[IMGCAP(1)]These days you’re not likely to pick up an accounting publication or surf the blogosphere without coming across an article on portals, or more specifically, client portals for file sharing.

Client portals are a mainstay in the accounting profession and their value cannot be overstated. It’s a fact that portals offer the highest level of security for sharing documents and data. It’s also a fact that portals are at the center of a highly efficient firm system—supporting real-time collaboration and secure file sharing with clients and eclipsing the boundaries of time and distance in terms of service.

None of this is exactly big news. Most practitioners know why client portals are so valuable…because they’ve been written about ad nauseam. The profession also has boundless choices when searching for a client portal from providers. And while the benefits of portals are important to understand, what firm leaders really need to know is that they will never realize the full potential of client portals if they’re not implemented properly.

Let’s examine each level…

Level 1 – Partner
Too many times, partners move forward with technology based on isolated meetings with sales vendors. And that, Tankersley reported, can doom the entire project from the get-go.

“First and foremost, the partners have to make the right decision on what portal technology to adopt. You have to select a solution that will work for the entire firm and avoid purchasing on basic criteria like cost. This means that you and your partners may have to let go of the reigns a bit and bring staff in on the initial decision-making process. It’s very difficult to have a successful client portal implementation if only the partners agree on the technology.”

Tankersley’s point is well taken. In general, it’s a firm’s front-line staff that will have their hands in the technology on a daily basis. If the solution doesn’t work for them, implementation will fail.

“Too often top-tier decision makers decide to purchase technology based on a sales pitch, or want to pick a solution quickly just for the sake of checking an item off their to-do list. You have to kick the tires, test the solution with staff, and then decide if it is a good fit for the firm. Implementations that exclude staff are fatally flawed.”

By bringing in staff up front, you can evaluate client portal solutions on all necessary levels—in terms of integration with the firm’s existing applications and ease of use (for staff and clients). Because higher-tier executives often don’t have intimate knowledge of the firm’s overall solution set, they can overlook these critical checklist items. There is more to selecting the right client portal solution than cost. Your frontline staff knows this better than anyone.

In the evaluation phase, look for vendors that offer a risk-free trial of their offering. Staff can then get their hands on the technology and provide better feedback to partners on the pros and cons. Some providers offer a free 30-day portal solution trial, with no credit card required. This offers a risk-free option to test multiple solutions and find the one that is the best fit for the firm.

Level 2 – Staff
At the staff level, implementation requires firm-wide involvement. It’s critical to get opinions and feedback from your staff if a solution has a chance for complete implementation and acceptance from all employees. It’s also your staff that will be onboarding clients, so they need to understand the technology inside and out to be able to train and communicate with clients effectively.

Tankersley explained, “If staff are involved in the implementation process from the start, you’re more likely to get buy-in across the firm, and training will go far more smoothly. And because most often the onus of onboarding clients falls to staff, they have to both understand and believe in the technology before they can be expected to ‘sell’ it to clients.”

Once a solution is selected and has the staff’s stamp of approval, proper training to get up and running is required. This is best accomplished by seeking or appointing a project champion. This person will serve as the firm’s “go-to” person for questions as the staff comes up to speed, and ensure the implementation goes smoothly and stays on track. A successful implementation will not happen if partners simply purchase a solution and hand it over to someone who isn’t invested in the project. Proper, detailed planning and follow-though are a must.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen to make a client portal implementation successful…work that many firms don’t predict,” Tankersley explained. “Aside from technical training, for example, staff members need to develop a detailed process document so that everyone is onboarding clients the same way. These are the things that happen behind the scenes that most partners don’t even realize, which only further supports the need to involve frontline employees from the start.”

Some firms may not be able to support the “champion” concept, so it is critical that these firms evaluate the training and onboarding offerings from the service provider. Many providers offer free training and onboarding for the firm and even the firm’s clients. Make sure that training and support are part of your vendor evaluation checklist.

Level 3 - Client
While all levels of implementation are important, the core of any client portal initiative is always based on client needs. This takes us back to making the right decision in the beginning. Your clients need a portal solution that’s intuitive, easy to use, and supports a collaborative process. Clients want the convenience of 24/7 access via portals, but not if they have to think about it too much.

“If the client has issues with the portal platform, the implementation has failed because clients won’t use it,” Tankersley stated.

Frontline staff understands this, which is why a staff-approved solution will better ensure that it receives the clients’ stamp of approval as well.

Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link…
Don’t underestimate the importance of a sound and well-thought-out client portal implementation. From the moment the process begins, all levels of implementation must be considered and planned. Remember a few basic tips:

• Partners, involve staff from the very first vendor pitch, name a champion to oversee the implementation, and keep communication open during the entire process.

• Staff, test the solution properly to make sure it’s a good fit for the firm and that clients can be easily onboarded. Also be sure to create the proper process documentation along the way and regularly communicate with your vendor partners on issues and needs. The good ones really do listen to your input!

If you’re well prepared and understand the importance of a sound, organized implementation approach, your chances of successfully implementing a secure client portal solution will increase dramatically. Remember, no matter how cool and powerful the technology, without a proper implementation, you might as well leave it “in the box.”

Eric Pulaski is founder and CEO of SmartVault, a leading provider of online document storage and secure client portal solutions to the accounting industry. He can be emailed at eric@smartvault.com.

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