From the Sept. 2009 Issue
Today’s business world continues to drive towards “less paper” technologies for every aspect of customer service and product delivery, which is being pushed even further with today’s environmentally friendly “green” initiatives. Tax and accounting firms have gotten on board by providing digital copies of tax returns and financial reports, as well as receiving client source documents electronically by using a variety of solutions including email, digital faxes, CDs, USB flash drives, and Internet-based file transfer tools. Each of these solutions has unique administrative, technical and security challenges, so firms must work to standardize their digital delivery approach to a solution that can be used effectively by all departments.
According to a Client Transfer Survey conducted by the Association for Accounting Administration (AAA) last year, 77 percent of firms emailed their clients confidential documents, but only 41 percent used any kind of encryption or passwords. With privacy regulations getting tighter and requiring more administrative processes to utilize email, firms are looking for secure and easy-to-use solutions to transfer files to and from clients, which points towards utilizing today’s client portal solutions.
A client portal is a secure file directory that can be accessed via an Internet-enabled workstation so that files can be viewed and/or transferred between the firm and the client. Firms can use a portal in a variety of ways, such as publishing a tax return to the portal and then providing the client a link (usually via email) so they can access it after putting in a password. The portal can also be setup to allow the client to upload working documents such as a QuickBooks file that is too large for their email system to handle, which is often referred to as an FTP or File Transfer Protocol site. The latest versions of portals can be set up to link to “live” information, such as those used by the wealth care providers tying into brokerage accounts for clients to look up their investment valuations. While the technology behind the various portal solutions is slightly different, the key to having a successful portal is the ease of use for both the client and firm members so it appears seamless.
We place today’s portal solutions into three “buckets” to consider based on the technical capabilities of the firm and the applications they may already have in place. Many firms today have implemented a comprehensive document management system (DMS) that already has an integrated portal solution, which would be our first choice for a firm portal. Firm personnel are usually comfortable with the menu structure of the DMS, and adding the portal usually requires the least amount of administrative time to setup and train all end users.
The second “bucket” would be the Internet-hosted solutions, which would cover stand-alone and hosted solutions. Stand-alone providers such as ShareFile (www.sharefile.com) and LeapFile (www.leapfile.com) allow firms to integrate a link from within the firm’s website or go directly to the provider for transferring files. These commercial products are among the most secure, but they can take a higher level of technical skill for the firm to set up and the client to utilize. Within this group is also the accounting vendor hosted providers such as Thomson Reuters and CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business (which are usually integrated with their web-based DMS), and the outsourced tax and accounting firm website hosting companies that provide firms with content, calculators and often a portal.