by Roger Russell

Los Angeles - Accountants are not extracting all that the Internet has to offer, according to two tax-preparation software industry executives.

In separate presentations at the recent California Accounting & Business Show & Conference, Michael Bodner, chief technical officer and vice president for development at Creative Solutions, and Larry Zuckerman, vice president at Micro Vision Software, said that CPAs - in many cases, technology experts in their own practices - have neglected the potential to build client relationships through Internet technology.

Both CSI and Micro Vision, like many other tax prep software companies, offer Internet tools, including Web site hosting, to CPA firms. Creative Solutions’ NetClient allows CPA firms to offer their customers personal client portals, while Micro Vision’s Accountant’s World is a portal whose services include customizing Web sites.

"The 'dot.com’ bust was not the end of the Internet," said Bodner. "We are now entering the maturing phase of this technology - the Internet is evolving into a utility."

Bodner said that the personalization demanded by accounting clients demands 24/7 access, which can only be realized through Internet technology. Client loyalty in a service-based industry is measured by "stickiness," according to Bodner. "Clients do not leave sticky relationships. The Internet builds stickiness, and it does this by offering more than simply a firm Web site."

Zuckerman emphasized that individual firm Web sites give the CPA an advantage both in marketing and practice. He noted that there are online tools available, such as financial calculators, which can help existing clients or attract potential clients. "These tools reduce non-billable time, while generating additional billing opportunities," said Zuckerman.

The individual firm Web sites hosted by Accountant’s World are promoted through a directory listed on most major search engines, according to Zuckerman. "Prospects who search for 'accountant,’ 'tax preparer’ or 'CPA’ are directed to the Accountants World Directory of Accounting Firms, where they can find an enhanced listing of your firm," he said.

Zuckerman went on to highlight features in his Accountant’s World Web site offerings. Bodner, meanwhile, spoke in more general terms of the Internet.

For Bodner, the Internet is a "convergence of technologies that create a new paradigm for information sharing as well as providing a new interaction space between people." The actual delivery of applications via the Internet, said Bodner, in which users run hosted software via the browser on their desktop, makes the performance of traditional accounting tasks easier, and brings more personalized service to the client.

Services, including applications, document management and exchange and account information can now be hosted on the Web, said Bodner. Application hosting and a personal client portal allow the CPA to integrate his tax practice with other services for clients. For example, the CPA can support client accounting software such as Great Plains, Peachtree and QuickBooks without visiting the client site.

Bodner said that Web services are a new stage in Web evolution, with applications and data available anywhere, any time and on any device. Data and information will be independent of the applications that spawn them, and entire industries will be able to share data and information.

Using standards such as XML (Extensible Markup Language) the programming language for transmitting financial data over the Internet, accountants will be able to produce output from one program that can easily become input to another. Bodner also praised XBRL, the markup language being specifically developed for financial reporting. "The result is that bank statements, investment data and tax information will be electronically available to accounting and tax software," said Bodner.

These personalized services require private and secure sections to be defined in cyberspace for each of the CPA firm’s clients in the form of a personal client portal, Bodner said. In the new world which Bodner described, the client sends bank statements to the accountant as XBRL files. The client bookkeeping software outputs reports in XBRL, and payroll and investment data are delivered as XML. The accountant’s write up and tax software then reads the XML directly. The accountant then files the tax return electronically, bills the client electronically and is paid electronically.

The advantages described by Bodner are expanding relationships with clients. By utilizing technology and expertise, the accountant can offer enhanced services to clients at a reasonable price.

Moreover, Bodner noted, the accountant leverages his position as a trusted professional advisor to become the client’s guide in "cyber-business."

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