Most people think of accounting as a solitary profession, with accountants paying the occasional visit to their clients, but otherwise huddling at their desk in front of a computer, the modern equivalent of yesteryear's green eyeshade.

But those in practice know just how off-center this perception really is, with the client and accountant partnering in the collection, sharing and analysis of data to be used for multiple purposes. And, because of the time constraints surrounding much of this data-sharing, effective and speedy communication and collaboration between accountant and client is becoming more important with every passing day.

But just as technology has changed in the past few decades, so has the paradigm of how this collaboration takes place. Over the past several years, accountants and their clients have experienced an evolution, from collaborating on the accountant's servers to an even more distributed method -- cloud-based servers hosted by third-party vendors.

While facetime is still a critical component of most relationships, here are some of the techniques, services and software that enhance communication and information when you just can't be in front of the client.

 

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE

Perhaps the most understandable substitute for facetime is video conferencing. This is one area where your mobile device might just be a terrific solution. We've reached the point where the TV wristwatch, an advance on the simpler two-way wrist radios that appeared in old Dick Tracy comics, is not only doable, but has been demonstrated.

But having a conversation with a 1.5-inch image displayed on your wrist is not an approach that users are clamoring for. Video chat, a more user-oriented version of videoconferencing, has been available since affordable web cameras were introduced. Over the past few years, video chat has become much easier to do, and delivers greater image quality, making it a relatively inexpensive way to communicate face to face, even if the other "face" is hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

In larger firms, with larger clients, video chat is done on a higher level-telepresence. Hewlett-Packard exhibited it years ago with its HALO rooms, a solution that only a handful of companies could afford. HALO technology is now owned by Polycom, and the price has dropped substantially from the original quarter-million dollars per room. Cisco is also very prevalent in this market, again with solutions starting in the thousands of dollars.

But it took video chat, rather than formal video conferencing, to make face-to-face meetings not only affordable and practical, but desirable.

If you and your client both use Apple products, Apple's Facetime app comes with most Apple devices today, including newer models of the iPod Touch, the iPhone 4 and 4S, the iPad, and newer Mac laptops and desktops. QIK, Skype (now owned by Microsoft) and Tango are just a few inexpensive options available for the Android and Windows operating system.

 

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE

As simple as it has become, video face-to-face is a technology that still has a way to go before it becomes commonplace. In fact, with so many other ways to share and work together, it may never gain much use as a collaboration method between accountants and their clients. At the moment, there are still some recent technological ways to keep in close touch.

The most obvious of these is e-mail, which has, perhaps, the greatest business use of any technology. There have been lots of jokes made about "Crackberry" addicts, but there are few of us who don't check our e-mail or instant messages when the phone bings or vibrates. The jury is still out on whether or not this is a good thing. It makes it easy for clients to get hold of us, which fosters communication and collaboration, but it also tethers us to our practice and clients 24/7, which at some point has the opposite effect on communication. Voicemail and caller ID are partial solutions, but there's always at least one client who feels no shame at interrupting your weekends and evenings.

A growing solution are software applications specifically designed to foster collaboration. Many of these applications were originally developed to enhance in-house collaboration between staff members over a company intranet, but as long as they are set up securely, they work equally well (and sometimes even better) with your clients using the cloud.

Microsoft's Office 365 is an example of this. The application exists solely in the cloud, which makes it easy for any authorized user to access documents and spreadsheets. Google Apps for Business offers similar accessibility. Using cloud-based applications doesn't tie anyone down to an accounting practice's host server, and for the most part, these applications and the documents produced by them are accessible 24/7, even on holidays. Both of these suites were designed to be used in a shared mode, with every user authorized for a particular document able to edit or comment on it. This is a much faster and easier way for accountants and clients to work together on a spreadsheet or other document than e-mailing it back and forth.

Office suites are far from the only type of applications gaining cloud-based users. Many accounting software vendors started offering hosted or Software-as-a-Service solutions several years ago. Today, even more vendors have their applications accessible in the cloud.

However, many accounting firms haven't flocked to these solutions as their only way of running their practice. K2 Enterprises' Randy Johnson believes, "For now, we see most accountants using a mix of on-premise, hosted and SaaS technologies - a hybrid solution."

But there are plenty of benefits in a cloud approach. James Bourke, a partner in Top 100 Firm WithumSmith+Brown PC, explained the benefits that his firm and its clients derive from the cloud: "The use of cloud-based accounting applications has facilitated our ability to act as an outsourced CFO for clients. The client's internal clerical staff have the ability to enter the operational/transactional day-to-day business into the system, while the CPA can handle the high-level accounting-related transactions and financial statement preparation by accessing this cloud-based database."

Bourke also pointed out another advantage: "The use of cloud-based applications to collaborate with clients has allowed us to continue to serve clients that may have relocated outside of our geographic region where we practice."

The vendors and developers of cloud-based applications are also pleased with the benefits that placing their software in the cloud provides to their customers.

"We're seeing accounting professionals creating 'virtual offices' at local Starbucks, in parks, on trains, anywhere there is a Wi-Fi signal -- and there are 65,000 free Wi-Fi spots in the U.S.," pointed out Jill Ward, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit's Accounting Professionals Division. "Some accounting professionals are reaping the benefits of the cloud," she continued. "Others are still waiting, but we don't see them waiting too much longer."

Working from anywhere is one obvious benefit of using the cloud. Perhaps somewhat less obvious is that the cloud also provides the ability to print from anywhere. Utilities provided by printer vendors including HP and Epson install on a smartphone or tablet and let you store "printed" documents in the cloud for future retrieval or instant printing on any of the new printer models that connect directly to the cloud using a network/Ethernet connection. Google offers its Google Cloud Print, which will let pretty much any device print to any cloud-connected printer (non-cloud-connected printers are also supported, but need some set-up).

 

WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING FAX!

Years ago, fax machines were a common way to transfer documents. People still use them, but they are disappearing year by year. Taking faxing's place is scanning. It's a rare accounting office that doesn't have at least one scanner. The increasing popularity of multi-function printers pretty much guarantees that.

Scanning is rapidly growing more sophisticated. One example is Intuit's online tax return system for individuals. It uses optical character recognition technology to pull data directly off a W-2 into the tax prep application simply by taking a picture of the document with a smartphone, a process similar to what some banks are now offering as a way to deposit checks. This application of OCR technology is certain to find its way into your client relationships.

Rick Telberg, president and CEO of research and consulting firm CPA Trendlines, finds that many of the accountants he surveys are enthusiastic about this emerging technology. "Accountants don't need to actually get physical receipts or documents from the client anymore. And the client is happy about that." He added, "Today, more and more, clients are happy to scan their documents from their desks -- or even just take a picture with their smartphone -- and hit Send. It's all digital, all cloud, all the time. I know a firm that tells prospective clients up front: 'The deal is, to be a client of ours, you need to be paperless. We will not accept paper from you and we will never send you paper.' Clients love it. They have the coolest accountant in town."

WithumSmith+Brown's Bourke agrees with this approach. "Today, the cloud is the primary vehicle for delivering the final work product to our clients."

Of course, not every client will find this approach "cool." But having a client perceive you as being on or ahead of the technology curve is certainly not a bad thing. Neither is reducing the paper crunch. Filing and retrieving documents in electronic format is much more time-efficient than playing with paper. That's why document management is a major application in many practices. And managing client- and accountant-generated documents is even less time-consuming when the "document" is never generated in hardcopy. Most document management systems let you scan into a cloud account, and on your client side, even the smallest client can afford a desktop solution, such as PaperPort or NeatDesk, both of which offer the ability to scan a paper document directly to the cloud, as well as manage it electronically at the source.

Document sharing through the cloud also has significant benefits over e-mail when it comes to large documents, or when many documents need to be transferred. A folder containing 50 or 60 separate documents, such as receipts, can take hours to transfer though multiple e-mails. Using a service like DropBox, the folder can be uploaded to the cloud in less than a minute, and downloaded by the recipient in about the same time.

Some accounting practices are using portals for the same purpose - as a place where accountant and client can "meet." "Our portal, which is a cloud-based application, allows us to bi-directionally share documents and files with our clients," said Bourke. "We'll post everything our clients would ever ask for, from tax returns and financial statements to selected workpapers and other source documents. On the other side, our clients can upload documents and files requested by us to their place on the portal, anytime day or night, when convenient for them."

 

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY

A final thought is that the cloud makes a perfect place to store vital and mission-critical files. Both the client and the accountant need to ensure that these records are safe, and cloud servers are generally in secure data centers with many more safeguards than an average practice or its clients can afford to create and maintain.

Backing up in the cloud is easy, and many store-in-the-cloud services from Apple, Google and Microsoft are free up to a certain amount of storage. All of these are useful for fall-back backup in the event that other backups are compromised. There are also services such as Mozy and Carbonite that are specifically targeted for cloud-based backup and feature interfaces similar to those found on common media-based backup services such as Acronis and Retrospect. Fees are generally not the reason that often only the most critical files are backed up in the cloud. Internet bandwidth often puts a constraint on just how much cloud-based storage is practical.

Cloud-based collaboration is still evolving, and accountants and clients are likely to develop numerous other ways to make use of the cloud beyond the ones mentioned here. Given how the market for cloud-based products and services has exploded, it's almost a certainty that in the next year or two there will be even more collaborative applications that will be attractive to accounting practices and their clients. And this collaboration will be accelerated as clients discover more ways that they can use the cloud for other non- accounting-related tasks. A client heavily into sharing music and photos is someday soon going to demand, rather than accept, business in the cloud as the norm.

Ted Needleman writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects, and was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.

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