by Wayne Schulz
Selecting trial balance software is becoming easier every year. As software vendors consolidate in the wake of acquisitions by larger companies, the number of products dwindles, making the entire process more bearable.
Some CPA firms are still using spreadsheets for their workpaper preparation and have not yet discovered the time-saving features offered by an integrated trial balance software system.
Advantages of integrated trial balance software versus using spreadsheets
- Create lead schedules, financial statements, working papers without the need to manually format any supporting schedules or statements.
- Fully integrated approach to engagement management - often integrates with tax software, time and billing, staff scheduling, etc.
- More efficient use of time than manually creating worksheets for every client.
- Constantly upgraded for a small annual maintenance fee.
- Doesn’t require advanced knowledge of spreadsheet programming, functions or formatting.
The majority of CPA firms have been through one or two different trial balance software packages. In the early days of practice automation, the vendors’ claims were often years ahead of the capabilities of their software offerings - especially in crucial areas like formatting of presentation-quality financial statements.Limit your selection of trial balance software to those systems with the widest user base. These systems are supported, updated and debugged far faster than smaller, less widely used systems.
Often, CPA firms first consider which tax prep package to use then move outward and consider whether their tax vendor also produces a quality trial balance package that will integrate tightly with the tax package.
Features you must consider
Integration with tax software: The best trial balance packages will produce shiny financial statements and integrate directly to your firm’s tax preparation software. For many firms, using the same company for both tax and trial balance software makes a lot of sense. Using software from the same company virtually guarantees a tight and trouble-free integration between tax and accounting workpapers. CCH and Creative Solutions offer both tax and trial balance software.
Ability to import client accounting data: An easy way to import transactions from QuickBooks, Peachtree, MAS90, Great Plains and MYOB is highly desirable. Avoiding the painful process of re-keying year-end financial numbers can shave hours off each audit engagement. At a minimum, investigate each system’s ability to import the chart of accounts and general ledger balances.
Integration with audit checklists: When working in the field, having an online list of most often-used audit programs is a big timesaver. The best systems (especially PPC) offer integration with widely used audit checklists - as well as the option to create your own fine-tuned audit programs. Often you can also obtain the ability to create a personalized audit library for your firm.
Ability to create workpapers: The days of manually creating worksheets are dwindling. The use of spreadsheets for creating workpapers is also beginning to decline as trial balance packages offer exceptionally strong features where an entire engagement’s workpapers can be bundled up and saved online.
Increased efficiency: Saving these workpapers online not only saves storage space but also makes your engagements more efficient as staff share documents and place them in common areas for review and final production.
Ability to generate client-ready financial statements: Years ago when trial balance software got its start with the American Institute of CPAs’ "Accountant’s Trial Balance" program, creating professional presentation-ready financial statements was a real struggle. Lining up columns of numbers often had to be done within a proprietary financials statement formatter.
Advanced formatting: Subsequently, almost all trial balance systems have added advanced formatting capabilities or created intricate links to the popular Microsoft Word and Excel programs.
Integration with other software like Microsoft Office: Don’t you want to leverage the training your employees have already likely obtained on Microsoft Office? Using a trial balance package that has tight integration with Word is an excellent way to accomplish this.
The ability to create financial statements within Word can assure that you will be able to use that Microsoft tool to tailor your financial statement so highly that you may almost be able to present it to a client right at the end of field work.
Size of company producing the software: For the last three years it has been very evident that the technology and software marketplace is undergoing rapid consolidation. Unless you enjoy the process of researching, purchasing and converting data frequently to new software - focus your entire search onto only the market leading brands. The packages with large numbers of users are upgraded more frequently with better features and less bugs.
Frequency of upgrades: Ask each company how frequently they upgrade their software and the cost to obtain those upgrades. It is becoming more common to require the purchase of a separate maintenance plan to get access to the latest software upgrades. Make sure that you understand exactly what those costs are.
Ease of obtaining support: Telephone support available during your business hours is a must. Be careful to check the time zone of your trial balance software developer and to look at the company’s Web site. Do they offer online access to a knowledge base? Are patches or minor upgrades posted online? Do they offer discussion forums where you can freely exchange information with other users of their products?
Availability of training sessions: One of the newest types of training is being offered over the Web. Because many companies now have high-speed Internet connections, it is more commonplace to receive training in online seminar rooms versus the older practice of having to fly a technician to your office.
Common alternatives to trial balance packages
Often, smaller firms will use an accounting package like QuickBooks or Peachtree to do their audit workpaper preparation. While they are great accounting systems, they can make less than adequate solutions as trial balance packages.
What you gain
Inexpensive solution: Both low-end solutions are often available for under $100 at retail stores. These systems are also available to CPAs under different low-cost accountants programs.
Widely used package that most of your staff knows: Ease of use may be why most firms continue to use these systems for trial balances. Because almost all of your staff will have some exposure to these packages, you can usually use the system with little additional training.
Easily transfer client
information from their QuickBooks/Peachtree system to your own: It is highly likely that a majority of your clients are already using one of these systems. You would therefore be able to take a backup disk of your client’s data (including all history!) and transfer it directly to your system.
Upgraded frequently: Both QuickBooks and Peachtree have yearly comprehensive program updates.
However, practitioners relying on these low-end trial balance accounting applications also sacrifice in presentation quality. Neither system offers enough financial statement customization capability to output a financial statement that can be given to a client without further editing.
And, importing data with the low-end accounting systems can be difficult unless you are very experienced. The import of data is possible in both QuickBooks and Peachtree, but it’s not documented well, and errors during the import process can be extremely difficult to assess.
ProSystem fx Engagement
ProSystem fx Trial Balance
CCH has a thriving tax software product that is widely used by CPA firms. Their approach to trial balance software is to offer two separate products - ProSystem fx Engagement and ProSystem fx Trial Balance. Their Engagement product focuses on all the features that an audit-intensive firm might need, while the trial balance product gets right down to the task of accepting data from a variety of sources and preparing working papers which can link to the popular ProSystem fx tax package.
Making a conversion to ProSystem fx Trial Balance is greatly aided by the ability to import data from competitors such as ACE, ATB for DOS and Windows, FAST!, FAST! Advantage, GoSystem Audit and QuickBooks.
The ability to link data to external packages such as Microsoft Excel or Word is a feature most users should expect with today’s trial balance packages. The trial balance software from ProSystem fx links seamlessly and intuitively with both of these packages.
Perhaps the biggest selling point is the tight integration offered by Trial Balance to the ProSystem fx tax preparation packages. Once properly established, these tight links between the two products will easily save an hour or more of manual data entry on an average-sized tax returns.
If your firm has nonprofit audit clients, the ProSystem packages support fund accounting. You may select from several pre-set templates containing typical set-ups for colleges, government units, health care, school districts, voluntary health and welfare.
Screen lay-outs are smartly designed and the product retains a streamlined look and feel which will significantly reduce the training time required for new employees. Once an employee learns how to maneuver within Trial Balance, learning the engagement software is a snap.
ProSystem fx Engagement interfaces with the Miller Engagement Series and McGladrey & Pullen practice aids. Formerly sold as E-Pace Engagement, this package works hard to fulfill many firms’ goal to move toward a paperless office.
Within ProSystem fx Engagement you can create electronic binders that store your audit workpapers. Multiple staff members can access these files simultaneously. There are standardized procedures, which can be established for workpaper review and approvals. An especially slick feature is the ability to attach Adobe Acrobat copies of prior years’ tax returns.
You may integrate ProSystem fx to Word and Excel by using more than 60 templates which are included to get you started with the process of creating automated workpapers. Data from ProSystem fx Trial Balance also may be incorporated into many of the schedules and workpapers.
Because almost every CPA firm is also concerned with making the year-end tax preparation more efficient, ProSystem fx is a super strong software suite which should be evaluated closely.
GoSystem Audit/GoSystem Fund
Creative Solutions Inc. has been active in the CPA software marketplace since 1979. Their broad line of software includes practical solutions for workpapers, depreciation, tax preparation, practice management and client bookkeeping.
The heart of the CSI’s trial balance offering is its GoSystem Audit and Fund products. These two products are the kick-off point for data entry and collection, which can seamlessly flow between the entire suite of CPA productivity products offered by Creative Solutions.
Firms with multiple offices or many staff working remotely will be interested in the Virtual Office capabilities from Creative Solutions. By using Virtual Office, you have Creative Solutions host your applications in their data center. The potential benefit is less overhead devoted to managing and configuring your system. The biggest cost saver with this program is the ability to have remote users logging in from any Internet-connected system to use their suite of software.
Everything in GoSystem Audit and Fund can be linked to Microsoft Excel or Word. You can create an almost unlimited number of supporting schedules and reports - all of which are linked together electronically within the File Cabinet Solution.
File Cabinet Solution offers the ability to store almost anything that you would store in a traditional paper audit file - online. Using a computer scanner you could scan in copies of source documents to be used as backup evidence for your workpapers. Review notes and ongoing engagement notes are all easily accumulated and stored within the File Cabinet Solution.
Trial Balance Solution offers a quick way to handle smaller engagements that don’t require the added complexity of a full audit.
This package excels at presenting a smooth user interface for journal entries. There is a built-in financial statement editor for creating presentation-quality financial statements. Accounting data can be transferred to many popular tax packages to avoid the dreaded and time consuming re-keying of data.
Because Trial Balance Solution is aimed at use on smaller client engagements, its ability to interface easily to CSI’s Writeup Solution system is a welcome convenience. All write-up data may be seamlessly integrated to the trial balance program, offering another timesaving convenience for CPAs.
CSI’s wide variety of packages have been steadily improved and moved gracefully to the Windows marketplace. Their breadth of products and depth of functionality make them a rock-solid choice for any firm looking for a software solution to improve their engagement efficiency.
Working Papers Caseware
Caseware has long been a leader in offering trial balance software that not only computes the trial balance and financial statements, but also supports document management and online checklists and audit programs.
Features found as standard in today’s trial balance software has largely been shaped by what Caseware has offered for years.
Whether your firm is primarily involved in write-up work or does more complex audits, Caseware Working Papers can easily meet your needs. Included in the software is the ability to do basic write-up work.
Transactions can be keyed manually into the write-up section of the software or you may import them using the included import/export feature. During the write-up process an automatic feature allows for the creation of a bank reconciliation. If applicable, government service and value-added taxes may be applied at the same time.
Firms that select Caseware generally desire to have all their engagement working papers prepared within the software. Caseware allows for on-screen preparation of the working papers and user-tracking and tick-mark cataloging fully supported. Virtually everything that you would need to create a paperless engagement is included within this product.
While Caseware doesn’t offer its own tax-processing package, there are export links created to most of the popular systems. Larger firms who make great use of the integration between their trial balance and tax prep software may want to evaluate whether Caseware’s export capability supports their brand of tax software.
When viewing a financial statement within Caseware, you have the option using a drill-down function, which allows anyone on your staff to instantly trace back the information found in a financial statement to the source document as entered to your trial balance.
You also can view a financial statement on-screen and go all the way back to the journal entry or source transactions to analyze how the balance came to be. This is an especially nice feature for larger engagements where several people need to access and review the final data.
To help your staff get a running start on each engagement, Caseware offers a separate "Templates" software, which contains boilerplate information that you can use as the kicking off point for creation of footnotes, charts of account and financial statements.
Caseware is an excellent product that has long embraced the paperless office concept. The design layout and ease of use has been steadily honed so that it will be comfortable for both large and small CPA practices alike.
Practitioners Publishing Co.
The various Practice Guides produced by PPC are designed for use by local as well as national CPA firms. The Engagement Manager ES software from PPC leverages the extensive catalog of Practice Guides and provides firms with an electronic solution that allows them to complete the guides online as well as prepare working papers and attach documents to a client engagement file.
To use the guides fully, you also need to purchase Creative Solutions’ GoSystem Audit. Engagement Manager ES integrates with GoSystem Audit which it uses as its trial balance software.
[Note: Creative Solutions and PPC are each divisions of Thomson Corp., which also owns the publisher of Accounting Today.]
GoSystem provides seamless access to the full range of PPC Guides (which you must individually license). Engagement Manager ES provides a method for sharing these guides and checklists among team members.
Within the software you can create and track review notes as well as attach files such as spreadsheets or Adobe Acrobat PDF files containing tax returns. As per most firms’ retention policies - cleared review notes are automatically purged during the archiving of each engagement.
All of the data for Engagement Manager ES is stored off-site at Thomson Financial. There are several pros and cons to storing the data offsite. On the positive side, there is redundancy and data security built into Thomson’s site - so you have one less headache to worry about when administering your network. On the downside, access to Engagement Manager ES requires an Internet connection that is accessible by everyone in the office. In addition, some offices may not want to lose control of the custody of client files.
When working outside the office, staff can automatically synchronize their data with the master copy of the information, which is stored at the Thomson Financial data center. This off-site copy of the data is an especially nice choice for firms who are looking to reduce the amount of time their network staffs spend maintaining electronic client records.
Overall, the PPC Engagement Manager ES is an excellent choice for those GoSystem Audit users who are also users of the PPC Practice Guides.
Engagement Manager ES does an outstanding job of automating the use of these Practice Guides.
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