by Ted Needleman
We always find it surprising when we hear just how many firms are still operating without some sort of time & billing or practice management system. As an accountant, who better knows the importance of cash flow and measuring productivity? Still, it often seems like the old story about the shoemaker’s children going barefoot.
Excuses are plentiful and easy to come by. “I’m not large enough to need time & billing” or “I have it all up here in my head” are common reasons why an accountant or consultant hasn’t implemented a computerized system.
Not every practice needs full-blown practice management, which is primarily concerned with utilizing staff time productively and efficiently. Time & billing, which is a subset of practice management, is another story entirely. While T&B does address many core requirements in an accounting or other service firm, it is much more oriented toward making sure that hours spent on client work are actually billed to the client. Cash flow and the bottom line are the targets of time & billing.
One or the other?
Making a decision on whether your firm needs time & billing or a more comprehensive practice management application is not always clear cut. If you want more information about how your staff is spending its time, what percent of time is unbillable, and other data that will be used to better manage the firm, then you probably would benefit from practice management. If getting the bills out and the money in is your primary concern, time & billing may be the best route to get there.
Even some larger firms can benefit from time & billing, especially when this application is used as a front end to other existing systems and applications within the firm. In this case, the T&B system is actually functioning as a data entry or data collection sub-system, feeding into a payroll, project management or even a comprehensive practice management system.
There are specific things in your practice to investigate before selecting a T&B (or practice management) application. How does your firm bill its clients? Hourly, percentage of completion, and flat rate are some of the more popular billing methods. Do you bill the same client differently for different kinds of engagements? Do your clients provide you with a retainer? How is work-in-process handled in your firm, and how and when is it billed? Many or all of these questions (and possibly quite a few others) should be answered before you begin to select an application for your firm.
How we tested
If you are looking for a time & billing package, there are plenty to choose from. We tested a half-dozen ranging from simple and inexpensive to those that blur the line with full-blown practice management systems.
Our testing involved looking at the core features, and how easy it was to set up and configure each package, enter time and expenses, and produce reports. We tried to determine what the target market was for each of the packages, and how well the feature set and capabilities satisfied that market.
We performed our testing on a pretty powerful PC — that’s just what we happened to have on our test bench. You won’t need the 3GHz Pentium 4 we used for any of these applications. All will run very nicely on a fairly basic (and inexpensive) system. A higher-end Pentium III with 512MB of RAM and a nicely sized hard disk will do fine if you want to upgrade someone in the company to a newer PC. If you don’t happen to have a spare system lying around, you can purchase a Celeron-based basic PC for about $400 with more than enough horsepower to run any of the applications we tested.
As always, it’s important to match an application to the way that your firm operates. All of the packages we reviewed have some basic similarities. That’s the nature of any application genre, and comes from the fact that they were all designed to allow you to accumulate the same kind of information.
At the same time, each product goes about this task somewhat differently. The key to a successful implementation is having software that adapts to the way that you and your staff work, rather than the other way around. Spend your time assuring that the software will enhance, rather than disrupt, your office, and you’ll find that you are more productive and have better control over your firm’s finances than every before.
Timeslips 2004 Best Software
Best Software has really gotten its act together with the newest release of Timeslips 2004. The last release (v. 11) of Timeslips addressed many of the criticisms that the product was growing stagnant. This release, now handily labeled with the release year rather than a number, cleans up a few minor rough edges and adds a few new features. Basically, however, since the last release was a major one, these new features are just a couple of new bells and whistles to entice upgraders.
The major one of these is a new mini-timer, called TSTimer, that sits in your Windows tray so you can pop one up at any time to use when a client calls. We found this very easy to use, and given the number of times in an average accountant’s day when he’s on the phone with a client, the TSTimer is a quick way to keep track of this aspect of billing.
Another new feature is “My Lists.” Timeslips is already very customizable, but My Lists lets each user customize the standard boilerplate lists of client and task names. In many cases, especially in larger firms with lots of clients and associated tasks, this shortens the size of the lists a particular user has to scroll through. It’s a small thing, but if you frequently have to scroll through lists of several hundred clients, when your list is only 20 to 30 names, it’s a feature that you’ll appreciate.
This release also adds the ability to e-mail a bill, something that’s a bit overdue. Bills can be “printed” in PDF format and e-mailed in batches or one at a time. You are not limited to either paper or e-mail, however; you can choose how a particular client is to receive their bill, or even “print” every bill in both formats, first e-mailing it, then following it with a paper copy.
Timeslips has improved its TAL (Timeslips Accounting Link) and now calls it TAL Pro. This provides a very seamless way of integrating Timeslips with Peachtree Accounting 2004. It’s still an extra-cost option, but several features that used to be sold as add-ins, including split billing and income allocation, are now included in Timeslips 2004.
With the previous release, Best Software introduced a version of Timeslips that cut out a few bells and whistles and limited the number of users to two. Timeslips 2004 for Sole Practitioners is again available for $199, half the price of the slightly upscale version.
Of course, all of the features that we liked in the last release are still there. Timeslips is easy to install, and very customizable. You can create custom templates for your bills, and print these and other reports in PDF format or in text format that can be further edited with a word processor. Time entry can be done using a timer (including the new “mini” timer), a spreadsheet-like entry screen, or a combination of the two.
Several years ago, Timeslips had started to get the reputation of a product that was a bit past its prime. With the last few releases, and most especially Timeslips 2004, this popular application is most definitely back and ready to take on the competition.
ImageTime 3.94 Both Worlds Software
Many time & billing systems were written for (and sometimes by) lawyers, since the law profession was the first to automate this application en masse. That’s fine, and there are enough similarities between the way lawyers, accountants and consultants work and bill to make most T&B applications work well regardless of the specific profession they are being used by.
Still, it’s always nice when an application is designed by the same kind of people who will be using it. ImageTime was designed by CPAs for accountants and consultants. The difference in the feature set and use is slight, but there is a difference.
When we looked at ImagineTime last year, we were impressed with its ease of set-up and use. The graphical interface hasn’t changed (at least not so we noticed), and it still incorporates a central menu and logical task grouping. The Due Date Monitor that we liked so much is still there, and it’s a terrific feature considering ImageTime’s low cost.
Both Worlds Software has also added some very usable calendaring and contact management capabilities, though this is optional, and will set you back as much as the program itself. Spend the money — it’s worth it. You can synchronize the internal calendar with Microsoft Outlook, and accumulate staff calendars and schedules side by side for better staff management.
An optional $99 PDA support module is also available. As with last year, this is only available for the Palm OS. If you go for the Calendaring and Scheduling add-in, you can synchronize with Outlook on your PC, then Hot Sync with a PocketPC-based PDA.
Both Worlds Software has also increased the options in filtering and printing reports, one of our minor criticisms the last time we looked at the software. A new Report Wizard lets you really target just the data you need, though again, we found the standard reports very much to our liking. Some of the other products still give you a bit more capability in the area of form design, moving and eliminating fields or printing in PDF format. Those products, however, are usually considerably more expensive than ImageTime, as well as needing a different level of expertise to actually make use of many of the customizing features.
It’s somewhat unfair to categorize ImageTime as a time & billing application. The base system right out of the box has many of the attributes of a full-blown practice management application, and this is amplified if you add the Calendaring and Scheduling add-in. Regardless of how much you jazz it up, ImageTime is simply a pleasure to use.
CaseWare Time 2004 CaseWare International Inc.
You might know this Canadian vendor as the distributor of the excellent IDEA auditing package, or for its Working Papers package. CaseWare Time 2004 is one of the more unusual time & billing packages we looked at. While the application does provide excellent time and expense collection capabilities, and works well for invoicing and keeping track of accounts receivable, it is also a very capable application in providing you with a way of keeping track of your engagements and ongoing projects, as well as your clients.
CaseWare Time 2004’s design is also a bit different from the run of the mill, and many users simply don’t “get” it. Rather than the standard icon-based navigation that’s come into popularity with Windows, CaseWare uses the Windows Explorer paradigm. A window that can be anchored to one side or the other of the screen provides a list of available tasks. As with Explorer, many of these have a small box with a plus sign in it. Clicking on these lines expands the task list. You can click again on the same box to roll up and compact the list. This approach lets you get a much better global view of the application.
Opening individual tasks brings up more familiar Windows-like screens for making entries and edits, so you are really getting the best of both worlds with the approach that CaseWare Time 2004 takes.
To get the most out of Time 2004, you’ll really need Microsoft Office installed, as the program can almost seamlessly integrate with this suite to let you work on documents and spreadsheets without having to perform acrobatics to move data and documents back and forth. A variety of filters lets you modify the wide variety of standard reports that CaseWare Time 2004 offers.
CaseWare Time 2004
Time Matters 5.0
This latest version of CaseWare Time 2004 adds a few neat new features. There’s a new workflow layout that shows just the tasks that you need to finish. This ties in very well with CaseWare Time 2004’s project management orientation. There are a number of new standard documents, including a Time Analysis Productivity Summary, a Time Exception list, and a Recurring Invoice list. Reports can now also be printed in PDF format, which makes it easy to e-mail invoices and statements to clients. As with most upgrades, there are also lots of minor features and additions to the capability list.Because of the different approach that CaseWare takes with Time 2004, you may have just a little bit more difficultly getting the software configured, though set-up went very quickly during our testing. Switching back and forth between the Explorer-like panel and standard Windows screens does take a little getting use to, but we think that most users will be comfortable and up to speed within a very short time.
As we said at the beginning of this review, you either “get” CaseWare Time 2004, or you don’t. We do “get” the application, and like it a lot.
Time Matters 5.0 and Billing Matters 5.0 Data.Txt
Data.Txt, which was recently acquired by LexisNexis, has been selling Time Matters for several years. While the application does provide time entry and even multiple client timers, it is not really a true time & billing application. Rather, it was designed to serve as a front end to more full-featured billing applications like QuickBooks or even Timeslips, using these applications to generate the invoices and statements that are sent out to clients.
Evidently, at some point Data.Txt became tired of simply serving as second fiddle to these other popular applications. Right after we reviewed Time Matters 4.0 last year, the company introduced Billing Matters 4.0, a companion application that adds all of the billing functionality needed to turn the duo into a full-blown and highly functional time & billing application.
This time around, we looked at the recently released 5.0 version of both of these applications. You can still buy them separately, and Time Matters 5.0 still does a terrific job of enhancing other invoicing and billing applications. All of the features we commented favorably on in the past, especially the calendaring, scheduling and even document management, are still as desirable as ever, whether you are using Data.Txt’s application for generating bills or another vendor’s.
Alerts and reminders help you to keep on top of client deadlines, and the application’s ability to seamlessly integrate with Microsoft Outlook lets other members of your firm use this popular PIM if they wish. As with previous versions, Time Matters can transfer data to and from PocketPC-based PDAs in addition to the Palm-based PDAs most other time & billing applications support.
Depending upon how your firm bills its clients, you might be able to squeak by with just the new Billing Matters 5.0. Billing Matters leaves out many of the contact manager features contained in Time Matters, but really bulks up in the area of creating and generating invoices and statements. An on-screen form designer lets you tweak invoice and statement formats with just a little practice, though the standard forms and reports are very nice looking and will meet most of the requirements of a typical firm.
There is a bit of overlap between the two applications. Still, we found moving from one application to the other very easy when both are installed. Data.Txt provides a special bundled priced of $510 for the pair, but you need to order the special bundle, rather than add Billing Matters after purchasing Time Matters. There are also special prices for users of the previous version of Time Matters to upgrade to the Time Matters/Billing Matters bundle.
Data.Txt takes a somewhat unusual tack with time & billing, but it’s obvious that, with this vendor, doing a good job matters.
Timesheet 5.5.2 Journyx
Journyx takes a different approach with its Timesheet application. For one thing, it’s not really a time & billing application. It is a very sophisticated time and expense collection software package.
From there, however, how this data is used depends on what other applications you are running. Journyx intends Timesheet to be used as a front end for other applications, including accounts receivable, payroll and project management. As provided, Timesheet really doesn’t have any billing capabilities of its own.
Another unusual thing about Timesheet is its pricing. For up to 10 users, Timesheet is free — just download it from Journyx’s Web site and install and use it. The step to an eleventh user, however, is a big one, with pricing starting at $2,400 for the Windows version and going up from there based on the number of seats. Maintenance (for the paid version) is included for the first year, and billed out separately after that.
If you are in the market for time and expense collection, Timesheet is outstanding. It also does auto mileage, something other T&B packages sometimes have difficulty with. The screens are very nicely laid out and easy to work through, and they can be extensively customized without too much difficulty. An optional module adds the ability to upload credit card statements and add images of charges, receipts and other documents. An on-screen timer is available on the time entry screen, which means that you need to leave the application running (and minimized) on your desktop.
Set-up is a bit different from the other T&B packages we tested. Timesheet is Web-based, and requires a Web server. For the initial set-up and installation, you can install (as we did) the application with its own proprietary Web server and the included Microsoft Database Engine.
For actual day-to-day use, though, Journyx recommends that you use both an external database and an external Web server. Configuring the software to use SQL Server, Oracle or DB2 is not a task for the uninitiated, nor is setting up Windows’ IIS Web server. Timesheet cannot be installed on any version of Windows other than Windows NT 4.0 (service pack 6a is required), Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows Server 2003. A version of Timesheet is also available for most Unix operating systems.
Timesheet is not going to be suitable for many smaller accounting and consulting firms unless they have very complex T&B needs. The amount of set-up, including the IIS Web server and integration to another major application, will also put many potential users off.
On the other hand, if you are already using a higher-end application, such as Microsoft Project, or simply need a very comprehensive and capable front end to your payroll or accounts receivable system, be sure to at least give Timesheet a look. It’s a different approach, but it might be just what you are looking for.
TABS3 Version 11 Software Technology Inc.
With this latest v. 11 release, Software Technology has made significant changes to its flagship time & billing application. Most noticeable is the name change, from TABS III to TABS3.
The T&B application was first introduced in 1979 for the CP/M operating system and the legal profession, and has matured along with the development of more and more powerful computers. It has also become almost as popular with the accounting and consulting market, though the majority of STI’s customers are still lawyers. PracticeMaster, a calendaring, scheduling and contact management application, is another of STI’s popular applications, and a copy of PracticeMaster Basic is now included along with every copy of TABS3. This provides you with an extended time & billing system with strong contact management and calendar tracking capabilities.
As we noticed the last time we tested TABS, it requires a bit more upfront configuration than many of the other products we looked at. A separate “System Configuration” manual walks you through this process, and our initial set-up time was not notably longer than that of the other applications tested.
STI has greatly improved the reporting capabilities of TABS3 with this release. Many of the reports have been considerably refreshed, though some still have an old-fashioned look to them. This doesn’t detract from their applicability or utility, only their appearance — and only in the reports that still require freshening. Many of the reports have been updated, and a new Statement Designer lets you generate custom statements that can include images and repositioning of text and amounts. Other reports have added the ability to use proportional fonts, a capability which makes the reports a lot more attractive.
Data entry screens have also been slightly redesigned for faster data entry and editing. We didn’t dislike the screens in the previous version of TABS3, but anything that speeds up the tedious process of getting data into the application is welcome.
STI has come a long way with this latest release, but overall, TABS3 still has a somewhat dated look to it. That’s unfortunate, because that old-fashioned feeling is confined to the application’s appearance, not to its capabilities. TABS3 gives you a lot of flexibility in how you bill a client, and, as with many of the other T&B packages we looked at, even offers an option add-on that lets you use a Palm-based PDA for remote time entry. Maybe it’s just that lawyers are more traditional than accountants, and prefer a more formal look in both the reports and statements.
As long as you don’t have to wear a powdered wig while doing data entry, TABS3’s attractive price and feature list will entice many practitioners to live with a slightly old-fashioned appearance.
Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.
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