Portals, Email or Something Else - What's Right for CPAs and Their Clients

Over the past 20 years we have had the pleasure of assisting many firms down the paperless path. In the last five to ten years, portals have become popular.

My Network Management Group, Inc. team (NMGI) has assisted in implementations of CCH Portal, NetClient CS, ShareFile and other popular solutions. Portals are clearly a more secure way of transferring data to and from clients, but some clients just don’t want to go there.

How do we manage people that we can’t control? Do we simply let them do what they want? Do we try to educate them on the benefits of using the technology that can protect them? Or do we cave in in the name of client service? There is no clear answer, but you knew that before reading this article introduction.

Until proven wrong, we will maintain the position that using portals is a secure document transfer strategy that a CPA firm can take. Additionally, if your firm can drive more traffic through your website because of your portal, the additional traffic can improve your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and local search results. Traffic to your website is a good thing.

Unfortunately, if your site is down, or your portal is clumsy to use, your client experience won’t be a good one. Further, new generation applications that are available as a Software as a Service (SaaS) offering, don’t always have the best way to integrate to your website. All of these applications belong on your website or in your portal as well.

We believe it is in your firm’s best interest to have your clients visiting your website on a regular basis. Using applications provided by the firm such as accounting, payroll, bill payment or portal transfer may be reason enough for a client visit. However, content including video postings, RSS feeds of news and other information pertinent to clients can promote return visits.

A little humor and local flavor can also help build client relationships. However, all of these actions take time. If you try to stay informed and current on professional reading, you can provide updated content for all of your website’s visitors using an RSS reader and tagging or posting items from your daily readings. Integrating all of your social media feeds, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others will also help with SEO and traffic on your website.

 

The Goal

However, the heart of the matter is doing business in the easiest way possible on your website. If you have not found a website developer that understands this, you may need to look for a new developer. Many of the canned website tools won’t provide the level of customization needed to make your website “business friendly.”

We suggest using a website and marketing company like RootWorks to get unique portal capabilities with market leading tools like ShareFile, SmartVault, Bill.com, Thomson NetClient CS, CCH Portal, Intuit QuickBooks and other key practice tools. The RootWorks team will give you a professional look and feel and will also provide options to interface to a number of client friendly tools.

Another high value addition to your website can be collaborative accounting. This can be provided with hosted capabilities for products like QuickBooks, or can be new generation SaaS accounting tools like Xero, Monchilla, SageOne, Wave or QuickBooks Online. If your clients’ mission critical applications are provided by the firm, don’t you think they will visit your website frequently? Don’t you think this will result in more exposure in your community?

Most firms think about portal capability for sending and receiving documents for tax returns, compilations, reviews, or audits. While these are certainly important and may be justification for a portal by themselves, you should consider the evolution occurring with electronic signatures. Since electronic documents and eSignatures are legally binding in all 50 states because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1999, you should consider allowing your clients to sign documents electronically.

This is currently not permissible for that bane of tax documents the 8879, but it certainly can work for engagement letters and other documents needed by the firm. Leading producers of software are including technologies like Adobe EchoSign, Topaz signature pads, DocuSign, Rpost or CloudX inside their products to ease the signature process.

But what if your clients refuse to use your website and portal capability? Is there a viable alternative? We actually believe there may be using encrypted email. The offerings from CPASafeMail, Secured-Accountant, RPost, or ZixMail may provide an encrypted and safe way to transfer files from the client to the firm or vice versa. Of course, it is in the firm’s best interest from a workflow and process perspective to have everything flowing through a portal.

But if a client isn’t comfortable with using a portal after you have explained the benefits, then using a simple email encryption tool is at least a safe alternative. Beyond encrypted email, you’ll find that providers like SmartVault and Ziptr will have alternatives that serve as a nice bridge between email and a portal. Further, look for tools that have integrated their tool into Outlook or other email software just like ShareFile and SmartVault do.

 

The Results

Interaction with your client should be easy and become a second nature to both team members in the firm and clients. Understanding the workflow will take training on procedures among your team members. Review your processes and make sure that you refine the processes to accommodate the new electronic transfer and filing methods.

Eliminate unnecessary steps. Think about how processing will take place when the technology doesn’t work, which isn’t often. Planning for continuing work, which the computer industry calls business continuity, will help you realize that processing payroll a day or two before it is due can really help reduce daily stress. Doing client activities or processing at the last minute is error prone and leads to lower quality work.

For those of you that process tax, think about how you often refuse to take last minute tax work or you choose to accept the work at a premium rate. Are you taking that last minute return because you needed more to do or just wanted to have some extra fun? How much fun is it if all of your technology stops working for the last three days before any tax deadline? Your portal can become mission critical to your client and to the firm.

If neither portals nor email work for your firm, think about an alternate method to get the information you need from a client. There have been hundreds of articles written about Cloud Computing and the benefits of working collaboratively in the Cloud. Perhaps systems for accounting, payroll, workflow and document management could all live in the cloud. This year, we will see tools such as itDuzzit, which begin to hook these separate systems together. One thing we don’t see is increased use of paper documents between clients and the firm.

One final note: for a portal to work best, it has to be integrated into your website. If you don’t have an acceptable website, it is way past time that action needs to be taken to correct that. In the old days, we spent a lot of money on yellow page advertising. Most of us maintain our offices as a pleasant and attractive place to work and we’d be pleased to host a client at our office.

Does your website look like a place you’d bring a client? At the risk of an inappropriate analogy, if you were trying to impress a prospective spouse, would you feel comfortable showing that person your website?

Sometimes clients are dating you on your website and if you don’t make a great impression, they will frequently move on. Our tradition in the CPA profession is not one of marketing or stealing clients, but if an “A” type client is looking around, wouldn’t you like to have your firm considered?

 

The Opportunity

Think about your preferred work style, your image, and the tools that you use. Get your website, collaborative tools, portal, and email encryption tools right. Train your staff and your clients on how to do business with you. All of these things will make it easier to do business with you. Further, there is high probability that this will reduce your work load and enable the firm to provide better client service.

 

Mr. Johnston is executive vice president and partner of K2 Enterprises and Network Management Group, Inc.

He is a nationally recognized educator, consultant and writer with over 30 years’ experience. He can be contacted at randy.johnston@cpapracticeadvisor.com.

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