With each new year comes a wave of new technologies aimed at helping tax preparers work more efficiently through tax season.

"We see the use of scan-and-fill technology increasing for more efficient management of client source documents; more firms utilizing Web-hosted or Software-as-a-Service solutions to allow staff anytime, anywhere access to software and client data; and an upswing in portal adoption," explained Scott Fleszar, senior director of strategic marketing at the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters. "Those technologies will drive workflow efficiency and improve staff utilization in the coming tax season."

Below are some of the top tax technologies that tax preparers should be considering to make their filing seasons more productive.

SCAN AND POPULATE

Vendors have advanced from just capturing images and producing indexed PDFs, to extracting data from W-2s and 1099s and populating the appropriate fields in tax return software.

"In the last several months, we've seen a lot of momentum. We feel firms are catching up to the hype," said Ed Jennings, chief executive of tax document automation provider Copanion. Copanion's GruntWorx product identifies and bookmarks scanned source documents, and its GruntWorx Pro enables firms to upload scanned source documents in batches and receive a single PDF for use in tax preparation.

New this season is GruntWorx Trades. "It allows firms to calculate short-term and long-term capital gains and losses, to identify any trade missing a cost basis and to easily import trade details into their tax preparation software," said Jennings.

With four tax seasons behind it, SurePrep's 1040Scan has been used to process more than 125,000 tax returns. 1040Scan's population capabilities integrate with the GoSystem Tax RS, ProSystem fx Tax and Lacerte tax preparation programs to automatically extract data from scanned documents for preparing client 1040 returns.

"If the CPA firm is not looking at this technology, they should be. Plain and simple, scan-and-populate allows for the auto-population of the tax return input screens with little or no human intervention," said James Bourke, New Jersey-based WithumSmith+Brown's partner-in-charge of technology.

WORKFLOW TOOLS

"More than an efficiency tool, workflow management software captures all the unstructured data necessary to effectively manage the practice during tax season," said Mark Albrecht, CPA, MST, founder and chief executive officer of XCM Solutions.

The latest version of XCM's Web-based workflow management software gives firms greater flexibility in standardizing processes across the firm.

"Instead of six different partners having six different ways of doing things, XCM enables firms to establish a standard approach for various types of tasks, such as a 1040, and then automatically apply that process globally to all 1040s," Albrecht explained. "This ensures that a firm's best practices are followed in every applicable instance, and thereby creates greater efficiency across the practice."

In October 2008, WithumSmith+Brown deployed XCM's workflow solution for every work product that was processed by the firm.

"I spend a significant amount of time on the road and out of the office. I can honestly tell you that I don't miss a beat. I know the status and whereabouts of every job currently in process in my office," Bourke said.

SAAS

Software-as-a-Service will inarguably remain a growing trend over the next several years.

"Firms are looking to cut inefficient processes, reduce process times and lower the number of preparers required to prepare the higher volume of returns this year. With SaaS solutions, firms are now well-positioned to give their clients the best results in the shortest time," said Bob Dias, vice president of product and segment management at CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business.

CCH recently introduced the next generation of ProSystem fx to work as both a SaaS application and on-premise software. The software has been built with Microsoft's .Net 3.5 Framework, allowing the ProSystem fx Tax, Document and Practice components to inter-operate with outside applications. CCH has also added two new applications, ProSystem fx Workstream and ProSystem fx Portal.

Meanwhile, Intuit has launched its new SaaS tax prep program, ProLine Tax Online. It's designed with a single-screen data entry process to streamline workflow, and a visual three-step process for inputting, reviewing and filing, as well as diagnostics to catch mistakes and omissions. "Overall, the benefits of Web-based products and services include an increase in accounting and tax professionals' productivity by providing anytime, anywhere access; business growth opportunities, such as obtaining new and previously unreachable clients due to geographic barriers; and the creation of a paperless office, which is not only a priority for many in today's environmentally conscious world but also helps accountants save time and money," said Intuit ProLine Tax Online Edition product manager Jim Gardner.

Bourke agreed: "The SaaS model allows everyone, regardless of size, to take advantage of the same infrastructure and technologies."

PORTALS

Portals can help firms save money, better meet client expectations, and improve the firm's image. "We're already seeing a big upswing in portal adoption, and that will continue," revealed Fleszar.

Thomson Reuters has been offering client portals for more than eight years with NetClient CS. The client portals include 1040 client organizers and the automatic presentation of both the completed tax return and supporting source documents.

Added Fleszar, "The bottom line is that clients expect online service, be it for banking, investing, learning or shopping. That has made client portals a key element of client service and a fundamental part of tax workflow."

WANT TO INCREASE PERFORMANCE? LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY

A recent survey conducted by CCH found that high-performing accounting firms are significantly more like to leverage technologies to help them optimize performance in areas such as staffing, client service and practice management.

The CCH survey found that nearly 25 percent of high-performing firms have professional staff working remotely, and they are putting solutions in place to support a growing number of mobile workers. In addition, 75 percent of high-performing firms already have a paperless strategy, and within three years, 90 percent expect to have a paperless strategy.

This might sound great, but if you are not an early adopter of technology, the task of deciding which new technologies to implement at your firm can be daunting.

Jim Boomer, chief information officer of Boomer Consulting, suggested taking these steps when considering adopting new technologies.

* Review processes. Technology alone cannot make a firm more efficient and profitable for the upcoming tax season. The initial focus needs to be on documenting, reviewing and improving existing processes.

* Training. If end users are not properly trained, they will not use the technologies.

* Support of leadership. You must gain buy-in from firm leadership or the adoption effort is doomed to failure.

* Timing. Trying to fast-track the imple­ment­ation of a new technology at your firm right before tax season will ensure that you will start from behind.

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