From the April/May 2010 Issue
You would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the explosive growth of interest in client portals for accounting and tax practices. A number of forces are driving this interest — increased privacy protection regulations, improved vendor solutions and a better understanding of the value proposition. This article provides an in-depth look at portal technology so you can develop a portal strategy that is compatible with your practice model.
The IT world has a tendency to paint various technologies with a very broad brush, such as web services, social media and, my favorite, cloud computing. Portal is a term that certainly fits this characteristic, as well. So let’s start by taking some of the mystery out of the term by explaining portal technology as simply the next step in the evolution in the design of an accounting practice’s website, albeit a potentially very big next step.
Portal technology will advance your website from the stage of serving primarily as an electronic brochure that describes your firm and the services you offer to a truly interactive information exchange center between you and your clients and, in some cases, third parties, as well. As we look under the hood of client portal technology, keep in mind that your portal solution will evolve over time. You may choose a strategy that calls for relatively small, incremental extensions of portal technology into your website, or you may pursue a more aggressive strategy that takes your website to a completely new level with your initial portal deployment. The beauty of it is that you have the freedom to choose.
So let’s do the cable news equivalent of a “lightning round” review of portal technology features and functions. I hope that as you read these, it will spark your imagination of how you can enhance your client relationships with these tools.
Document presentation is the core functionality of first-generation portals and refers to the capability to post copies of electronic documents for your clients to view or download. The most obvious examples are PDF copies of completed tax returns and financial statements. For many of you, this is the appropriate place to start. A wide array of supporting features can enhance this functionality, which is what sets one portal solution apart from another. How you get files to the portal and set up for secure access is the key aspect to evaluate here.
TAX SOFTWARE INTEGRATION
If you have a high-volume tax prep practice, the value of this integration should be at the top of your shopping list. The ability to directly publish a PDF copy of a completed tax return to the client portal from your tax software provides significant timesavings in regards to administering your portal content. One example of this is the fact that you will not have to set up a new set of client records in the portal application because that information will be provided automatically by the tax software. The good news is that there are some relatively simple and low-cost portal solutions that integrate directly with popular tax software packages.
FILE UPLOAD CENTER
This pertains to the functionality that allows your clients to login to the portal and upload their files directly to a secure site. This feature can result in substantial savings of time by eliminating the traditional process of procuring client files through e-mail attachments, CD transfers, USB drives, etc. When the files are uploaded to the portal directly, the potential exists for them to be stored in their final resting place without the involvement of your staff. More importantly, this functionality significantly improves the security controls that can be put in place to protect the privacy of your client information during the transfer process. This feature may be utilized by only a relatively small percentage of your clients at this time, but as time goes on, you should anticipate increased usage as your clients become more comfortable with the technology and learn to appreciate the benefits.