning and everything," said Christen. "XCM is the home page for us; [the staff] don't open any other tasks until they update what they're supposed to."

Next steps: Christen said that the firm is "very pleased" with how it is using XCM, but will look into using it more for scheduling. She also noted that XCM is changing the user interface next year, so the firm is interested to see what they're going to be able to do.

"We are getting toward having staff taking more personal responsibility for what's in XCM," she said. They are also integrating some paperless functions in XCM, as tasks are getting prepared and fulfilled.

 

Enjoying integration

Firm: Cooper Norman / Idaho Falls, Idaho

Size: 75 staff

Product: FirmFlow (ThomsonReuters)

Commencement date: September 2013

On record: Partner Daniel Packard

Challenge/objective: Initial goal was to use a fully integrated system that included workflow as a key component that the entire staff could use.

Amount spent: Approximately $30,000 a year.

Process: The firm had transitioned to ThomsonReuters' UltraTax from another tax program and wanted to have more integrated functions. As such, they were made aware of FirmFlow as part of a full suite of products from the company. The move to use FirmFlow started last fall, which came with training the entire staff on it in time for the 2014 tax season. The process took approximately three to four months and was not without some challenges, mainly stemming from "interacting on a cloud format, as well as latency issues that we were unaccustomed to," explained Packard.

Results: Currently all of the firm's staff use FirmFlow and Packard noted that it "has exceptional reporting mechanisms that have improved our office-wide workflow."

Next steps: The firm looks to continue using FirmFlow to track projects, determine staff efficiency, and manage inter-office workflow.

 

Simplify

Firm: Joseph Mermelstein CPA / West Nyack, N.Y.

Size: 2 staff

Product: TaxWorkFlow (Medows CPA)

Commencement date: Early 2013

On record: Owner Joseph Mermelstein

Amount spent: 3-year contact, $500 per year.

Challenge/objective: Workflow management was becoming difficult, even for a sole practitioner, and with a growing number of tax and bookkeeping clients, "sticky notes weren't working."

Process: Mermelstein knew the product's founder, Jonathan Medows, as they had met a few times at various accounting events. Medows had told Mermelstein that he was developing something for workflow management, particularly for small firms and sole practitioners and "the price seemed right" as well, Mermelstein said.

Mermelstein had not tried any other workflow products yet, but since he knew Medows well and, again, liked the price, he decided to give TaxWorkFlow a try. Medows helped onboard him with entering client information the right way from an already existing spreadsheet, as well as setting up workflows.

"It was a bit tough at first, but he personally walked me through it, showed me how to use it and there was an easy tutorial that comes with it, too," said Mermelstein. "He had also suggested things other firms did and helped me with the overall processes needed. Tax work is multi-step and I needed to keep track of all my client e-mails too."

Results: Mermelstein has approximately 250-300 clients now, which he is pleased about. But with TaxWorkFlow, "Most of all, I realized the hard drive in my head wasn't the most efficient tool for my business, and this is," he said. "I needed to make life more simple, I needed to have it present and I was able to accomplish that."

Next: He would like to generate e-mails from TaxWorkFlow and have it be more of a singular place to store his calendar items and client passwords for bookkeeping work.

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