It's little wonder that in many accounting firms, time and billing is still one of the most critical applications, as well as the one most likely to be neglected. The reasons for this importance are underscored by the name of the application itself.While you might argue that it's the expertise of your staff and the product that you sell, the actuality is that what the client pays for is the time your staff spends on their behalf. Value billing is a great concept, but even after all these years of trying to move clients over to this method of billing, many clients still want to see how much effort, in the form of time, is being spent on their account.

Regardless of the rates and service levels that your staff provides to your clients, one great truism prevails - time is a non-renewable resource. Once it's spent or wasted, there's no getting it back.

That makes time a precious commodity and resource, one well worth using wisely. The time component of time and billing is designed to do that. By keeping track of the time spent on practice matters, you can make sure that not only will you bill for every precious minute and second, but you will also (hopefully) be able to see where time is wasted or spent poorly.

The second component of the application, billing, is also important. Unless you're in a nonprofit that is using a T&B system to track time and expenses for grant purposes, it's likely that you're in business to make money. Getting paid for the services provided to clients is important, especially if you want to be able to pay salaries, rent and other expenses.

Except for retainers, fees for accounting and consulting services are rarely prepaid. In fact, one of the more common complaints is that clients are often slow to pay even when promptly billed. Many accounting practices are so busy trying to serve clients that they often let billing slide. Common sense should tell you that if you can't be bothered to get a bill out quickly, why should the client be in any greater hurry to pay it when it finally shows up?

And clients are notorious for going over bills from their accountants item by item. Making an error on a bill is often a disastrous mistake. After all, if you can screw up your own billings, is your work for the client any more accurate? Once you've lost a client's confidence, you've lost that client.

ONE SIZE FITS ALL ... POORLY

Selecting a T&B application is probably just a bit more difficult than it might seem at first. All vendors include many of the same features, but how they are implemented, and what non-generic features are included, can mean the difference between a successful installation and a waste of time and money.

One area to be especially aware of is how staff members interact with the system. There is a general trend with T&B for staff to be very resistant to using the application. That's completely natural - no one likes to feel like the boss is looking over their shoulder and counting the minutes that they are in the bathroom. How you explain the system to your staff is important, but regardless of how much you assure your employees that the new application isn't meant to keep an eye on them, they are going to resent and resist using it. By choosing an application that's easy to use, and works well with the procedures already in place in your practice, you may be able to reduce this reluctance somewhat.

Another area to pay attention to is expense data collection and reporting. This is especially important if you bill expenses to clients, or even reimburse staff for their expenses. Not all T&B applications are equally strong in this area. While none of the T&B apps that we reviewed actually perform expense account reimbursement, some can really simplify the process if you don't have an expense reimbursement and tracking application already in place.

Finally, make sure that the application's reporting capabilities are in sync with your needs. This applies to the formatting of client invoices and statements, as well as the reports that you will use to keep track of receivables and payments. If you are not happy with these formats, or they can't accommodate your practice's specific needs, the application will obviously not be a good fit.

To help you choose, we tested six popular T&B applications. We used each vendor's sample clients, adding accounts and billing codes, and modifying reports and invoices where possible. All of our testing was carried out on an Intel Pentium 4 PC similar to those that can be found in many practices. None of the software tested requires anything out of the ordinary in the way of equipment.

TIME2MONEY

Hosted applications are finally starting to hit their stride now that high-speed Internet access has become commonplace. Numerous vendors are setting up their applications on servers and becoming ASPs, or application service providers.

AccountantsWorld was one of the first accounting software vendors to embrace this model, providing many of its applications in both in-house and hosted formats.

More recently, this vendor has moved to a Web 2.0 model, and SaaS ("software as a service"), creating applications like Time2Money that are developed from the start for the Internet. Almost the entire application, including its documentation, is Internet-based, which allows staff members who are out of the office to efficiently and effectively capture time and expense data as it occurs. For those who don't have easy access to the Internet while traveling, Time2Money offers a satellite application that runs on a Pocket PC-based PDA, allowing the data to be captured, then synched with the Internet-based version when convenient. This is a nice feature, and one that some of the other vendors charge extra for.

Time2Money could be considered either a T&B application or a practice management application, depending upon how it's used in the practice. It's very easy to set up and enter time and expenses, and reports are nicely laid out and easy to use - though at just over a dozen reports available, there are fewer of these than with some of the other applications we tested. At the same time, Time2Money is very flexible in how you can output these reports, and includes PDF, RTF and even Excel as output options. This makes customizing reports, invoices and statements pretty easy.

Data entry screens are uncrowded, though not sparse, and while we did our testing on a high-speed cable modem connection, Time2Money should be usable even with a slow dial-up Internet connection. Setting up custom billing rates is simple, as is setting up custom tasks to replace or supplement the boilerplate task list provided with the application.

Time2Money has an interesting fee structure. The cost is simply $6.95 per user per month. There's no yearly support or maintenance costs; these functions are handled by AccountantsWorld. As your practice grows (or shrinks), just add or delete users as needed. There is no need to buy license packs and wind up paying for some licenses that are never used.

BILLQUICK BASIC 2006

BillQuick is one of those "rags to riches" success stories. It was originally distributed as shareware, and the "Lite" version is still available for free and can be found on most of the popular download sites.

The BillQuick Basic 2006 version that we reviewed isn't free, but at just about $400 for a two-user license, it's certainly not unreasonably priced. For larger practices with more users, a Pro version is available, and for large firms with 50 or more staff members, BQE now offers an Enterprise version. The Pro and Enterprise versions support Microsoft's DSDE (Microsoft Sequel Desktop Edition) or Microsoft SQL Server. The Basic version is limited to Microsoft Access support.

As with most of the T&B packages we looked at, BillQuick 2006 is not accountant-specific, though you can configure it to use accounting practice terminology. Because it was originally designed for a more generic service-oriented market, it is very flexible in how it can be configured. This allows you to set up such features as tracking an engagement by phases, combining multiple invoices for the same client into a single consolidated invoice, and setting up subcontractors so that their invoices to you are automatically marked up by a set percentage and billed to the client.

One very nice feature of BillQuick Basic 2006 is its easy integration with popular accounting applications including QuickBooks, Peachtree and even Microsoft's Small Business Accounting. While some of these accounting systems do provide a rudimentary time and billing capability, none come close in functionality to BillQuick.

We didn't find BillQuick difficult to set up, but because of the numerous choices that you have in configuring, it might be a bit more time-consuming than some of the other applications. Once it's configured, navigating through the software is simple, and wizards help with not only the set-up and configuration, but with such tasks as setting up report filters.

Billing and reporting flexibility is impressive, and with almost 100 invoice templates and 350 reports, a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, these reports are logically grouped, and the software has a good context-sensitive help system. Reports can be output in PDF format for easy e-mailing.

The Basic version of BillQuick does not include support for Web-based access to the application for mobile devices. This is available from BQE as an extra-cost option.

If you are looking for an application with extensive flexibility and an affordable cost, BillQuick Basic 2006 is a good bet. And you can even try out the Lite version for free to get a good feel for the software.

CASEWARE TIME 2006

CaseWare International develops software for accounting practices. Unlike vendors such as Creative Solutions and CCH, this company doesn't have a huge suite of applications, concentrating its efforts in three areas - write-up, audit support and T&B.

CaseWare Time follows the layout of its write-up package, Working Papers. Both use a Windows Explorer or Outlook-like user interface that has suddenly become fashionable, although when CaseWare first started using it years ago, it was considered somewhat "out there."

Time is document-oriented. Time slips, client records and reports are all documents that are accessible from a layered vertical directory pane on the left side of the screen. This vertical directory has levels that expand and contract with the familiar plus and minus boxes. This makes finding the desired tasks pretty easy, though there are more familiar menu selections along the top of the screen. There is also a task-oriented checklist display in a right vertical pane. The actual interaction with the application, such as entering data, takes place in a center pane. All of these panes are resizable by simply dragging the border.

If this sounds somewhat complex, it is exactly the opposite. We've always appreciated CaseWare's design approach, and while it does take a little getting used to, once you get over the fact that there are no flowcharts, CaseWare Time is logically laid out and very easy to follow. Input screens are clean and not overly crowded, and there are about 200 stock reports provided. Since Time deals with these as documents, changing and customizing reports and invoices is not particularly difficult. The application's reports can be printed or output in word processing or PDF format.

Also included with the application is a utility called Today that links CaseWare Time with Microsoft Outlook and lets you transfer client contact and time data back and forth between the two applications.

New in this release is integration with Windows Active Directory. If you use this feature, you can have Time use the Active Directory information to vet users of the application. As users are added to Active Directory, they can automatically be added as authorized users of CaseWare Time.

CaseWare Time isn't the least expensive T&B application that we tested, but at $499 for a single-user license, it also isn't priced out of reach for most accounting practices.

IMAGINETIME 5.85

Most T&B applications are written for a somewhat generic user. Of those that aren't, it's likely that they were originally designed for a law office.

ImagineTime was designed by CPAs for accountants, and it shows in subtle ways. That's not to say that ImagineTime isn't a good T&B system for other kinds of service organizations, because it is. It's just that there's no shoehorning of a generic system into one meant for accountants.

While flowchart-like navigation is all the rage these days, ImagineTime uses a somewhat more classic menu approach, sorting tasks into four logical groups on a single comprehensive front menu. If this seems too old-fashioned for you, you can change the menus into displaying icons. Maybe we've been doing this for too long, but we found ImagineTime's approach understandable and just as easy (or easier) to use as most flow-oriented menuing systems.

There's little over the top about ImagineTime, but that's fine. Data entry screens are easy to understand and use, and while there aren't hundreds of pre-defined reports, the reports that do exist are more than serviceable for most practices. Should you need a special or ad hoc report, ImagineTime comes with a fairly simple report generator. Define the data fields that you need in the report, and the software will produce it. Reports can be output as PDF or Excel files, so customizing or e-mailing them is easy.

One terrific feature of ImagineTime is its integrated due date monitor. This application is one that most practices will find exceptionally useful, and it's also available as a separate program for practices that don't want to use ImagineTime. There's also a hook into Outlook, so you can drop contacts and appointments directly from Outlook into the application.

The software vendor does not include a PDA add-in with the application, though an optional Palm utility is available. PocketPC users do not have a dedicated utility.

Given the single-user price of $295, we can't complain - ImagineTime is a great value, especially for a smaller firm. As the firm grows, or for larger practices, scaling up is just a matter of migrating to the multi-user version and adding user licenses. Depending upon how much of the application you use (and how), ImagineTime is either a full-featured T&B system, or a comprehensive practice management application. That makes it a good choice for practices that hope to eventually move from the more receivables-oriented T&B to the more management-focused practice management.

TIME MATTERS/BILLING MATTERS 8

As originally designed, Time Matters was less of a time-collection application then it was an adjunct to Outlook. As such, it provided extensive calendar and contact management, as well as document and e-mail management. Those features still exist in the current release, but over the intervening years, the software has developed into a much more sophisticated application.

To get full T&B functionality, you'll need to purchase the Time Matters and Billing Matters bundle. Each of these packages is available separately, and both can be integrated with other applications, such as QuickBooks or Peachtree, if you already have those in place. Gone this year is a separate Billing Matters Plus Accounting version. The Billing Matters 8 package has rudimentary accounting capabilities, but is not meant to replace a stand-alone accounting application except in the smallest of practices.

Time Matters is owned by LexisNexis, which bought the company several years ago. With much of its parent company's customer base in the legal market, it's not surprising to find terminology that is often more geared to an attorney than an accountant. In fact, the name of the product incorporates "matters," rather than the more accountant-familiar "engagements."

Still, we found the bundle very quick to set up and configure. The Time Matters part of the package has some terrific document management functions, and extensive scanner support that is great for "attaching" scanned receipts onto expense slips. You can even store relevant e-mails in client folders to keep everything regarding an engagement in the same place.

Another very helpful feature is the ability to customize the navigation menus. You can create your own icons, re-order the sequence of tasks, and add and delete tasks to customize the workflow of the software to match that of your practice. This is a feature that we wish more applications offered.

Reports are sufficient, if not overly impressive, and there are a variety of filters that can be applied at generation time.

If you need to adjust the look of a report, it can always be exported to Microsoft Word for customization.

Time Matters/Billing Matters 8 isn't a typical T&B system, but its unique approach to this application is well worth a look.

TIMESLIPS 2007 BY SAGE

To thousands of faithful users, Timeslips is T&B. They can be forgiven for thinking that, since Timeslips has been around for two decades, and is one of the few surviving software applications from the early 1980s.

Originally developed to meet the needs of attorneys, over the years Timeslips has become just as popular with other service professionals, including accountants. Unlike some of the other applications reviewed in this roundup, Timeslips is not specifically targeted to accounting practices, though it can certainly be configured to be a good fit.

Timeslips was originally designed to mimic a paper-based timekeeping system, so time and expense entries are called slips. The slips can be filled out manually, and data entry can be accomplished with PDA add-ons for Palm and PocketPC-based PDAs, or with the current release, you can e-mail entries back to the office, where they are integrated into system. This feature only works with Outlook, not Outlook Express or other mail applications such as AOL Mail.

Sage also offers a Web-based Timeslips eCenter so that users can enter data remotely; a Timeslips Remote utility that lets laptop users use the data entry portion of Timeslips to capture time and expense slips on their laptops; and the PDA utilities, TimeReporter for the Palm OS and Time to Time Pro for PocketPC-based PDAs. The Timeslips Accounting Link utility for Peachtree and QuickBooks is now part of the application.

Sage has made some updates to Timeslips with the current release. In addition to the ability to e-mail slips, there's a new bill cover page that summarizes billing details, an enhanced spell checker and a redesigned Navigator. Also new with the current release are a scheduled back-up feature, and Slip Notes, which lets you attach an electronic Post-It note to a slip.

Timeslips has been so successful over the long run that it has become pretty much the gold standard when it comes to T&B. This latest release has all the features that most practices could want, including set-up wizards that make set-up and configuration a quick process, and drag-and-drop customization of data entry screens and reports. Timeslips isn't a practice management system, and has no pretensions about being other than what it is - a full-featured T&B application that has stood the test of time.

Vendor Information

Time2Money

AccountantsWorld LLC

140 Fell Court

Hauppauge, N.Y. 11788

(888) 999-1366

Pricing: $6.99 per user per month.

BillQuick Basic 2006

BQE Software Inc.

2601 Airport Dr., Ste. 380

Torrance, Calif. 90505

(888) 245-5669

www.bqe.com

Pricing: BillQuick Lite - free. BillQuick Basic - two-user license starts at $395; additional users over two - $100 per user. BillQuick Pro - contact vendor.

CaseWare Time 2006

CaseWare International Inc.

2425B Channing Way, Ste. 590

Berkeley, Calif. 94704

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single user - $499; office license (one to five users) - $999; additional users - $175 each.

ImagineTime

ImagineTime Inc.

P.O. Box 159

Bostic, N.C. 28018

(877) 520-1525

www.imaginetime.com

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

Time Matters/Billing Matters 8

Professional Edition

LexisNexis Time Matters Software

215 Commonwealth Ct.

Cary, N.C. 27511

(800) 328-2898

www.timematters.com

Pricing: Single user - $600; each additional - $350.

Timeslips 2007 by Sage

Sage Software

1715 North Brown Rd.

Lawrenceville, Ga. 30043

(800) 285-0999

www.timeslips.com

Pricing: Single user - $449; five seats - $799; 10 users - $1,449.

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

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