by Wayne Schulz

The last few years have marked a change in practice management solutions for CPA firms.

Practice management used to be a fancy name for time and billing. Throw in a little due-date monitoring, some custom database fields for tracking the names of the professionals and who was responsible for generating the client, and software companies were suddenly offering a suite of practice management products.

Then, almost overnight, firms wanted unheard-of capabilities.

Better reports and remote timekeeping were frequently requested. The software companies responded and further bolstered their offerings to add these shiny new features. The sudden introduction of Windows made it seem that every scrap of client data could be at your fingertips with the use of a Windows report writer.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll see an industry that has consolidated, as larger companies purchased their competition. When this happens, it often leaves users of the acquired packages wondering where they fit in the new organization.

If you’re in the process of wondering what your next practice management solution should be, you may want to consider these issues when you review the solutions available.

The vendor’s track record. Before making any decisions, consider the reputation of both the software package and the company selling it. How many users are on the software that you are considering? It almost never fails that the more users a practice management system has, the faster and more robust the system upgrades are.

You may want to consider if there are other key products own­ed by the company. Some of the features you very likely will want to investigate are the ability for your staff to work remotely in performing client tasks like entering time or maintaining current data.

Breadth of offerings. Some software companies have single-purpose solutions that only perform one task, such as time and billing or client relationship management. Others have entire suites of products that perform all of those functions and more — including linking to data from their own tax-processing systems. The more options that are available for your practice management solution, the better time you’ll have should your firm experience rapid growth, as can happen through mergers.

Custom reporting. No matter which practice management system you purchase, a report writer is going to be a requirement. There will be custom reports that you must generate, which the developers of the product did not. Strive for a system that can link to commonly used reporting tools, such as Microsoft Access or Crystal Report Writer. A side benefit of using these common reporting tools is that many of your staff will already have experience with them.

Integration with other products. Software products always integrate better with their rela­­tives than with strangers. What this means is that you’ll get the tightest integration between products that are published by the same company. No matter how hard a software company tries to convince you otherwise, the tightest bonds will come from software in the same family. One exception is an integration to Microsoft Office tools, which is always desirable.

Ability to work remotely. Almost every CPA firm is striving to send staff out into the field for longer periods of time. And when they aren’t in the field, it’s very possible that staff will be working remotely — either from home or remote offices. The widespread popular­ity of the Internet makes these remote connections easy. Be certain that any solution you examine has already figured out a way for any user to access the system remotely.

With the above in mind, here’s a review of several of the market-leading brands of practice management software.

Creative Solutions
Creative Solutions Practice

Creative Solutions, a Thomson business, offers time and billing as the central nervous system of its practice management solution. All of the other components feed off this important module and share information readily.

To generate a positive return on your software investment, any system must excel at capturing every last bit of billable time. The time and billing component of Creative Solutions Practice does just that. Larger firms will use the Timesheet Exception report to continuously monitor which staff have submitted their time — and what portion of that time is going toward billable productive activities versus unassigned time that might be spent elsewhere — if management knew that staff was idle. Rest assured that CSI Practice has the firepower not just to flag that idle time: With the Scheduler module you can get a graphical picture of where staff is expected to be for the coming days and weeks.

When you integrate the time entry into scheduling, the status of every engagement is updated the instant time and billing has the hours entered. This is a crucial report for any growing firm that needs to find extra resources during the busy tax season. Spending money on software that can spotlight staff hours that otherwise might be idle and turn them into billable cash generators is simply easy to justify. Creative Solutions has a comprehensive solution that should be easily cost-justified within the first few months of use by all but the tiniest of CPA firms.

All of the data collection software in the world won’t help if you cannot submit an invoice in a format that a client will pay. Some clients seem to take great joy in torturing CPAs with a non-stop list of requests for invoice formats and the amount of detail to show. The CSI Practice invoicing solution includes a wizard to assist in creating as much or as little detail on the bills as you need. Each client can have their own invoice format, which will meet all but the most finicky of client demands.

Interface Software
Interaction

Instead of placing the billing and cash collection at the center of the firm practice management universe, Interface Software has placed the client themselves squarely in the middle. All data that is collected contributes toward the ultimate goal of this software, which is to leverage as many existing relationships as possible to better serve existing and pro­spective clients — as well as to uncover new marketing opportunities.

Rather than generate another time and billing product, Interface Software has designed Interaction to capture data from different billing systems. Their consulting staff will design an interface that automatically reads your time and billing data on a recurring basis.

The Interaction software is a central point for collecting information from all the different client data systems. From within Interaction, you can view not only that time information, but all related communications that have been sent to and from the client.

Interaction is designed to be relationship intelligence software. This means that you leverage all the different bits of information about clients that each of your staff may know. From linking e-mails or correspondence, you get one central point where the entire client relationship is managed.

The Contact Verifier module automatically generates e-mail correspondence to verify that all of your contact information is up to date. This works in a similar way as Web-based products such as Plaxo, which use your Microsoft Outlook address book as the starting point for verifying e-mail and other important contact information.

The benefit that Interface Software offers is that all of your firm’s Outlook contacts are updated every time there is a data change or an activity, such as a meeting, phone call or e-mail. Therefore, any authorized user can get an instant view of all the activity surrounding a particular client — all from within the familiar Microsoft Outlook interface.

Once all the data on your clients has been accumulated, you then have the powerful ability to query and report on different interactions. For example, you may generate a report that shows the relationship between different clients to point out where one client may know or act as a referral source for another.

This is especially helpful in larger firms of 50 or more people. Those firms with separate offices might also find the software helpful for keeping everyone updated on the status of client activities.

Interaction is a powerful tool for any CPA firm that is strongly focused on growing through leveraging existing business relationships. It is widely known that the most valuable sale is either to an existing client or to one that becomes a client through a referral. This is a marketing tool that will allow you to nurture those two most profitable sources of business and, in return, allow your firm to grow more rapidly.

Data.Txt Corp.
TimeMatters 5.0

TimeMatters version 5.0 is an affordable package for firms seeking a solid time and billing solution that contains the abil­ity to perform scheduling, budgeting and client tracking.

All of the data in Time Matters is linked back to “matters” within the program. These matters are the same as an engagements and serve to segregate and report upon different types of work performed for the same client. You’ll be able to link to-dos, tasks, phones and appointments to these matters, which provide a great way to maintain watch on important client activities.

The Billing Matters module handles all of the heavy lifting of creating bills, collecting payments and tracking time spent on various matters (engagements). You can assign an unlimited number of rates to an employee. Each invoice layout can be custom-tailored to meet a client’s requirements.

There are two flavors of Billing Matters. The Enterprise edition adds the Microsoft SQL database. Billing Matters and Time Matters are very tightly woven together and share most of their data. While you do not have to purchase both products together, it seems likely that most firms would want this matched set — Time Matters for the tracking and reporting of information and Billing Matters for the billing and collection.

Screens in both programs are very user-friendly. They make use of quick tabs and auto entry forms. Different alerts and reminders can be set and triggered based upon user-defined criteria, ensuring that you never miss a scheduled task, due date or important client meeting.

Both modules are available on a free 30-day trial basis. If you determine that you would like to keep using the software, a license is purchased that will then unlock the software for regular use. A 90-day money-back guarantee then applies.

Time Matters and Billing Matters fill a niche by offering tracking of matters/engagements and allowing related information to be linked. The company stands behind the products with generous dem­onstration and guarantee policies, which make these packages strong contenders for most firms.

Best Software
Timeslips

Timeslips is focused on ease of use and flexibility. Their time and billing package has been continuously upgraded for the past several years and is a highly flexible and customizable program that works very well for small and midsized firms looking for a billing package without a lot of practice management bells and whistles.

Database Wizards guide you through almost any procedure in the system. If you ever forget a particular task, help is only a menu option away, as there are online lessons that will guide you through virtually every common task you’d need to perform in the software.

If you’ve used QuickBooks for accounting, you’ll recognize the Timeslips interface. Each common procedure is laid out with a graphical roadmap so that you know exactly what steps to take. Need to perform a billing task? The procedures, such as selecting and printing the bill, are all laid out with arrows showing you which task to select first.

Timeslips has several flexible ways for users to get time into its database. You can enter it directly, or there are shortcuts that will run on the desktop and act as timers. Because of the popularity of Timeslips, there are several third-party enhancements that would allow you to use a Palm or Pocket PC PDA to capture your time. All billable hours can be entered through your PDA and, the next time you synchronize with your computer, an upload of the captured time will occur.

The formatting of the invoices and statements all occurs through the built-in editor. The invoices are highly customizable and you can use a graphical editor to drop in your logo or re-arrange the look and feel of the final invoice. Just about every type of engagement can be tracked through Timeslips — including fixed fee, not-to-exceed, retainer and regular hourly engagements.

CCH
ProSystem fx Practice

Using its Advantage database server as the foundation for the ProSystem fx Practice system, CCH claims faster processing and no chance of downtime in the event of sudden processing interruptions. Those are mighty claims, though if anyone can carry them out, it is the group at CCH, which counts practice management as only one of a dozen different programs making up their ProSystem fx Office suite of products.

Long known for the breadth of their tax processing and research software, the programming team at CCH has ample experience at managing large volumes of data. Their use of the Advantage Database Server allows them to have multiple types of remote connections coming into the practice management system. Virtual private networks, terminal services, Citrix, wide-area networks and a multitude of other technologies can be used to allow remote users fast access to the underlying practice database.

Firms that make use of the popular ProSystem fx tax prep­aration software can automatically generate invoices and send them into the time and billing program for each of their clients. At the same time that you work on a client engagement, you can also track time against budgets. At the same time you are changing name and address information in the tax software, you are also updating the practice management portion. This is the power of having an integrated suite of products. You achieve seamless communication that happens behind the scenes without the need for you to perform any special set-up work.

Making sure that engagements stay close to budget is accomplished through the Project Tracking portion of CCH Practice. Here you can create your own personal views so that different aspects of engagements can be monitored.

This would be handy for any firm that has the tax department handle all the tax engagements and the audit department manage the financial statement preparation. Using the power of these separate views you can have each department privately view only their relevant information. And, ultimately, the engagement partner sees a birds-eye view of the entire project.

Powerful integration with top-notch components makes CCH Practice a leading system. Backed by a company with significant experience in the CPA marketplace, you’ll be virtually guaranteed to find something to love in this system.

Best Software
Visual Practice Management

Formerly known as CPASoftware, the company is now part of Best Software, which makes a broad line of software used by middle-market companies in all industries. The Visual Practice Management system operates in a SQL database structure.

Each of Visual Practice’s data entry screens makes handy use of the Windows interface. The online help is plentiful, and maneuvering between screens is a snap. Users have a great number of options to choose from when performing any data entry. Many of the screens support multiple views — so you can enter your time on a screen, which nearly mirrors the paper-based timesheets that firms have used for years.

Time can be entered into Visual Practice through a simplified Web interface, which is sec­ured by an employee log-in program that ensures that only authorized persons can enter your firm’s system. If the Web isn’t an option due to security, you can equip your staff with Palm PDAs and use them for all time entry.

When they return to the office and synchronize their devices, all information is up­dated to the time and billing system. When the time has been entered into the system, you can designate users who view summarized time information. This is a handy tool for ensuring that all time is entered and accounted for each day. Through careful monitoring you’ll find that your firm captures all of the data.

Many times, clients are very selective with respect to the invoice formats that they will accept. Some clients want lots of details on their invoices while others want to have broadly summarized information. Visual Practice’s graphical interface for invoice design enables users to add logos and rearrange sections of the invoice so that the output is exactly what the client demands.

Both small and large firms requiring flexible and easy-to-use time and billing that includes multiple contact management features will love Visual Practice’s features. There are a significant number at an attractive price that all firms can afford.

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