by Wayne Schulz
Practice management software is getting smarter, faster, friendlier and much more integrated. With the advent of Windows, the promise of one point of data entry, as well as flexible, customizable and intuitive software to manage accounting firms, is finally a reality.
PM Software pros and consCCH
Creative Solutions Inc.
Time and billing is only one component of the different practice management programs. Systems now typically include advanced features like staff calendars, continuing professional education tracking, routing sheets for tax returns and mailing list management.Striving for a flexible system will allow for future expansion. When coupled with an industry-standard report writer you’ll have an absolute ability to meet the most demanding needs within your firm.
There are several factors to consider when looking for a practice management solution. The software marketplace has drastically changed from the early days of DOS accounting software. The transformation of systems from DOS to Windows is now complete, so avoid any software program that is "just" moving to Windows.
Also, avoid systems that don’t adhere to the standard look and feel of Windows. There should be fully Windows-compliant menu structures, as well as usage of the standard Windows drivers and support for the latest operating systems - including Windows XP and Windows 2000. Red flags should go up for any package that does not meet these minimum criteria.
Here are some of the most important ideas to consider when evaluating systems:
Choose a leading brand of software - the rush from DOS to Windows has ended and software companies have experienced a drastic contraction in the numbers of companies purchasing software for the first time. The market now consists largely of software companies taking customers from one another.
History tends to repeat itself - and, historically, the smaller companies have been gobbled up by larger competitors, while the smaller company products are often phased out or their further development is frozen. Therefore, you must consider the most well-known and successful packages with the largest user bases.
Integration to other software used within your firm is highly desirable. You will want to consider purchasing a system that either includes a time and billing component or has strong links to market leading T&B brands.
Enter data once to minimize or eliminate re-keying. The larger and more complete systems include links to calendaring and CPE tracking, as well as allowing you to prepare all of your time and billing and client due-date tracking. Suites that include links to all of these features are highly desirable. Strive to use the best system available, and one that links to all the additional practice management features.
Another key feature is the ability to capture time for billing information. Tracking time is largely mastered by all the systems reviewed here.
When reviewing a product’s time and billing capability, first check the references of other firms that are the same size (same number of timekeepers as your firm) and use the software in the same fashion as your firm anticipates using it. Also look for the ability to modify the look of invoices sent to clients.
Other key desirable features to look at closely include client and prospective client tracking, calendars and staff scheduling, CPE tracking, and access to a flexible report writer.
The highest marks go to practice management solutions that allow you to interface to an industry-standard report writer like Crystal Reports or one of the other report writer industry leaders.
ProSystem fx Practice
If your firm wants a full-featured practice management system that is part of an integrated suite, seriously consider Practice, which is part of CCH’s popular ProSystem fx line. This system integrates a calendar, to-do list and due-date tracking system into time and billing, thereby eliminating duplication of efforts. The latest version also includes a switch to the Advantage database server resulting in a stable and fast processing environment.
ProSystem fx Practice allows for the creation of up to 250 user-defined fields within the client database. This gives an almost unlimited variety of information that can be tracked and reported on. When you make a phone call or send a letter you can record the event within this system. Faithful use of this could go a long way to keeping your entire engagement team in the loop on the latest happenings with a client.
Remote users can use a hosted Web application that allows for entry of time when they are off-site. If you are jittery about entering information over the Web, ProSystem Practice allows you to create a remote database on your laptop, to serve as the point of entry for all of your client time.
This program also features project tracking. Every time you enter time into the billing module it flows through and updates your project tracking information, eliminating all double entry and increasing the accuracy of final numbers. Notification of situations where projects have gone over budget can automatically be generated from within the system and sent to the appropriate manager or partner via e-mail.
The latest version of ProSystem fx Practice makes use of a client/server architecture, resulting in better stability, increased data integrity and faster processing. It also includes enhancements to the "Day Planner" calendar and to-do list applications, so that they can automatically transfer completed tasks into the billing portion of the program.
Firms looking for an advanced system that can track time and provide immediate notification when projects are over budget should investigate the latest edition of ProSystem fx Practice. Its features can make firms of any size more efficient and profitable.
Visual Practice Management
Last year, CPASoftware was acquired by Best Software, one of the nation’s largest developers of accounting and other business management software products. Its resources will likely mean an intensified marketing and development push for Visual Practice Management.
CPASoftware also publishes a line of tax, depreciation and client write-up software sold directly to CPA firms. Visual Practice captures time for billing either by direct entry into the system or through a Web-based interface that you can establish on your firm’s own server. In addition you can use the Palm PDA interface to capture time remotely and synchronize it when you are back in the office.
When capturing time, there is an attractive on-screen interface that displays a calendar, a client lookup screen and an electronic timer for closely tracking time spent on different engagements. One of the handiest features is the electronic in/out board. With this feature you can take all of the guesswork out of locating your employees. Each user can log in and enter information about their daily whereabouts. A central calendar can also be used by each employee to notify others of planned engagements.
Important information such as vacation time or budget vs. actual engagement time can be viewed from handy on-screen displays. Creating bills for a client is simplified by the use of graphical on-screen worksheets. More traditional billing systems can also make use of printed worksheets that show what WIP is available to be billed back to a client. Once the time has been selected for billing, a WYSIWYG report writer allows you to personalize your invoices with logos, type styles or several different billing summary formats.
Document storage can be streamlined by use of the company’s Visual File Cabinet software. Here you can archive information from the practice management software. The software also serves as a convenient storage spot for electronic documents, such as checklists or perhaps marketing materials that need to be shared between different employees.
The Visual suite is tightly integrated and has a strong focus on usability. If your firm wants to squeeze more efficiency from your billing procedures, this is the package for you. The Web and PDA interfaces are perfect for firms with flexible work arrangements where staff need to enter information from remote locations.
Creative Solutions Inc.
Creative Solutions Practice
Creative Solutions, a Thomson business, has been involved in the CPA marketplace since 1979. They offer a complete
stable of software, all squarely targeted at the accounting marketplace. Their practice management solution includes modules for time and billing, scheduling, CPE management, marketing and reporting.
The time and billing solution allows for many different setup options. When used with the option-scheduling module, you’ll be able to set up your staff with the typical staffing level, as well as indicate their particular areas of expertise and rank how proficient they are in those areas. This additional information is used by the scheduling module when pulling staff for different engagements.
Growing firms will be happy to see that the time and billing system has an option to apply a technology surcharge to client invoices. With the growing cost of technology, applying a surcharge is an often-recommended strategy for recovering those costs. When this box is checked, you are able to increase your WIP by either a flat dollar amount or a percentage of billable WIP.
When you force your staff to enter their engagement time on a daily basis you see an immediate increase in billable hours. After all, who can remember at the end of the week all those half-hour and quarter-hour billable tasks that were completed in between different client work?
The daily time monitor built into time and billing produces an on-screen window displaying, by day, the total time that each employee has entered. This makes enforcing daily time entry a snap. The consistent enforcement of a daily time sheet procedure through this utility would likely pay for the software all by itself.
The optional scheduling solution module has a distinctive routing sheet that can be printed to follow each job. This sheet shows the staff, tasks, due dates and budgeted hours for each individual step that is required to complete a job. This eliminates confusion among staff over how long a specific task should take and provides a handy form to record time spent on different tasks.
Creative Solutions has an extensive practice management system that offers everything that a modern firm could want. It will streamline the running of all areas of your practice and will likely more than pay for itself in the first three months of use.
TimeMatters - Professional Edition
There are three flavors of TimeMatters that have been tweaked for the CPA, law and business marketplace respectively. In addition, each flavor is available in varying degrees of horsepower - Personal, Professional, Enterprise and World - each designed for different sizes of companies.
TimeMatters functions as more of a billing front-end - feeding billing information into popular time and billing programs, such as TimeSlips, PC Law, TABS or Juris. The basic TimeMatters system allows for the creation of simple invoice layouts. More complex invoicing or statement printing requires the linking of your TimeMatters data to another time and billing program.
Where TimeMatters shines is with the calendaring, scheduling and document management. One of the handiest standard reports in TimeMatters has to be the weekly calendar, which shows the schedules of multiple staff overlaid on a grid. This can be printed in different colors for ease of use. The tri-fold pocket calendar report consolidates all of your contacts and weekly due-date monitors, as well as your daily calendar, into one clear, concise summary report. This would be an ideal management tool for the small or midsized office where a few staff members could all be tracked on one sheet of paper.
Scheduling in TimeMatters is greatly simplified by the use of "chain templates." These pre-defined activity maps tell the program which tasks to schedule and in what order they should be planned. The templates will allow you to sequence to-do’s, notes, phone calls and different events in whatever order you like. This speeds your scheduling process and eliminates errors that could be made due to a missed step when manually planning an audit or other similar activity that is based on a number of steps.
Double entry of activities is virtually eliminated with TimeMatters. Each event that appears on your calendar can be transferred automatically into the billing system. After all, if you have the event on your calendar, the chances are that if it is a billable task it should be transferred into the billing system so that the time is not forgotten. This automation removes another chance for error and lost billable time.
TimeMatters is a handy program that is appropriate for firms with simple billing needs or those firms that are looking for better scheduling and contact management capabilities and are willing to transfer billing information to another billing program for the more complex billing and collection processes.
TimeSlips is a long-time favorite of smaller firms looking for a highly flexible and inexpensive billing solution. The system exists for the single purpose of accurately capturing your time and creating highly customizable bills that can be formatted in virtually any manner within the included graphical report writer.
None of the transactions within TimeSlips has a formal posting process. If you like real-time data entry without the cumbersome requirement of printing journals and updating posting registers, then this program is worth investigating.
Just about any type of billable arrangement can be accommodated within TimeSlips. You can have retainers, not-to-exceed, fixed fees and standard billing arrangements. Each client can have his or her own billing rate and method if you so desire. Staff can have up to six different billing rates. Cost information is also retained for each employee so that profit reports can be generated as soon as time is entered.
TimeSlips also offers Web-based time entry through their eCenter Web interface. For a flat fee per user you have the ability to enter time from any Internet-connected PC. Once the time has been entered it is periodically imported into your TimeSlips installation on your office computer for processing and billing.
Once a client has been billed you have to approve the printed invoice and make it final. This is the only posting step within TimeSlips. All other data entry is accomplished in real time - meaning that it is updated as soon as it is entered into the software. On screen re-printing of invoices is also available, which is very handy for mailing copies of lost invoices to clients. Version 11 of TimeSlips also includes the ability to create Adobe Acrobat PDF versions of your invoices - which are handy when sending billing via e-mail.
Those remote users with PDAs will love the Palm interface, which is offered by a company called iambic (www.iambic.com). With the Palm interface, time and expense entry can be entered remotely onto your Palm PDA and synchronized back to your TimeSlips software. During synchronization, a complete list of your clients and work codes is also maintained so that you always have up-to-date information on your handheld or remote computer.
Because TimeSlips is primarily a billing program, it does not include scheduling, calendaring or due-date tracking. In order to use any of those features with TimeSlips you’ll have to go with a third-party product.
The ease of use of TimeSlips makes it ideally suited for the smaller office that needs to be up and running with a flexible billing system quickly. The invoices are adaptable to almost any client billing situation, making the collection of your fees that much simpler. If desired, there is an optional TAL link, which passes accounting entries back and forth between popular accounting programs and TimeSlips.
Knowledge Concepts’ FirmWorks: Knowledge Concepts has taken the concept of customer relationship management, mixed it with their strong experience with the CPA market, and added a browser interface to create a package that may kick start the productivity levels of firms of all sizes.
FirmWorks is not a billing system - it relies on integration with outside billing systems (a partnership with CCH ProSystem has been announced) to manage the billing process. FirmWorks acts as a time collection and contact/customer manager that is expertly tailored for the CPA firm market.
FirmWorks integrates with your existing client databases to track important information on billing, services, due dates, responsibility and more. The system can also be integrated into many e-mail systems so that you can send and receive e-mails and have all that information affiliated with the appropriate client. Notes and comments on phone conversations can also be attached to the client’s electronic file.
FirmWorks is an exceptionally powerful system that has the ability to pull together and organize so much information on your present client relationships and projects that it is difficult to imagine that any firm would want to live without it.
The strategic partnership with CCH ProSystem guarantees increased attention to the tight integration between these two popular products, which makes FirmWorks a product to be considered by anyone looking to squeeze more efficiency from the day.
Solution 6’s CMS Open: CMS Open is a 32-bit, SQL-based system that is used by over 260 law and CPA firms. The full suite of products includes not only time and billing, but also general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable and billing. There are add-on modules available to increase the functionality with options such as Web-based entry of time.
The SQL-based architecture of CMS Open makes it a candidate for the large firm with many timekeepers. All date flows into a central module called the Hub. This holds customers, personnel, work codes and projects or matters.
Firms that are doing advanced trust work may find some of the law-firm-centric capabilities to their liking. There can be unlimited trust accounts per project and matter. You can also set up blended trusts to track funds held for investment, record interest or redeem investments. The integration with CMS Open Accounts Payable allows for the easy bill back of expenditures made on behalf of a client - which can also be billed at cost or marked up.
The CMS Open system is one for larger firms that require the firepower that comes with using a SQL database. It is also a system worth investigating for any firms that require the administration of money held in trust for clients.
Interface’s Interaction 5: Interaction 5 is a browser-based product that helps manage the knowledge already within your existing practice management applications. Their unique "My Watch" list notifies you whenever someone in the organization makes a change to any information that is attached to one of your clients. You can import information either from Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook.
Who Knows Whom and Relationship Maps are two additional services that let you get a bird’s-eye view of exactly what is transpiring with different client and contact relationships. These unique features let you know who else within your firm has a contact or existing relationship with a contact that is in your database.
Interaction 5 is a unique tool that compliments your existing practice management information and can provide you with advanced data on your contacts. This is ideally suited to growing firms whose clients and contacts have started to become somewhat unmanageable within the traditional practice management software package. Now, instead of abandoning your practice management software, you can use a tool like Interaction 5 to expand upon your existing information.
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