There's a great tendency, especially in smaller practices, to concentrate on getting the work out on time, and catching up on the business side of the business when time permits.

While that's a laudable client-oriented attitude, it does not help pay the bills, an increasingly important consideration in today's economic environment.

Revenue management is an important part of that equation. Without adequate cash flow, you simply can't run your business. And unless your clients are doing much better than most these days, they are also looking to stretch their dollars, putting them only where they have to and letting payables go for as long as possible.

Keeping tabs on your practice's receivables, making sure that clients are billed quickly and accurately, and do not fall too far behind in their payments, not only helps your practice - it prevents your clients from getting in over their heads in their payables to you, which often results in lost clients and large receivables write-offs.

Not every practice needs a full-blown practice management solution. And in these tight times, you don't want to pay for more than you really need. For many smaller or more straightforward practices, a time and billing package is a good solution. Not only is it usually less expensive than a full practice management application, oftentimes it is easier to install, easier to configure, and easier to use day by day.

As a bonus, many time and billing applications can provide you data on staff utilization. While unpopular with staff, this information is necessary if your practice is going to survive and even prosper.

GET WHAT YOU NEED

In their core functionality, time and billing applications are somewhat generic. They capture time spent by staff on a per-client or per-project basis, apply an applicable billing rate, and collect expenses appropriate to those tasks. That data is invoiced to the client where billable, and the receivables due or received are applied against the appropriate balances due.

Where differences in software packages become important is in how a particular package fits in with the way your practice works. Does the package accommodate the way that your practice bills fees? Most time and billing systems let you bill on an hourly or flat-fee basis, but some practices bill some or all of their clients or projects against a retainer or on a value-billing basis. If your practice uses a less common billing method, you'll need to determine how easily a particular software package can handle this.

Data capture is another consideration. Many accounting practices have very mobile staff. Data entry is most efficient and accurate when it is performed as the service is rendered or the expense incurred. Selecting a package that supports remote data entry from a laptop or even a smartphone will be a consideration for this type of practice.

Another area of difference is in reporting. Some of the time and billing applications that we tested provide only a basic set of reports, with little or no flexibility for customization. If the selection of reports works for your practice, fine. If you think that you will need the ability to customize reports, statements, and/or invoices, then the software package that you select better have this capability.

Finally, a software package should ideally fit into the way that your practice operates, and not the other way around. In the real world, this happens only to a certain extent. But how much you have to change your practice's workflow and procedures to incorporate the time and billing software is going to have a large effect on how successful this integration is, and to what extent your staff will make use of the application.

To help you in this decision, we tested seven time and billing applications. Two of these are online Software-as-a-Service applications, and were tested using the standard Windows IE7 browser over a high-speed Internet connection. All testing was performed on a Lenovo X200s laptop, a common dual-core business configuration running Windows XP Professional, and the laptop was restored to base factory configuration before every install, so the install of each application was started out with a machine that was essentially "fresh out of the box."

PRACTICE RELIEF

One of the hallmarks of a successful business is the ability to re-invent itself to suit a changing market. AccountantsWorld has done that twice. The first time was to shift from being a vendor of tax prep software to a vendor of accountant-oriented applications. The second was to move their applications onto the Web as SaaS offerings.

Practice Relief is the vendor's latest application, and replaces Time2Money, AccountantsWorld's initial time and billing software. Unlike some of the vendor's other applications, which are available in both in-house and online versions, Practice Relief is provided only online, and is billed on either a yearly basis or, if needed for a specific client or project, on a month-to-month basis. Neither of these is particularly expensive considering that many other vendors charge for maintenance after the initial purchase or for yearly version upgrades.

Setting up Practice Relief is easy - it comes preconfigured with a large number of different types of tasks and projects already defined. Data entry is also easy, and you and your staff can perform this from anywhere that you have access to an Internet browser. AccountantsWorld includes a time-tracking wizard that can be installed on a PC or laptop. To use it, just pick a client and start the clock. When you stop the clock, you can enter notes if desired, and the next time that you sign onto Practice Relief, the data will be downloaded and posted.

Practice Relief lets you enter expenses just as easily, and setting up a client for flat-fee billing is a breeze. Navigation through the app is intuitive, and the need for staff training is minimal.

The included reports let you both manage the cash flow in your firm, and analyze both staff activity and client profitability. While there is a decent selection of reports, there isn't a large amount of customization that you can perform on them. Invoices are pretty conventional in appearance, and you can either print them or e-mail them directly to your client.

Practice Relief isn't a particularly glitzy application. It's attractive, but very functional. That's fine, as Practice Relief isn't trying to be more than what it offers - an affordable and easy-to-use way to keep track of time and expenses, bill them out to clients, and stay on top of the firm's receivables.

BILL4TIME PROFESSIONAL

SaaS is becoming more popular, and Broadway Billing Systems is another vendor that provides time and billing in this format. Bill4Time is available only as an online application, and it's usable from pretty much any PC that uses a standard browser.

Additionally, time and expense recording mini-applications called "widgets" are available for download, which let you enter data into a laptop or PC and upload this data into the Bill4Time system at your convenience. These widgets are available in PC or Mac format, and are useful if you often find yourself at client sites where there is no easy access to the Internet. Also available are applications for a number of PDAs and smartphones such as the Blackberry or iPhone, which let you enter time and expenses from these devices.

As with many of the other time and billing applications reviewed here, Bill4Time is not specifically oriented to one profession, though legal terminology is used in the descriptions of some functions. In this release, "case" management has been updated to reflect client and project management.

Set-up and configuration is no problem, and navigation through the system and data entry are also quite good. Most smaller practices that use time and billing, rather than more complex practice management packages, have fairly simple billing needs, and Bill4Time provides hourly and fixed-fee billing, as well as contingency billing, a fee structure not used in accounting practices. It's easy to attach a file to a client record, which is useful if you want to maintain receipts for expense verification at a future time. Bill4Time also integrates with the Pro and Premier editions of QuickBooks, so getting your data from one application to the other is not a problem.

One area where Bill4Time appears to be a little weak is in customization. While some applications let you customize data entry screens and, more commonly, invoice and report layouts, with Bill4Time, it appears that what you see is what's available. Still, for many practices, this version, or even a less expensive "Lite" version (which can be used by a maximum of two users and with up to 20 clients) will suffice nicely.

BILLQUICK BASIC

Compared to some of the other vendors in this roundup, BQE Systems is a relative newcomer to the time and billing market. Given this, they have made nice progress in their products, and added several new applications in the past year.

Still available, BillQuick Lite is a free time and billing package, and the product line goes up from there to the Basic Edition that we tested, a Professional Edition and an Enterprise Edition. With each jump up, you get increased functionality, more users and, of course, a higher price. For a good number of smaller sole practitioners, the free Lite version will actually serve nicely, letting you get the bills out quickly and track the status of an invoice. It's an easy upgrade to one of the paid versions if you have to add users or features.

The Basic 2009 edition that we tested is suitable for many practices, and is licensed for up to four users. BQE Systems originally developed the application for consultants, not for accounting practices, and this is obvious in the very strong project management features. The Pro and Enterprise editions also have the ability to do estimates, turn estimates into invoices, bill on percentage of completion, and other project-oriented capabilities. Many of these capabilities can also be found in entry-level accounting packages from Intuit, Sage and Microsoft, and if you use one of these accounting applications, BillQuick Basic 2009 easily interfaces with them.

We did not encounter any problems with installing the software, and while the user interface has been slightly freshened this year, it's still intuitive and clear. BillQuick has always provided a large selection of invoice templates and report formats that can be customized fairly easily. New this year is a dashboard, which gives you the practice status at a glance.

In the past, we've commented on the software's lack of remote data entry capability. BQE Systems has addressed this issue by providing several new packages or add-ons. BillQuick Palm and BillQuick CE let you and your staff record time and expenses on a Palm device for uploading when you are back in the office. For remote data entry, BillQuick eTools lets you create time and expense entries on a remote computer such as your laptop, and e-mail them back to the office.

BillQuick Web Suite takes things a step further, allowing authorized users to run the BillQuick applications remotely from any Internet browser, so you can not only enter time and expense data, you can even generate and e-mail invoices or record a payment if a client hands you a check when you are in front of them. Applications for resource management and human resources are also available.

CASEWARE TIME

Many of the vendors whose T&B packages we tested for this roundup market time and billing as their only accountant-oriented application. CaseWare's entire product line is targeted to accounting practices, and has been from its inception. In addition to Time 2009, CaseWare also sells its Working Papers, Scenarios, Benchmarking, OpenEngagement DMS, and Idea packages. All of these are designed to integrate with the other CaseWare offerings.

One feature of Time 2009 (and other CaseWare applications) that's fairly unique in time and billing packages is its user interface. When CaseWare first introduced its Windows Explorer-like interface years ago, it was a very different approach to many users. Fortunately, the rest of the world has caught up to CaseWare and the three-panel interface is no longer daunting.

Available documents, journals and reports are listed in the leftmost pane, with the rightmost pane showing available tasks, which are actually performed in the center pane. This approach has the advantage of instantly showing what you are working on and what's available. CaseWare Time 2009, as with a number of the other applications we tested, straddles the fence between time and billing and practice management, depending on how you set it up and use it. The optional Today package provides a strong link to Outlook, which is great when you want to monitor due dates or send e-mails.

Time 2009 uses a SQL database, most often a version of Microsoft SQL Server. If you don't already have some version of MS SQL installed, the application will install and configure MS SQL Server 2005 Express. This is accomplished without the user having to do much but watch. Using Time 2009 is not quite as intuitive as some of the flowchart-oriented applications, but once you get used to the interface, it becomes comfortable very quickly.

Unlike many applications, Time 2009 (and most of the other CaseWare applications) are document-oriented. The definition of a "document" is flexible, so you can store reports, faxes, e-mails and even images. CaseWare also offers an even more robust document management system called OpenEngagement DMS. This gives you some pretty impressive collaboration and workflow capabilities, as well as providing the ability to work with the CaseWare documents from a remote location. In the past we've lamented that Time did not offer remote data entry for time and expenses. OpenEngagement can be used for that purpose as well.

CaseWare doesn't make big changes to its products on a yearly basis. That's a testament to how well the application was designed and executed initially. Of course, you can use Time 2009 with other applications, as well as Microsoft Office. But the software works very well as a stand-alone, as well as in conjunction with other CaseWare applications.

IMAGINETIME

ImagineTime somewhat straddles the line between time and billing and true practice management. A modular system with time and billing as the core module, it's easy to build a full-blown PM system by adding the optional Due Date Monitor and Tax Tracker, and the Contact Calendar and Outlook Sync for CRM. PDA Time Entry is available as an add-on, as are QuickBooks Import, Lacerte and UltraTax integration, and credit card processing.

The core single-user time and billing starts at a reasonable $295, but adding on network support, multi-user support, and one or more of the additional modules can quickly shoot the price skyward. The nice thing about this approach, however, is that you only have to pay for what you need at the present time. And ImagineTime's multi-user pricing is for the number of concurrent users, not the total number of network seats.

The software itself is easy to install and configure. Data entry and other screens are nicely laid out and intuitive to use and navigate, though ImagineTime offers both on-site and over-the-Internet training if you want it. Multiple timer clocks can be used, which is helpful if you often multitask between clients, and if you are using the optional calendar scheduling module, you can turn scheduled appointments into time slips, saving time and making sure that you capture the time spent.

Reports and invoices are unremarkable, but serve their purpose more than adequately. A simple report generator is available for ad hoc reporting.

There are some definite advantages to a system that's designed from the start for accountants, rather than a generic audience. Yes, you can operate quite well with most of the packages in this roundup. But the applications designed specifically for accounting practices, such as ImagineTime, just seem to have a slightly more comfortable feel.

OFFICE TOOLS PROFESSIONAL

Application categories are a simple way to differentiate software. The problem comes when a vendor's application doesn't fit comfortably into a generic description like time and billing or practice management. Office Tools Professional is one such application. For one thing, it's a modular application, and depending on which modules you purchase, the software can be a time and billing application, a practice management application, a contact management application, a document/content management application, or a combination of these.

This year's offering is pretty similar to the application that we tested last year. The user interface has been tweaked, and there are a few updates here and there, but the software still is comprised of one or more of six core modules - contact management, scheduling, time and billing, project/case management, records management, and a document file cabinet. These modules can interface with Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel and Outlook, but you don't have to have Office installed to make good use of the software. You get to choose any three of these modules for the Standard Suite and all six in the Professional Suite. Pricing also varies depending on the number of users.

The big news with the 2009 version is that the underlying database of Office Tools Professional has moved to Microsoft SQL Server. That's good news and bad news all rolled into one. The software comes with a copy of Microsoft SQL Server Express 2005, which is the free version, and should you have a large number of transactions, upgrading to a paid version of MS SQL Server is a simple task.

Unfortunately, setting up MS SQL Server Express 2005 proved problematic, and we finally resorted to Office Tool's support, which got us up and running quickly. Our support rep told us that the SQL software sometimes doesn't install correctly on a single workstation install, but that they haven't encountered this problem on client/server installations.

Once the install actually completed, it was smooth running. We like Office Tools Professional's time and billing capabilities. They aren't overly fancy, but the screens are easy to navigate through, and with a small but workable selection of invoices and other reports, they get the job done efficiently.

Adding the other modules really ramps up the application's capabilities, especially with SQL Server underlying the entire collection. Since the difference in cost between the three-module Standard Suite and the complete six-module Professional Suite is only a hundred dollars at the single-user level, we would recommend going for the Professional Suite from the get-go.

TIMESLIPS BY SAGE

It's interesting how some things are so popular and enduring that their name becomes somewhat of a generic reference. "Scotch" tape is one instance, making a "Xerox" copy is another. That's the status that Timeslips has reached, with time and billing applications often referred to as "Timeslips" even when they are actually named something completely different.

That's a testament to the software's staying power. Introduced more than two decades ago, originally for the legal profession, the digital analog to the paper slips that attorneys used to record their time and expenses worked so well, and was already so familiar, that it became an instant success.

That basic model has not only stood the test of time, but underlies the structure of almost every time and billing application available.

Sage has not added a lot of new features since last year, and those features that are new are mostly enhancements to features already in the product. That's not too surprising when a piece of software has been around as long as Timeslips; adding a few new features every year over 20-plus years results in a very feature-rich application.

Over the past few years, Timeslips has gained a dashboard (Timeslips Today), a sophisticated report generator, and interactive reports with drill-down capability. Reports can be extensively customized with logos and other graphics incorporated into the design. You can print reports to Excel, and e-mail bills to clients. Sage has quite an active forms business, so the application allows you to print onto pre-printed forms, though with the flexibility in designing your own invoices, we don't see why most practices would bother ordering expensive forms.

If we have any criticism of Timeslips, it's that some features that are standard on other vendors' applications, like remote entry, are sold as add-ons by Sage. On the other hand, Sage has a huge stable of third-party developers, so there are a large number of independently developed enhancements available for the application, allowing you even further customization.

Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry Analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory. He was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology, and writes on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.

Vendor Information

Practice Relief

AccountantsWorld LLC

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsworld.com

Pricing: $399 per year or $40 per month.

Bill4Time Professional

Broadway Billing Systems

(877) 245-5484

www.bill4time.com

Pricing: Varies with number of users; starts at $39.95 per user/per month.

BillQuick Basic BQE Software Inc.

(888) 245-5669

www.bqe.com

Pricing: Lite - free; Basic - starts at $495 for two users.

CaseWare Time CaseWare International Inc.

(416) 867-9504

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single user - $499; five users - $999; additional timekeepers - $175.

Imagine Time

Imagine Time Inc.

(877) 520-1525

www.imaginetime.com

Pricing: Single user - $295; starter network - $495.

Office Tools Professional Office Tools Professional

(888) 667-8440

www.officetoolsprofessional.com

Pricing: Professional Suite - single user, $400.

TimeSlips by Sage

Sage Software SB

(800) 285-0999

www.timeslips.com

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

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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