Applications for firms and their clients don't have to break the bank

Mike Marolt, a high-altitude skier who climbs 8,000-meter peaks around the world every six to 12 months, sometimes leaves his small Aspen, Colo.-based firm for two months at a time.

He's not Superman, but he does have the ability to look at his clients' computers from places untouched by most regular men using GoToAssist Express from Citrix Online.

"I'll be out on a mountaintop, and there are certain things that are time-sensitive. I can tap into the system, run a payroll and pay the taxes. It allows me to be away and not impede the business," Marolt said. "To leave for any more than two weeks was a huge risk to your practice and it was stressful. With this product, it's hardly an issue."

Marolt beta-tested GoToMyPC a few years ago, but recently started using GoToAssist Express, which eliminates the need to load the program on each of his client's computers as long as they grant him permission to remotely tap into their computer the first time he uses it with them.

It costs $69 per month, or $660 annually, but a 24-hour pass is available for $9.95 for accountants who only need to use it on occasion.

He often uses it to check in with his junior staff, eliminating some of the anxiety they might otherwise experience if he were out of the office for that long, and letting them watch him fix things so they can take over next time around. For example, he can show them how to adjust an entry in a tax return or change a pay rate for an employee.

It also let Marolt retain a staff member who moved some 300 miles away. "With the product, she was able to keep working for me, and, in fact, increased her hours," he said. "It didn't result in us losing a great employee and CPA."

Even firms that remain financially sound despite the economy don't want to throw tons of cash into technology investments. Digging deep into hidden treasure chests reveals some of the low-cost (and free) tools that accountants are using to save time or money for their firm or for their clients.

The findings run the gamut - from GoToAssist for accessing client files online, to basic Web sites and blogs for better marketing, to tools for managing IT security and an array of free Google apps.

Taking a different tack, Jacomien Ford uses GoToAssist to stay in her Toronto office, instead of traveling to help her clients to sort out their problems with Simply Accounting by Sage, most of which boil down to errors by new users or those who are attempting to do things they normally don't.

"In the old days, I'd talk them step by step through it with the program open in front of me, but even then sometimes they'd miss it or I'd have to make an appointment to come in and spend half a day there," Ford said. "Now they just call me and say, 'Can you come online and look at my computer?' I can see their screen or I can switch it around so they can see mine."

Ford used to bill for mileage and time spent out of her office, but essentially lost money on the driving time and the short phone calls because she didn't track them. "Express gives me a report with the date and tracks my time when using it, and at the end of session I can add notes to remind myself of what we did," she said. "You can download that in various forms, especially with Excel, which I can manipulate and add to the client file."

Intuit created a similar product, QuickBooks Remote Access powered by WebEx, which Ruth Perryman uses to work with her clients' files. The QuickBooks specialist is based in Roseville, Calif., but she has been increasing her work outside the state as a result of her online marketing efforts. Because many clients have never met her in person, they feel more comfortable giving her access only to QuickBooks files, instead of their entire system.

It starts at $3.95 per month per computer for just QuickBooks files and $7.95 per month for all applications.

Perryman uses SmartVault - which is free for accountants, and starts at $19 per month for client licenses - to transfer paperwork back and forth, and to attach statements to QuickBooks files. She also uses the QuickBooks Contact Sync for Outlook, a free download that transfers data to and from both QuickBooks and Outlook. "I used to have to enter it twice or copy and paste it, and it took forever," said Perryman. Now she just clicks a "sync" button.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Perryman also has a roster of Intuit products that she recommends to clients who are looking to save money.

Among them are Intuit Merchant Services (monthly service fees for which range from roughly $10 to $20), Assisted Payroll (which is based on the number of employees and payroll frequencies, among other factors) and WorkTrack TimeCard for QuickBooks Payroll (which starts at $8 a month per user) for her clients who spend a lot of time in the field.

Intuit is hoping more accountants will follow Perryman's lead as part of the vendor's new "Power to Get More Done" marketing campaign.

"I spend a lot of time working with accountants and trying to encourage them to make recommendations to their clients for tools that could save the clients time and money," explained senior marketing manager Devin Webb.

Since January, Webb has been focusing on the free tools that Intuit offers to help small businesses get through this tough economy. For example, they can download a free edition of QuickBooks Simple Start to track sales and expenses and create invoices, get Intuit Online Payroll free for six months (then it's $9.95 per month), and put up a free Web site for 12 months ($4.99 per month thereafter).

There's also a hodgepodge of free online resources and a community for small-business owners to connect with each other about ways to start out and grow at http://community.intuit.com.

Similarly, Sage is relying on its accountants' network to pass on information about the free tools and online resources that the vendor introduced in April for small businesses, a market Sage typically has not pursued.

At the center of this initiative is SageSpark.com, and the featured free product is Billing Boss, for creating, sending and tracking invoices. It also lets customers pay companies online using a credit card or PayPal account, and is available in seven languages.

"It's for people who aren't interested in an accounting system," said vice president of small-business marketing Rob Kin. The way the vendor hopes to monetize the venture is that those people will want the services offered on SageSpark.com, such as online marketing and merchant services. "They are willing to pay for things like a virtual helpdesk to get computers running for $60 per month installing and maintaining security updates," said King.

Small businesses can also set up a basic Web site, which serves more like an online business card, for about $100 a year.

Sue du Pay, a Sage Certified Trainer and Simply Accounting Certified Consultant based in Canada, is already recommending Billing Boss to her clients.

"I'm putting it out there to all businesses, even if they are using accounting software. Invoicing is always a pain point. All the information is there for them to process or enter in the accounting system," she said.

"SageSpark I find to be absolutely phenomenal, especially for entrepreneurs who wear all the hats," she said. "A lot of times those businesses are just one person; they have everything they need to get known in the community."

She plans to use some of the tools herself, using Sage's blogging capabilities to link back to her site, instead of creating - and paying for - a separate one on her own.

Sage, Intuit and Microsoft also offer significant product discounts for members of their accountants' networks. Intuit promotes many of these discounts on its Web site. While they are usually around 20 percent off list, sometimes promotional prices are offered on top of the standard discount. For example, QuickBooks Pro Advisors can purchase QuickBooks Pro, which typically retails for $199.95, for as low as $119.

The savings are even greater with Sage and Microsoft discounts, but they aren't heavily advertised and many accountants who do not consider themselves technologists or resellers don't necessarily know about them, according to Brian Tankersley, a CPA, Certified Information Technology Professional and information technology consultant based in Knoxville, Tenn. "The best thing a CPA firm can do to help them get going is to sign up for the partner programs at software companies - especially the Sage Accountants Network and Microsoft Professional Accountants' Network."

"They don't talk about it much," he said, "but if you belong to the network you get massive amounts of software super-cheap."

For example, MPAN members can receive a Microsoft Action Pack, which includes MS Office 2007, Windows Vista, Small Business Server, Windows Server, SQL Server and more for $299 annually - everything that a 10-person firm would use, and that, if combined, could cost up to $20,000, Tankersley said.

Tankersley cautioned accountants to read the fine print on these offers, but said that most people in public practice who support accounting software will qualify, even if they are not technology gurus: "Even if they don't intend to be Mr. and Mrs. Super QuickBooks or Super Peachtree, clients are interested in accountants knowing how to use the software and whether it's a fit [for their company] or it isn't."

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

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