This refers to a collection of features that facilitate electronically programmed communication between you and your client. While that may sound impersonal, it can have the opposite effect because it allows you to increase the quantity, quality and timeliness of your client communications. A prime example would be to schedule an automatic e-mail alert to be sent to your client a week before their quarterly tax estimates are due and include a link to a copy of the tax estimate payment voucher that is stored in your portal for the client to download. Trying to accomplish that level of communication with your clients on a recurring basis through phone calls or manually generated e-mails would be impractical. And it’s unlikely that even one of your clients would perceive this type of an alert as anything other than a value-added service.
Portals can provide many other types of automatic communications, as well, such as notifying designated members of your staff whenever a client accesses the portal to upload, download or view a file. Alternatively, your clients may receive an e-mail anytime you post a new file to their portal so they are notified of its availability. This is just another example of improved client communications. Additionally, many portal solutions will maintain a log of all portal activity from both sides of the portal, which gives you the opportunity to track when and how the portal is being utilized.
One of the primary drivers for the growing interest in portals is the ability to increase the security controls over the exchange of electronic information with your clients. The regulatory environment on this topic is making portals a relatively easy and practical solution for complying with the growing collection of privacy regulations being implemented throughout the country.
A wide disparity of security functionality exists from one portal solution to another, which becomes more important relative to the size of your firm. The range of security features that may be provided includes settings to restrict viewing, saving, deleting, editing, printing and e-mailing files stored on the portal by specified users.
We don’t have enough time or space to cover this feature set in-depth here, but it is an important component of a long-term portal strategy that you should have in mind. What I’m referring to is the ability to have active links to real-time applications for your clients. The most obvious example would be access to an online accounting system such as QuickBooks Online, Intacct, NetSuite or any number of hosted accounting systems. Access to online banking and brokerage accounts is another example of this capability. Most firms will have to grow and evolve their portal strategy to fully leverage this capability. However, I believe that this functionality has the potential to substantially transform the nature of the tax and accounting professional/client relationship for the better.
Don’t underestimate the effort that is required to set up and maintain your client portal login accounts. Integration with your practice management or tax software can alleviate some of the effort by leveraging the client information in these applications to establish the portal logins. Even with this integration, you have to manage access rights for individual clients. Any help the portal software can provide in regards to checks and balances for portal account access will add value. You cannot afford to have a mix-up that results in clients getting access to the wrong documents.
DOCUMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS (DMS)
I have intentionally saved this feature for last because of its importance, and I want it to remain at the top of your mind as you finish reading this article. If there are two applications in an accounting or tax practice that should be joined at the hip, it is the document management system and the client portal. The nature of the deep relationship between the two is undeniable. The fact is, a properly deployed document management system serves as a repository for all of the files and electronic documents in your firm, much like the way the traditional paper file room was utilized. When you need to send a copy of a document to a client, banker, tax authority, etc., you simply photocopy and mail or fax it out. If you have a DMS and a portal, you simply “publish” the file to the portal to make it available to your client. In many DMS systems this can be done with a single click of the mouse, which is a whole lot easier and much more secure.