Accounting firms and consulting practices have different priorities when it comes to what applications are considered mission-critical. For some practices, the management aspect — knowing how firm resources are being applied to service clients and maintain and build the practice — is a prime concern. For others, especially smaller or more directed practices, this aspect of practice management is of less concern.Revenue management, however, is one aspect of practice management that’s of primary concern in any firm, large or small. It doesn’t much matter whether you are billing your clients on an hourly basis, or whether you have been able to switch over to value billing. If clients aren’t billed in an accurate and timely manner, there’s little chance that they will pay in a timely (and hopefully accurate) manner. And without that cash flow, it doesn’t much matter how efficiently your practice is being managed. You still have to pay the rent, salaries and other ongoing bills.

This critical aspect of running a practice often gets short shift. If your practice doesn’t need the capabilities provided by a full-blown practice management application, the venerable time and billing packages that are available may be just the ticket. They allow you to manage the revenue-generation aspect of your practice by getting out invoices and statements in a timely manner, and track receivables so you can follow up with clients who fall behind in payment.

Accuracy in billing is another important point. If there’s a mistake on a client’s bill, how much damage will that do to their perception of your practice’s accuracy in other matters?

As a bonus, a time and billing package lets you track staff time applied to specific client engagements, general staff overhead, or even unbillable time. When you consider that time is the ultimate non-renewable resource (when it’s gone, there’s no getting it back), it’s important to know that your and your staff’s time is being employed wisely, and not wasted or squandered. By tracking hours, whether this information is used for billing or not, you can easily determine whether your staff has extra capacity that can be used to initiate other projects, such as community help, or is over-tasked and in need of some additional, perhaps temporary, support staff. Many smaller practices make these types of management decisions on the fly, without any solid data to back up their position.

NO UNIVERSALS

To some extent, time and billing software has a great deal of functionality in common from one vendor’s offering to another. But T&B software is not completely generic. If it were, there wouldn’t be the large number of software providers and application offerings that currently exist.

In selecting an application for your firm, there are a number of things to consider. The first is whether your firm bills primarily on an hourly basis, or whether it bills on a monthly flat-fee or value basis. If your practice does bill out on a staff time (and expenses) basis, the software that you select should make it as easy as possible for staff to capture and submit this information.

Data capture should always be performed as close to the source as possible. While this isn’t always possible, there’s a definite benefit to selecting software that enables your staff to capture time and expenses as they occur. Many times, this can be accomplished using a laptop, a PDA or even a smart phone.

The software that you select should also make capturing or entering data as simple as possible. The more complex data entry is, the more likely it is that errors will be made. That’s also true when a staff member needs to wait to enter this data. No one wants to come back to a hotel room and spend time entering the day’s time and expenses. It’s even worse when a staff member needs to hold this data for a week or more before having the opportunity to enter it.

Another thing to look at is how the application handles billing. While retainers are rare in accounting and financial planning practices, they are somewhat more common in consulting. If your practice does billing against retainer, flat-fee billing or value billing, make sure that the application that you select can handle this type or types of billing without making you go through extreme workarounds.

Additionally, you need to examine the reporting capabilities of the application. Does it provide the information that you need to make decisions? Can you easily find out what the status of receivables is? Does the software provide tools, such as interim statements and output to Excel and PDF file format, that make it easier to bill and collect fees?

Finally, how will the software fit in with the way your practice works? It’s nice to think that you’re flexible enough that you can adapt to the quirks of a packaged application. In the real world, however, if the application requires a major shift in business processes, there’s a good chance that the installation will wind up being a failure.

To help you choose, we tested seven time and billing applications. Some of these are designed to be run in-house, and a few are offered as SaaS (software as a service) hosted applications, where the application and data files are maintained on the vendor’s servers.

All of the testing was accomplished using a Lenovo Core Duo ThinkPad X61 laptop, a common business-class laptop that’s probably similar to those found in many practices. Our testing of hosted applications was carried out over Optimum Online, a cable-based Internet provider. With hosted applications, it’s still a good idea to figure on using a high-bandwidth Internet connection such as DSL or cable. We also tested one of the hosted services using a Sprint high-speed USB data card with excellent results.

As always, remember that time and billing is mission-critical, and as such, be sure to use data protection protocols such as an uninterruptible power supply (or run the application on a laptop, which provides its own battery backup in case of a power failure), and maintain good backup procedures.

TIME2MONEY

When AccountantsWorld first started offering Time2Money, the vendor was still primarily a supplier of in-house applications for accountants. Sometimes, however, being out on the leading edge pays off. Today, the primary business model is to offer its comprehensive suite of applications for an accounting practice as SaaS.

With high-speed Internet access widely available, even when traveling, this approach makes perfect sense, since accountants are among the most mobile of professionals. And with an application that tracks time and expenses, not being tied down to an in-house application makes even more sense, since a staff member or administrator has full access (if authorized) to the entire application wherever they have Internet access. In the rare cases where a member of your staff doesn’t have Internet access, there is a PocketPC-based application that can be used to capture time and expense data as it occurs, and then upload it to the firm’s Time2Money account when Internet access becomes available.

Depending upon when you look, Time2Money may or may not still be offered. AccountantsWorld is in the process of bringing an entirely new time and billing/practice management application online. This will be the next generation of an already excellent application, and is expected to be completely compatible with the data already stored in Time2Money, so there should be no problems in moving to the new software.

The version of Time2Money that we tested is essentially the same as the one we had tested previously. AccountantsWorld, in its previous incarnation as Microvision, was well known for its input engine — data entry screens designed for enhanced productivity. This philosophy has been carried on over the years. Time2Money’s data entry screens are very thoughtfully laid out. This translates into quick data entry, and an application that’s unthreatening to staff while still providing powerful capabilities.

On paper, Time2Money might come off as having fewer features than some of the other applications we tested. That’s the problem with just looking at punchlists. While the application has a fairly small number of reports, those that are available are highly customizable and can be output in a variety of formats, including as a PDF, as an RTF file to be edited by a word processor, and as an import to Excel.

In addition to its ease of set-up and use, and excellent core capabilities, Time2Money also offers almost unlimited scalability. Current pricing is $6.95 per user per month, and adding or deleting users is particularly uncomplicated, so you pay for exactly the capacity that your firm requires at any particular point in time. This is especially useful if your practice uses temporary help during the tax season, and you want to be able to track these temporary staff members’ time and expenses.

Time2Money is an excellent choice for growing firms, and it’s likely that AccountantsWorld’s next iteration will be even better.

BILL4TIME

AccountantsWorld’s Time2Money isn’t the only Web-based T&B application available. Several other vendors, including Sage, offer both in-house and hosted T&B packages. Bill4Time, like Time2Money, is strictly an SaaS application — all the software and data resides on Broadway Billing Systems’ servers, so the only thing that you and your staff need is a Web browser and Internet connection. We tested Bill4Time with a cable modem and high-speed service, but the screens are simple enough that you should be able to use the application even with a dial-up connection in an emergency.

Unlike Time2Money, Bill4Time is profession-agnostic, though its terminology does seem a bit more slanted toward lawyers than accountants. For example, you can bill on a flat-fee or hourly basis, as well as on a contingent basis, a billing method that’s not used in accounting. Bill4Time’s documentation and formats describe case management, rather than engagement or project management, though the software is quite capable of tracking accountant-oriented due dates and appointments.

Bill4Time is as easy to set up and use as any of the other applications we tested. Screens are nicely laid out, which reduces staff training time, and there are sufficient reports available to satisfy most firms for which T&B, rather than full-blown practice management, is sufficient. Broadway Billing Systems performs daily data backups, but with a high-speed connection, it’s no problem backing up your data in Excel format so that you have a copy as well.

If Bill4Time has a downside, it’s probably cost. The vendor compares its cost to the online versions of TimeSlips and Time Matters, both of which it’s competitive with. However, at a base of $36 per month per user, plus another $5 a month per user for the mobile software that lets you submit time and expenses from a Blackberry or other smart phone, it’s considerably more expensive than Time2Money.

Still, if Bill4Time is a better fit for your practice, it’s not unreasonably priced.

BILLQUICK BASIC 2007

Who says you can’t get something for nothing? Certainly not BQE Software, which offers the Lite version of its BillQuick application free to accountants, consultants, financial planners and other professionals. If your timekeeping and billing requirements are basic, the free BillQuick Lite is a great way to get started with T&B, and its files are upward-compatible with the $495 Basic version, since both use the same Microsoft Access-compatible datable. The more expensive Pro and Enterprise versions of BillQuick (which we did not test) use Microsoft’s MSDE or SQL Server.

BillQuick was designed to be somewhat generic in its target audience, but you can specify that it is being used in an accounting practice during set-up, so that the terminology is more oriented toward that used in accounting, rather than law or consulting.

Regardless of the terminology used, BillQuick has strong project management capabilities, in addition to excellent flexibility in how clients can be billed. Because it’s designed to be as useful to consulting firms as it is to an accounting practice, you can set up very complex engagements, bill at different rates for different parts of an engagement, and see at a click of the mouse just where the firm stands on an engagement in terms of staff hours or deadlines.

There are some nice time-savers, too. Since in many practices some staff hours will be pretty much the same from week to week, you can set up “pre-filled” time sheets for an employee, and just change the lines that differ from week to week.

BillQuick continues to offer easy integration with many of the major bookkeeping packages, including QuickBooks, Peachtree and Microsoft Office Accounting.

Again, because BillQuick is designed to be used by different professions, there are loads of invoicing templates and reports available. These can also be customized, so it’s a good bet you’ll be able to get close to whatever invoice and report formats you have in mind.

The BillQuick Basic edition that we reviewed does not come with remote data entry. That capability and a host of additional applications and add-ons are available from BQE Software.

BillQuick Basic provides an excellent choice for a practice that is growing rapidly. You don’t have to buy more capability than you need, and scaling up as your practice grows is painless. And if you are just getting into T&B, the free Lite version is a terrific way to get started.

IMAGINETIME

When you start to examine T&B applications, you find that many of them have not been specifically designed to be used in accounting. Part of the reason for that is that lawyers adopted T&B applications very early on, so many T&B systems have been adapted to be usable by professions other than law.

Not so with ImagineTime, which was designed by CPAs specifically for accounting practices (and works just as well for financial planning practices). It’s a subtle difference, but it is there, especially in the excellent due date tracker, which easily lets you track tax deadlines, in addition to other promised client dates. This module is also available separately, should you want to add it to your practice even though you are using another vendor’s product for time tracking and invoicing.

The application sets up easily, and provides well-designed data entry screens and a simple navigation menu. Reports and invoices are fairly plain, but do contain the data necessary to meet your clients’ expectations in an invoice, as well as detailing where the practice stands in terms of staff utilization and revenue status. A report generator lets you put together a quick ad hoc report when necessary.

With a base price of $295 for a single user, you can easily expand the software with add-on modules. These include a calendar and Outlook sync module, as well as a module for remote office data entry.

ImagineTime may not be as fancy as some of the other T&B applications we looked at, but it does the job, and does it well. And for its reasonable price, it’s a good deal.

LEXIS FRONT OFFICE/LEXIS BACK OFFICE

Along with Version 9, Time Matters and Billing Matters are getting a new name as well — Lexis Front Office Powered by Time Matters and Lexis Back Office Power by Billing Matters. The underlying concept of Time Matters and Billing Matters really hasn’t changed since the last version. Lexis has just identified where each of these applications is expected to be used — Time Matters in the front office, and Billing Matters in the back office.

Also new with this latest release is a more targeted market. Time Matters and Billing Matters have always been targeted towards multiple professions, including accountants, consultants and attorneys, but LexisNexis’ main customer base is lawyers, and the Version 9 release seems to be much more focused in that direction, with seamless links to the Martindale-Hubble Lawyer Locator, CourtLink and CaseMap — all tools designed for lawyers, rather than accountants.

That’s not to say that accountants, financial planners and consultants won’t find the front office/back office bundle useful. Regardless of whether you call a project a “case” or a “matter” (lawyer-speak) or an “engagement” (accountant-speak), it’s still pretty much the same thing, and requires that you do scheduling, note deadlines, and store notes, e-mails and other relevant communications.

The Enterprise version of Time Matters (which we did not test) uses Microsoft SQL as its underlying database, and SQL Express 2005 can also be used for this. We let Time Matters set up the default database for us, and experienced no problems.

The user interface for Time Matters (as well as Billing Matters) is rather basic. There is a set of “regular activities” listed in a pane on the left side of the screen, and clicking on a task brings up a Navigator window for the related tasks in that group. There is also a main toolbar that can be used for navigation, and the choices on this toolbar are customizable, so you can leave off choices that you don’t want certain staff to access, or simplify the toolbar for inexperienced users. Form tabs can also be customized, which is another nice feature.

One feature of Time Matters that we have always liked is the built-in document management. Documents can come from many sources, including scanned images and downloaded files. You can even copy e-mails to the Windows Clipboard and use them as documents.

The back end (Lexis Back Office Powered by Billing Matters) is a lot less lawyer-centric. It provides a lot of flexibility in the appearance and content of a bill, and you can use the Bill Express function to enter hours and expenses and create the bill from a single screen. Billing Matters can feed into QuickBooks to maintain the practice’s books, and the application itself has sufficient reports so that it can be used to generate the primary books of record if your practice does not need anything more sophisticated or complex.

We didn’t find the lawyer-centric approach to be uncomfortable, but this concentration on attorneys is common in T&B, since that’s the profession the T&B application was originally created to serve. Time Matters/Billing Matters is not your typical time and billing application, but it does offer a lot of useful functionality that makes it well worth considering.

OFFICE TOOLS PRO PROFESSIONAL SUITE

An interesting thing becomes evident when you start to look at T&B software. Some vendors take a very basic approach to this application, simply collecting hours and expenses, and shooting out invoices.

Others, however, see time and expense collection and invoice generation as part of a more expanded application. This application, while it is not full-blown practice management, does contain some elements that enhance the way you run and keep tabs on your practice. Think of it as greatly enhanced time and billing.

The software itself is not targeted to any specific profession. It is equally as usable (and generic) when used by an accounting practice as it is for lawyers, consultants or other professionals who need to bill and collect, as well as keep track of projects and deadlines.

Office Tools Pro is constructed of a set of modules that accomplish specific tasks. You configure the system for the number of users in your practice and the types of tasks that you want the software to handle. The module list is comprised of contact management, scheduling, T&B, project/case matter management, records management, and a document file cabinet. The Standard Suite lets you choose three of these modules, with contact management required as one of the three. This Standard Suite starts at $400 for a single-user edition. For $100 more, the Professional Suite provides all of the modules, which makes it a much better choice for most accounting practices.

The time and billing module is really the heart of the system when it is being purchased as a T&B system. It’s really nothing fancy, but quite usable, with easy-to-navigate menus and data entry screens, and a nice collection of client invoices, statements and reports. The T&B module provides multiple timers, so it’s easy to switch back and forth as you shift between client tasks.

The other modules add significant additional capabilities. The records management and document management modules let you keep track of electronic and paper documents from a variety of sources, while the contact management features make it easy to keep track of appointments and reminder calls. Due date tracking and reporting is handled by the project module, while the case/matter management module lets you keep track of which of your staff is handling specific tasks and projects.

Office Tools Pro isn’t trying to compete with high-end document management or CRM systems, each of which can cost many times the price of the Professional Suite. But for small to midsized practices (up to about 20 timekeepers), the Office Tools Professional Suite is a very workable solution for keeping your practice on track.

TIMESLIPS 2008

Whenever time and billing is mentioned, the first thing that pops into most people’s mind is Timeslips. In fact, some accountants have even been known to use Timeslips as a generic term for time and billing, even if they are using another vendor’s software!

That reputation has been well-earned in the over 20 years that Timeslips has been available. And while Sage does continue to add features to the product, it is still basically designed to capture time and expense data quickly and easily and generate bills so that your practice gets paid. Yes, you can print reports that detail staff utilization, but the core direction of Timeslips is unapologetically revenue generation.

When it was first introduced, Timeslips was designed as an electronic analog of the manual process of tracking staff time by having them fill out small pieces of paper with the staff member’s name, the date and time, the task and client, and how much time was spent on that specific task. A time clerk would collect these slips on a weekly basis, summarize them on a piece of paper for each employee and on another piece of paper on a per-client basis, and issue invoices as agreed upon with the client. For the most part, when Timeslips was first introduced in the 1980s, lawyers were the primary users of the software. As more accountants adopted Timeslips as a way of tracking and billing time and expenses, it became less lawyer-centric and more applicable to other professions.

At the same time, filling out electronic analogs of those paper slips is still the way that Timeslips, and virtually every other time and billing application, works. What’s changed is that the data entry screens are now designed to make it easier, and it’s now much easier to capture time and expense data as it is generated, either with Timeslips’ multiple timers (which can be run as a separate utility without starting Timeslips), by entering this data online, or by sending it to the in-house application via e-mail. Online entry is accomplished using Timeslips eCenter, an extra cost service, while Timeslips Remote, TimeReporter for Timeslips, and Time to Time Pro give remote staff members the ability to capture and send data from a laptop, a Palm OS device or a PocketPC device.

Sage has not added a lot of new features in the 2008 edition. There is a new user-defined accounts receivable capability, but most of the updates are incremental, such as adding additional filtering capabilities in the billing assistant. That’s not a sign of laziness on the part of Sage, just a result of having a mature product, which did have some major upgrades last year, including a redesigned Navigator and Slip Notes, which let staff members attach an electronic Post-It note to a time slip.

Timeslips has pretty much all of the features a user might want in a basic T&B system. There’s an extensive capability to customize the data entry screens and reports, and wizards to walk you through set-up and other processes.

Timeslips is probably not the best solution for every practice that wants to implement time and billing. But it’s been around for so long, and has been so successful over those years, that it is definitely worth considering.

Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.

Vendor Information

Time2Money

AccountantsWorld LLC

Hauppauge, N.Y.

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsworld.com

Pricing: $6.95 per user per month.

Bill4Time

Broadway Billing Systems

(877) 245-5484

www.bill4time.com

Pricing: One to 10 users — $35.95 per user per month. Bill4Time Mobil — $5 per month per user.

BillQuick Basic 2007

BQE Software Inc.

Torrance, Calif.

(888) 245-5669

www.bqe.com

Pricing: BillQuick Lite — free. BillQuick Basic 2007 — two-user license, $495; each additional — $100. BillQuick Pro — contact vendor.

ImagineTime

ImagineTime Inc.

Bostic, N.C.

(877) 520-1525

www.imaginetime.com

Pricing: Single user — $295; starter network package — $495. Add-ons priced separately.

Lexis Front Office/Lexis Back Office

LexisNexis Time Matters

Software

Cary, N.C.

(800) 328-2898

www.timematters.com

Pricing: Single user — $770; each additional — $384.

Office Tools Pro

Professional Suite

Office Tools Pro

Lancaster, Calif.

(888) 667-8440

www.officetoolspro.com

Pricing: Single user — $500; five users — $1,400.

TimeSlips 2008

Sage Software

Norcross, Ga.

(800) 285-0999

www.timeslips.com

Pricing: Single user — $499; five seats — $899; 10 users — $1,599.

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