Times are tough, and while it's often been difficult in the past to get clients to pay on time, it's even more of a task these days. But you're not doing your clients, or your practice, a favor by being late in billing for services, or allowing clients to run up large past-due balances.
The simple truth is that your practice needs income to operate, and the larger a client's balance gets, and the more outstanding it becomes, the greater the chance that you won't see the whole thing, or even any of it.
There's no magic wand that you can wave to make everything all right. What you need is some way to ensure that bills go out, and that these invoices are paid - in other words, time and billing software.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
Sometimes the line between T&B and practice management is hard to navigate, since the two are related. Time and billing is usually considered to be a subset of practice management, and shifts the focus from resource utilization with practice management, to revenue flow. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of crossover from one application to another. Because of that, there are many vendor applications that can fit into both of these niches.
As a general rule, smaller firms, which don't have a lot of staff, usually don't need the extensive resource management capabilities of a full-blown practice management system. Time and billing packages, such as the ones reviewed here, often fit their needs very well, providing core features without undue operational complexity or expense.
Most T&B applications are similar in design. They all allow you (and your staff) to capture time spent on various client and firm activities, expenses incurred in performing these activities, the generation of invoices to clients, and the ability to track the state of receivables.
Where they differ the most is in how they actually provide these features. Some applications can provide multiple timers, so that when you multi-task between clients, such as answering a phone call from one client while working on another, you can time both activities. Other places where features differ are in how much you can deviate from boilerplate invoices, and the kinds of reports provided.
We found that T&B has become a mature application that runs well, and is simple to use. What package is best for you really depends on your needs and budget.
With "cloud computing" applications all the rage, AccountantsWorld has the distinction of having been there, done that. It was one of the very first vendors to offer accountant-oriented software in an online environment. In essence, they were doing cloud computing before it was even called cloud computing.
One of the nice things about AccountantsWorld's approach is that it takes the burden of updates and separate yearly support contracts off your shoulders. For a reasonable yearly fee, you can have an unlimited number of timekeepers. Since access is through the Web, there's no need to have expensive PCs for each timekeeper - whatever they are using to perform client work will suffice. And if you add temporary staff in busy times, there's no need to buy more licenses than you need - Practice Relief is like one of those all-inclusive vacations.
There's no installation with Practice Relief. All you have to do is enter staff and client information, as well as rates and services. It already has many of the more common tasks available, and you can edit these if they don't accurately reflect the way you want them to appear on the invoices. You'll have to do this with any T&B application, and the task is not overly complicated or time-consuming.
Using the application is pretty much intuitive. The data entry screens are easy to navigate, and are laid out so that data entry is quick and painless. Multiple timers are not provided, so if this is a deal-breaker, you'll have to look elsewhere. For most users, multiple timers are a nice option, but not a necessary feature.
The available reports are cleanly designed, easy to use, and provide the necessary information to manage receivables. While Practice Relief provides a very useful T&B system, it's also usable as an entry-level PM application, which is nice if you decide at some point that you need more capabilities.
Broadway Billing Systems
Time and billing is an application that lends itself to working in the "cloud." Because accountants often work outside the office, the ability to directly upload hours and expenses and have them processed in real time is a definite plus.
AccountantsWorld has been using this paradigm for years. But they are no longer unique, as Bill4Time is strictly an online solution. You don't get a client program - data entry is done through a standard Web browser. There is a desktop widget available for both Windows and Mac operating systems that provides offline timers and time entry to allow offline capture of time spent, though it's also usable when online and signed into your account. Bill4Time also offers the ability to enter time and expenses, as well as check balances, with most smartphones.
Since Bill4Time is a hosted application, there's no installation required, other than that for the desktop widget, if used. As with any T&B application, you will have to set up staff, clients, tasks that don't appear in the boilerplate list, and rates. We did not find this to be any more difficult or time-consuming than with any other application tested.
Time entry with the desktop widget, mobile application, or directly through the application was simple and direct. You won't spend much time, if any, with the documentation. Invoices can be output or saved in text or PDF format, though there is not a lot of customization available in formatting the appearance.
As with many of the applications we tested, there is good integration with QuickBooks.
There are three different editions. The Lite version, at $20 a month per user, and the Professional version, at $40 per user, are identical in features. The Lite version does limit you to two users, 20 clients and 30 "projects" (engagements), while you have an unlimited number of each with Professional. There is a free edition that limits you to one user, three clients and five "projects." This version also eliminates some features, including QuickBooks integration, but is a good way to see if the application will fit your requirements.
As with a number of the vendors in this roundup, BQE's BillQuick is available in several editions. The least expensive is BillQuick Lite, which is free, and is basically a bare-bones application that lets you enter time and expenses, and produce an invoice. There are no timers, and no customization. Still, it will fulfill the needs of some sole practitioners very nicely.
Moving up the line from there are the Basic, Pro and Enterprise editions. These vary in the number of users supported, and in available features. Upgrading from one edition to a higher one is as easy as buying a new license key that unlocks the features and user constraints already contained in the software.
We looked at the Basic edition, which allows up to four timekeepers to enter time and expenses. It doesn't provide most of the advanced features available in the more expensive versions, such as staff scheduling and time-off management or credit card processing. But it does a nice job with time and expense entry and reporting and invoicing. All versions do provide integration with accounting software from Intuit, Sage and MYOB.
We did not experience any problems in installation or set-up. BQE does not use SQL in any version other than the Enterprise edition, so many users won't have to worry about a complex install. Creating new staff records and tasks, and entering rates, is about as simple and time-consuming as it was with the other packages we tested.
BQE has a number of other applications available that integrate with BillQuick. These include project management and HR management. BillQuick is rather generic in the audience it is produced for, though the vendor has profession-specific editions, including one for accountants.
BQE Software continues to improve BillQuick with each year's new release.
Fifth Walk LLC
For practitioners that need more functionality than one of the free editions offer, but are still on a tight budget, BillingTracker Pro offers a good compromise. It is a fairly vanilla implementation of time and expense tracking and invoicing. Installation takes only a few minutes; then you are ready to add clients and projects. The terminology used is rather generic, rather than accountant-oriented, but you won't have any trouble understanding what goes where.
Time entry is from a timesheet screen, rather than individual timeslips, and requires a bit more maneuvering around the screen than some of the other software we looked at. It supplies only a single timer, so if you are multi-tasking, you'll have to open and close the timer to switch between clients or tasks.
Reports and invoices are rather plain, but certainly usable, and can be previewed or printed in several formats, including PDFs. You can also export a report to Excel for further analysis or sprucing up.
BillingTracker Pro has one feature that's unique: It comes with six boilerplate invoice designs, with five additional ones available for download. These are in Word and PDF format. If there is one that's close to what you want, you can download the HTML code for it, modify it in any text editor, and place it in the invoice template file folder. You can also have the company that designed the invoice templates for Fifth Walk modify the template for you for a $20 fee, or pay them to create a custom invoice template from scratch.
Many smaller practices that will find this package attractive are less than diligent about backing up. BillingTracker Pro addresses this with an optional total care package that includes on-line backup and automatic upgrades. For $10 a month, we wouldn't count completely on it for backup, but at that price, it's great insurance if you forget to backup and your system crashes.
BillingTracker Pro doesn't have some of the bells and whistles of some more expensive packages. But for under $200, it does provide a lot of them.
CaseWare specializes in accountant-oriented applications, but, unlike many of the vendors with extensive suites, CaseWare has the T&B/practice management application reviewed here, a trial balance/write-up package and a number of applications, such as IDEA, targeted at specialized tasks.
CaseWare's approach to applications has always been somewhat unique. It is very document-oriented, with documents comprising staff records and invoices. This approach is mirrored in the interface, which has an Explorer-like panel on the left of the screen with subsets that can be expanded and shrunk, a set of available tasks in a right-hand panel, and a workspace in the middle panel.
By showing available and used documents in the left-hand panel, it's very easy to track exactly what progress you've achieved for each client and staff member. It's also exceedingly simple to scan expense receipts and include them in a client's file.
Data entry and report generation are simple, and CaseWare Time has its own word processor or spreadsheet, or Microsoft Office applications can be used if you prefer. Outlook data, such as meetings, can be directly imported, cutting down on keying, if the optional "today" add-on is purchased.
We experienced no problems in installing or configuring CaseWare Time, though we did not test the version that uses Microsoft SQL 2005 Express. The SQL version is a good choice if you feel that you will need extensive expandability and capacity, which is not usually the case in many smaller practices.
Because CaseWare Time can be used at several different levels, it's practical as a practice management application, as well as the somewhat simpler T&B. This makes Time a good choice for a practice that anticipates substantial future growth.e_SClBImagineTime
Many of the T&B applications currently available are primarily targeted at lawyers and consultants. ImagineTime, however, was designed by a CPA for accountants. That doesn't mean it can't be used by other professionals, only that it speaks "accountant." You don't need to figure out what the equivalent terminology is for what you call an engagement.
ImagineTime takes a "build-your-own" approach to time and billing, with add-on modules to allow you to configure the application to your practice's needs. At the center of the application is time and billing. But depending on what optional (and extra cost) modules you decide to add, ImagineTime can be configured into a pretty nice practice management system. These additional modules include a due-date monitor, document management, and scheduling/CRM, with module prices ranging from $95 to $395.
Also available are separately priced features such as PDA/Blackberry integration, remote time entry, and direct import from Lacerte, UltraTax and ATX tax prep software. Outlook integration comes as part of the calendaring and scheduling module, and integration with QuickBooks is standard with the T&B core module (though these modules will function quite acceptably on their own).
Installation and use is quick and easy. ImagineTime has good documentation, but the interface is very intuitive and easy to navigate, so you won't spend a lot of time consulting the manual. Tabbed sections lead you to the desired task group, and an Office 2007-type ribbon bar and menu bar define the tasks and editing options. There's not a lot of customization available in the reports (and none in the data entry screens), but there is a wide range of standard reports available that should work for most practitioners.
One feature that's usually not standard on most time and billing systems, but is in ImagineTime, is credit-card processing. In today's hard economy, making it easy to get paid is a definite plus in an application.
Office Tools Professional Suite
Office Tools Professional
Most of the applications in this roundup are tightly focused on recording time, issuing client invoices, and recording payments. Office Tools Professional provides these capabilities as well.
But wait ... there's more.
Office Tools Pro also provides a fairly complete office management system for a small to midsized practice. In addition to the time and expense recording and invoicing features, the software also provides contact management to-dos, scheduling, project tracking, and more. While Office Tools Pro used to be modular, letting you pick and choose which modules you wanted to purchase, the vendor now sells it as a complete application, priced depending on the number of users. There are, however, optional products available, such as online backup and training.
Unlike most of the T&B applications on the market, Office Tools Professional does not use a proprietary database. Instead, it runs on top of Microsoft SQL. MS SQL 2005 Express is provided with the software, and installs and is configured automatically as part of the overall installation.
The price of Office Tools Professional has risen a bit since the last time we reviewed it. But if you can use the other features beyond T&B, it's still a very good deal.
Once installed and configured with your practice's data, using Office Tools Pro is pretty intuitive. There's no real documentation, but a set of PowerPoint presentations that walk you through the different task areas is available for download.
Navigation is from a ribbon bar at the top of the screen that has labeled icons for each of the major functions. Clicking on one of them brings up a top screen for that task set. In many cases, data entry can be performed on that screen, though other tasks may require that click on a button to bring up additional screens.
The time and billing functions are pretty clear-cut. Data entry is done with the familiar time card analog, and expenses can also be entered on a similar screen. Multiple timers are available so that you don't have to close one client to time work on another. There are several boilerplate invoices, and while they can be edited, there is not as much customization as some of the other T&B packages provide. This lack of customizability is also true of the available reports, though filters are offered to let you zero in on the desired information.
Timeslips by Sage
Sage North America
One of the first specifically targeted applications available for business microcomputers was Timeslips running under the CP/M operating system. It was modeled to emulate the paper timeslip collection methods used by many law offices, and became an instant success - to the extent that the name has become a generic label for the application.
The core paradigm of the application - emulating little paper slips that contain the time spent on a particular client matter - hasn't changed much over the years. The usability and feature set, however, have evolved considerably. In recent years, Timeslips has adopted the familiar flow-chart-type navigation interface that most Sage products use. A dashboard showing the current summaries of important data serves as the jumping-off point and allows a manager to ascertain key balances at a glance.
There are a number of nice enhancements in the latest version. There is better reporting of any slip notes appended during data entry, and a new report can highlight clients that have time and expense data but have yet to be billed.
Also new is the ability to parse through data entry screens using the Enter key, rather than the Tab key. Since many users enter data using the numeric keypad, it's intuitive to use the Enter key to progress, and speeds up the data entry process, sometimes considerably.
Timeslips still provides the ability to customize screens and reports, even allowing you to define your own fields, and is out in front of the pack in this respect. And features from previous versions, including the ability to e-mail invoices and tight integration with Microsoft applications such as Excel and Outlook, are still an important part of Timeslips' feature set.
It would be easy to classify Timeslips as an "oldie but a goodie." But the truth of the matter is that Timeslips still sets the bar for time and billing.
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 frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.
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