While 2014 welcomed a spate of new accounting products, some of the most impressive releases were from veteran companies updating their solutions.

The most successful revamps came from software providers introducing new features and functionality based on specific customer feedback, with many companies making a point to enter the offices of their small and midsized business and accounting firm clients to observe how they worked.

Also worth noting were the innovative ideas from a few new companies on the block, which we expect to continue pushing the legacy players to stay agile in their offerings.

Both the competition and market research paid off in the year's most impressive products, many of which share a few key trends. To start, efficiency remained a central focus in developing products for busy accountants.

The major research platform developers helped save valuable time in adding intelligence to their search functions, while accounting software vendors provided the dashboard visibility necessary for multi-tasking CPAs to monitor and advise their clients at a glance. All this intelligence is only useful once shared, so new methods of collaboration -- across a firm and with clients -- also emerged.

With those needs in mind, here are the winners and honorable mentions for this year's Top New Products.

 

E-Signature Tools

88seventysign (Sqrl); RightSignature (Citrix); UltraTax CS E-Signature capability (Thomson Reuters); CCH eSign (Wolters Kluwer CCH); Intuit eSignature powered by DocuSign (Intuit)

The Internal Revenue Service's March 2014 decision to allow electronic signatures for Forms 8878 and 8879 kicked off the release of a wave of e-signature tools aimed at accountants and tax preparers, and we wanted to acknowledge the whole range, both those that are part of tax prep suites and those that operate on their own, because they had to jump through a number of hoops to qualify. Besides collecting a host of the kinds of data points you'd expect, IRS-qualified e-signature tools need to employ "dynamic knowledge-based authentication" -- no mean feat. More important, they make your life and your practice a lot easier.

 

Payment Tools

Bill.com FastPay

Speedier is always better in payment exchange, and Bill.com made that the expeditious selling point of its FastPay tool which, quite simply, helps small businesses pay and get paid faster via e-payment.

The solution circumvents the traditional four-to-10-day lag in check processing and delivery with a digital method that tightens SMB cash flow.

FastPay offers overnight e-payments, as well as two-day or three-day checks with tracking and full remittance information in an intuitive interface that automatically displays and calculates tracking numbers and payment arrival date and time.

 

Dashboards/Business Analytics

SageView

As accountants move to a more advisory role, Sage is keeping up with the cloud-based Sage View, which gives accountants a snapshot of customizable insight into their clients' performance and business health. In developing the dashboard solution, Sage listened to customer needs and distilled those to the most critical: closing the gap between accountant and client. Sage View succeeds in bringing accountants up close and personal with their clients' most crucial needs and key performance indicators.

Those KPIs are available up-to-the-minute and via visually efficient charts, graphs and reports, empowering accountants to proactively view, diagnose and advise on their clients' business long before and after Tax Day. One of our favorite points is the fact that it works not just with Sage accounting solutions, but also with rival QuickBooks.

 

Research

CCH IntelliConnect Browser Search (Wolters Kluwer, CCH); Checkpoint Catalyst (Thomson Reuters); Federal Tax Guide and Fast Answers: Accounting (Bloomberg BNA)

In the great quest for answers, the seeking phase of the process can get a little muddled, especially online. The big tax research providers have recognized this, adding smart search functionality to their hefty databases.

Wolters Kluwer, CCH's CCH IntelliConnect Browser Search is an installable browser add-on to the recently enhanced IntelliConnect platform that streamlines search. Search bar queries connect to the company's subscriber content, displaying the answers directly on the Google, Bing or Yahoo results page -- eliminating the need for multiple searches on different platforms.

In addition to its unique research workflow and step-by-step expertise, Thomson Reuters' Checkpoint Catalyst, which was designed specifically for the Web, includes a multi-layered intuitive search function that learns a user's selections and preferences and -- leveraging specialized cross references and equivalency tables created by editorial tax experts -- delivers the most relevant search results. This intuitive search is available for all Checkpoint subscribers.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg BNA continues to roll out its Fast Answers feature across its research platforms, adding Fast Answers: Accounting, with quick results to almost 3,000 answers on a wide range of GAAP questions, written by experts and presented in a Q&A format. And even its brand-new doorstop Federal Tax Guide places a special emphasis on helping readers find the right answer quickly.

 

Client Access

FreshBooks Accountant Center

One of the more important developments in accounting is the recent move up the value stream, with accountants offering more value-added advice and services to business clients based on constant access to their data. We chose FreshBooks' Accountant Center as one of our Top Products not just because it enables that sort of thing - though it does, creating a portal on the FreshBooks platform that gives accountants a comprehensive view of their clients' financial data.

But we also like it because it makes clear that these services aren't just for big firms dealing with big, ERP-type clients. It's for small, and sometimes very small, businesses, too, and cloud-based tools like the FreshBooks Accountant Center help level the playing field for them, and their accountants.

 

Practice management

CCH iFirm Small Firm Manager (Wolters Kluwer CCH SFS); QuickBooks Online Accountant (Intuit)

There's a need for help with practice management at firms of all sizes, so a good product in this area is always a strong contender for our Top Products list, but we particularly like CCH iFirm Small Firm Manager's focus on, well, small firms, which need precisely the kind of workflow, scheduling and other tools that it includes just as much as their larger brethren, if not more so. That it leverages the cloud to give them accessibility and greater efficiency is a major plus, too, and it all adds up to a solution that will let smaller firms punch above their weight.

Last year, meanwhile, Intuit brought enough enhancements to QuickBooks Online to incentivize users to migrate to the cloud, and they applied the same feature-richness to their revamped QuickBooks Online Accountant practice management solution. The product's core is a customizable client dashboard of bookkeeping and payroll tasks, with the latest enhancements geared toward efficiency, including context switching to improve multi-tasking and an accountant toolbox, which provides fast access to the most-used tools in the system. And thanks to its new partnership with online file sharing service Box, QBOA offers a secure client document storage center. The solution is also integrated with Intuit's ProAdvisor program, giving users access to its training, resources and product discounts.

In the same field, we're giving an Honorable Mention to Xero Practice Manager, which gives the eponymous cloud accounting developer's partners powerful visibility into their firms.

 

Audit Tools

AuditFile

We have frequently noted the narrow range of tools specifically dedicated to auditors, so we're always happy to see new ones come along, particularly when they're worthy of our Top Products list. That's where we put AuditFile, a cloud-based audit solution that lets firms track and manage every aspect of the audit, review or compilation process. It's also working on integrating with major online accounting software solutions QuickBooks Online and Xero, so it's more than doing its part to bring audit into the same cloud-based, integrated, automated world that tax and accounting have been in for more than a decade.

 

Legal Tools

Legal and Business Forms, powered by Legal Street

Any honest professional will tell you that there are a few aspects of their work that anyone can do -- things that are simple enough that they don't require any real depth of expertise. Take the forms in the new Legal and Business Forms library -- these are common, routine paperwork like basic contracts, leases and so on that your clients need, and that you often have to wait for while their lawyers work them up. Leveraging the tools from its legal business, Thomson Reuters has made it easy for users of its NetClient CS portals to offer and complete these for their clients, saving time and uncertainty.

 

Back-Office Tools

Blackline Finance Controls & Automation Platform

Sprouted from a single code base and fully integrated in the cloud, Blackline's Finance Controls & Automation Platform is innovative not only in design but purpose -- automating the broader finance process "from close to disclose." On this holistic platform, Blackline's enterprise-level and mid-market customers have access to the company's range of solutions -- Financial Close Management, Intercompany Hub, Reconciliation Management and Controls Assurance -- and other accounting and financial processes, all aimed at increased efficiency and visibility.

 

Security

DSTRUX

We'll admit that what first drew us to DSTRUX was the self-destruct feature: It lets you share a file and set a date for when it will erase itself, so that you have complete control over how long those you share it with can view it. As cool as that is, we named it a Top Product for two other features: The fact that files shared through DSTRUX can't be printed, screen-captured, copied or saved, and the fact that you can track who has viewed them or forwarded them. In this era of data hacks, tools that let you share digital information while still maintaining control over it are few and far between -- and worth noting.

We're also giving an Honorable Mention to Enlocked for its next-generation e-mail encryption solution. It's not as flashy, but e-mail is a critical tool, and a major source of vulnerability, and we need more tools that make it safer.

 

Social media

Website Relief

You hear a lot about the need for accounting firms to get involved in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn these days, but it's important to remember that the most important social media tool is your own Web site -- and it's positively shocking how many firms don't have one. AccountantsWorld's Website Relief offers you the opportunity to build a cutting-edge home online, one that will tell current and prospective clients that you are not mired in the 20th Century.

Website Relief was completely rewritten and updated this year to let users create larger, more complex sites that will display optimally across multiple devices like tablets and mobile phones, and offer access to all the other social media you should be using.

 

Honorable Mentions

If you like new tools, it's a great time to be an accountant, as more and more of them are being released every day. We can't cram them all into our Top Products list, but here are four we wanted to note as worthy of an Honorable Mention:

  • Tax Staff Essentials, from the American Institute of CPAs, packages together a comprehensive training program that is aimed at providing the right level of instruction to your firm's tax practitioners based on their individual level of expertise.
  • Sageworks Valuation from Sageworks can help you put a value on any business, and is compliant with the AICPA's valuation standards.
  • Sqrl, from the makers of 88seventysign, was designed by accountants to make it easier for accountants to gather the client data and documents that so often elude them.
  • And Jetpack Workflow is a client management system designed specifically to help accountants track and organize client work.

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