by Ted Needleman
Time and billing often gets lumped in with practice management. While both are important, and share many similarities, they have distinctly different purposes.
T&B software directly reflects the accounts receivable, cash flow and management functions of accounting and consulting practices. Practice management usually encompasses these functions, but often also helps manage firms’ resources, including staff.
T&B systems zero in on revenue generation, tracking and flow. They are designed to capture staff time, assign it to a client, categorize the time according to task and billable rate, or as unbillable time that will count toward overhead, and, therefore, assure that clients are properly billed.
Other functions include capturing expense information, and either assigning the expense to a client engagement, or to overhead. Once invoices and statements are generated, the system must track outstanding balances and record payments that are received.
However, most firms need their T&B system to be a bit more flexible than this. Clients can be charged for firm work in many ways. Some are charged flat fees, based on a particular task, or pay a monthly retainer that covers all work performed. A retainer can also be obtained from the client at the beginning of an engagement, with charges applied against it until it’s exhausted.
Also, many firms accumulate work in process, or WIP, especially on considerably long engagements. T&B systems for firms performing these types of engagements must be flexible enough to accommodate billing clients on an ongoing basis, and in a variety of ways, such percentage billings or billing on accumulated hours.
This review examines T&B packages, which run the gamut from basic to those that include some practice management functions. Keep in mind that one size does not fit all.
How we tested
For each review, we set up the application, walked through the company, staff and client set-up screens and entered time information. We also printed reports and invoices. We looked for ease of set-up, and features for time and expense entry, reports and accounts receivable.
A 1.9-GHz Pentium 4 system with a 40GB hard-disk drive and 512MB of RAM was used for each test. This PC ran under Windows XP Professional and, with one exception, no problems were observed. The exception was Journyx Time Card, which requires a Web Server on the installation system.
No single program will meet the needs of every practice. In choosing a T&B system, it’s important to understand your firm’s work flow and how it translates to revenue. That allows you compare applications to see whose features best match your needs.
AGI Software Consultants
Abak is not as well known as some of the other packages reviewed. But it’s well-established in Canada, and the vendor is increasing its U.S. presence. We received Abak version 5 to review, as well as a beta copy of version 6, which should be available when this review appears.
This new version will change the way in which the software is configured and accessed. It will be multi-tiered, with the database separate from the application, though both of these components can reside on the same PC.
Abak’s version 5 is multi-user capable over a network, or it can be accessed over the Internet through a Web browser, when an optional Web module is installed.
Version 6 will use thin-client software, installed on each PC that needs to use the application either remotely or on the network. For those users or situations where a Web browser must be used, the Abak Web add-on would still be required.
Unlike many of the T&B packages reviewed, which link with QuickBooks and Peachtree accounting software, Abak can also interface with some higher-end accounting applications, such as the Advantage Series by Accpac International .
Depending on your version of Accpac, this integration link is priced at $200 or $500. Accpac, like AGI, is prominent in Canada.
AGI also offers a link with Microsoft Project, a project management program. This $2,800 link lets you use Abak as the front-end time capture.
Abak’s screens are nicely laid out and easy to use. The software provides an excellent array of reports, invoices and formatting options. The vendor reports that, in the upcoming version 6, it has improved the Time and Expense input screens to make it easier to enter information, and has made it possible to view time and expense information on the same screen.
Also added in the upcoming version are fully sortable tables, enabling users to run queries and sort data without having to run reports. And, the thin-client structure should make it easy to perform remote time and expense entry from anywhere on a network or over the Internet.
BalaBoss Client Navigator 6.03
BalaBoss Software Corp.
Client Navigator is a robust T&B application. It has easy-to-use data entry screens, lets you enter both time and expense data and provides excellent reports.
Client Navigator also goes a bit beyond the plain-vanilla T&B system. Its front-end features a unique Switchboard, which, in the T&B application, provides a set of buttons to click on that take you to specific task groups, such as data entry, posting, reporting and administration.
Within each task group, a nicely designed set of screens makes it easy to enter and use data. For example, the data entry screens have a set of tabs that allow you to perform time-and-expense entry, import this data from another application, display a staff member’s time sheet or expense sheet, show time or expense information on a client basis or post the entered data to WIP. Navigating between these is as easy as clicking on a tab at the top of the entry screen.
The top-level Switchboard is a bit different. Some of the task buttons are pre-labeled and populated with tasks that are available in the Client Manager application. Other buttons can be assigned to applications that you feel are ancillary to T&B, such as payroll, word processing or spreadsheet analysis. This provides easy access to these applications from within Client Navigator.
Of course, any Windows user probably can get pretty much the same functionality by simply launching multiple applications in their own windows. But having all the applicable applications right on the top Switchboard is a nice touch, and lets Client Navigator function more as a practice management system than simply for T&B.
Past reviews of Client Navigator have noted that you need to load a specific client to use the software timer to track that client. This still exists in the 6.03 version, and is a bit more awkward to use than the approach that is taken by many of the other vendors.
At the same time, if you are diligent about switching clients, or simply keep a Word or Excel document open on your desktop to note time that is spent on each client matter, having the other features like Switchboard easily makes up for the lack of fancy timers.
The name Timeslips has become practically synonymous with the T&B. This product is one of the very first applications of its kind, and has remained the market leader since it was introduced almost two decades ago. Its parent company’s name changed to Best from Sage last year, but it’s still the same company that has owned and continued to market Time slips for most of the last decade.
Timeslips was originally developed for law firms, where billing by time is common. When the software became widely adopted by attorneys, many accountants realized that it would also work for them.
Some of the terminology was different, but both professions require the ability to bill clients at varying hourly rates, and to pass expenses on to the client. Because Timeslips mirrored the manual method of filling out paper slips with information on the client, task and billable and non-billable time spent, it became the de facto standard for most of the T&B products that followed.
Over the years, Timeslips has been refined and polished. Plenty of bells and whistles have been added, such as remote time entry and multiple timers. The application, however, still functions pretty much the same as it did when it was first introduced.
Time and expenses are detailed in a customizable entry screen and are merged into the centralized database. Timeslips’ administrator reviews each timekeeper’s entries, approves them and generates reports and invoices.
Timeslips is a complete and comprehensive accounts receivable application, and it can be run in stand-alone mode without needing to tie into any other software. Over the years, there have been numerous add-ins developed for Timeslips.
One of the first was the Timeslips Accounting Link, which allows the billing, expense and receipts data accumulated in Timeslips to be easily transferred to a separate accounting system, eliminating the need for manual journal entries. The most notable of these links is to QuickBooks Pro.
Timeslips is easy to install and use. You can even have multiple versions on the same PC, using the Timeslips Version Commander to choose which version you wish to run. This is useful if you have remote users running older versions of the applications.
We also didn’t have any trouble moving around in that application. A Navigator screen lets you go directly to the group that contains the task you need to perform without hopping from one pull-down menu to another.
There’s nothing overly flashy about Timeslips but, in places, it’s starting to show its age a bit. It is, however, a mature, stable and affordable accounts receivable application. At the same time, Timeslips has been continuously kept up-to-date. The vendor offers a Web-based service, called eCenter, which allows remote users to make time and expense entries while on the road, which are at a later time downloaded to the central Timeslips installation.
You can also purchase one of three versions of Timeslips, sized and priced to fit small to large practices.
BillQuick 2000 by BQE Software is a very nicely designed and implemented application. It features easy-to-navigate screens and users can enter both time and expenses.
This review tested the for-sale "registered" version of BillQuick. The vendor also offers a shareware version, which is free, and provides a single user with basic T&B functionality.
The for-sale version has many sophisticated features. For example, it has multiple timers, so you can open several of these screens, and switch between them, starting and stopping the timers as you move between clients. Stand-alone timers, which do not require that the entire T&B application be installed, are available as an extra-cost option.
One very nice feature, especially considering its price, is the way it interfaces with the Internet. You can receive time slips by e-mail from remote users, and also send invoices electronically to clients.
BillQuick 2000 has a nice selection of add-ins, a feature that was pioneered by Timeslips, and provides the opportunity to fine-tune the application to your specific needs.
There also is a module for the Palm PDA, and BQE Software can provide you with a copy of Crystal Reports so you can customize and create your own reports. You may not need this last capability, however, as the reports provided with the system are comprehensive and very useable.
BillQuick 2000 is an excellent alternative to the "brand name" T&B systems. It has very good data import and export capabilities, so you can use it as an adjunct to accounting software such as QuickBooks and Peachtree.
As provided, BillQuick 2000’s nomenclature seems a bit more skewed toward consultants than accountants. We doubt, however, that this will cause any problems for its accounting practice users.
Caseware Time v2002
Caseware International Inc.
Caseware Time v2002 also takes a different approach to T&B. As with other Caseware applications, it has a rather unique Windows Explorer-like panel that runs down the left side of the screen.
Clicking on the plus sign next to a label opens up the next level of options. This will take a bit of getting used to for those who usually deal with drop-down menus. It is, however, a very effective way to work, since you can click on a number of level plus signs and have multiple layers of tasks easily visible and accessible.
A new feature in this latest version allows you to "dock" open levels in the task menu. When docked, these open levels and tasks stay visible even as you move up and down the large task panel list.
Caseware also addressed one of our minor gripes about providing the documentation only as a PDF file. This time around, our review package included a printed manual.
Many of the other new features in v2002 simply add a bit more polish to what is already a strong, well-designed application. A new equation editor lets you get really fancy with the report filters. There are also some cosmetic changes to many of the screens, new grouping options and improved security functions.
Some of the major improvements include the addition of automatic invoice numbering, adding approval screens for time and expense entries, the addition of a recurring invoice feature for clients that have recurring charges and the addition of a WIP Balance Limit, so that the application prevents clients from exceeding pre-determined WIP amounts.
As with previous versions of Caseware Time, reporting remains a very strong suit. The Document Manager makes it easy to find reports and documents, and you can easily modify these to meet changing conditions.
Caseware can import data directly from Caseware Audit and PACs, though it also has strong import/export capabilities with applications such as word processing and spreadsheets being featured as well.
An optional Caseware Today module lets you link Caseware Time with Microsoft Outlook. This will provide strong time management features to compliment time and expense collection and reporting. Caseware Time also lets remote users submit entries over via e-mail.
Caseware’s Explorer-like navigation is not everyone’s cup of tea. We found it very effective and, especially with the new docking capability, very easy to work with. We also really like Caseware’s approach to reporting and document management.
If you’re not afraid to try a different and, to a large degree, better, way of doing time & billing, consider Caseware Time v2002.
DATA.TXT Time Matters 4.0
Time Matters is not actually a T&B application, but it allows you to accumulate time data, with entry screens and timers that will be familiar to anyone who has used T&B applications in the past.
Its screens are very nicely designed and make using Time Matters 4.0 almost intuitive. The copy of Time Matters that we reviewed had the vendor’s variable terminology, which allows you to specify, during set-up, what kind of entity the software is being used with.
Depending on what you specify, the application’s terminology will be skewed toward a law office or consultant. The vendor has advised us that it should have an accountant-specific version of Time Matters available shortly. It will have accountant-specific documentation and examples, an accountant-specific sample data set and accountant-specific language and terminology.
In the interim, we were not terrifically bothered by the use of the word Project rather than Engagement. Considering that most of the T&B products were originally developed for the law market, Time Matters’ terminology is not particularly disconcerting. In fact, its accountant version is coming about simply because of the whole-hearted support that accountants have given the software.
While Time Matters provides you with a mechanism for entering time and expense information, as well as activity timers, its real value is in some of its other functionality.
You can use Time Matters as a stand-alone application, but it is really designed as an adjunct to other applications. One of the prime applications that Time Matters is designed to enhance is QuickBooks Pro.
The version of Time Matters that we tested was one of the first T&B programs to link and synchronize with QuickBooks Pro Premiere. The software also has links to TimeSlips, TABs and several more attorney-oriented programs.
Time Matters excels in the calendar and scheduling aspects of time management. If you don’t already use a personal information manager or contact manager, such as Outlook, in your practice, Time Matters gives you most of the features of this application tightly integrated with the time and expense recording capabilities.
There is an excellent "information management" section of the application where you can store notes, e-mails and other documents that are germane to a specific client or engagement.
Time Matters works well with PDAs and you can use your word processor to supplement and customize the many reports that the application offers. One place were Time Matters is weak is in the actual invoicing and accounts receivable functions. The software that you use Time Matters to enhance is intended to provide these functions.
Journyx Timesheet is absolutely free if you have 10 or fewer timekeepers. Simply download it, install it and use it. With 11 timekeepers, you start paying for the software, with prices beginning at $1,975.
Because Timesheet is really aimed at the enterprise market, it’s unlikely that a lot of firms will actually wind up using the application for free, though Journyx won’t mind if you do.
The other thing that separates Timesheet from most of the other reviewed applications is that Timesheet is not really a T&B application. It has the "time" part of the task set down, but it is far from a complete accounts receivable system.
While Timesheet functions quite well as a front-end to other applications, such as payroll or general ledger, project management is one of the main markets that Journyx Timesheet addresses. It interfaces quite nicely with most of the popular project management systems, including Microsoft Project.
There’s nothing to stop you from using Timesheet with multiple applications, so you can collect time and expense data from your staff and funnel this information into multiple applications.
Timesheet was the only application that we had difficulty installing on our Windows XP Professional test platform. That’s not because it doesn’t run under Windows XP, but simply because we did not have our test platform properly configured for the installation.
Timesheet is server-based and is meant to be run on an intranet. To do this requires that the version of Windows that you run have Internet Information Services installed and that you have built a local Web site on the server. The installation instructions assume that you use Microsoft’s Personal Web Server application to accomplish this. Personal Web Server is included with Windows NT and Windows 2000, but not with Windows XP Professional.
We could have constructed the requisite Web Server using a copy of Microsoft Front Page, and it would probably have worked just fine. Instead of spending the better part of a day just preparing the platform so we could first install Timesheet, we took Journyx up on its offer to run the application remotely, since the vendor also offers Timeslips with Internet-based hosting.
This is noteworthy.
Installing Timesheet is not a task for the technically unsophisticated. It requires understanding of network administration, domains and the construction of a Web site on the internal server. If any of these terms are unfamiliar, you can hire Journyx or one of its consultants, to perform this installation.
As tested, Timesheet provides a good basic vehicle for time collection. Journyx also offers a variety of expansion modules that add functionality. Some of the more interesting ones provide the ability to image and store receipts, and a "disconnected user" module lets timekeepers fill out their "slips" when they are not connected to the Internet.
Journyx Timesheet isn’t the answer for every firm. If, however, you already have high-end enterprise-wide applications up and running, and are looking for a time-based front-end, take a hard look at Timesheet.
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