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IN FIRM: Optimizing Today’s Time & Billing

Column: Technology IN Practice

From the Nov. 2006 Issue

Most partners would argue that, outside of the firm’s tax and audit production
applications, time and billing is the most mission critical program within today’s
tax and accounting firm. These tools have come a long way in recent years to
incorporate enhanced features and processes of which many firms are not even
aware. This article discusses 10 time and billing best practices that should
be incorporated into every firm.

  1. Daily Time Sheet Entry: With the multitude of ways for
    individuals to connect to the firm today, there is no reason why every person
    in the firm should not be entering and posting time daily. Remote access tools
    such as Citrix, Microsoft Windows Terminal Server, XP Remote, and broadband
    cellular access via aircards have become ubiquitous and cost effective. Today’s
    SQL databases that run time and billing are significantly more robust, allowing
    for real-time posting of this data as well. Studies done in the past found
    that firms moving from monthly entry and posting on a daily basis experienced
    a 7 percent increase in utilization, and firms traditionally posting on a
    weekly basis increased their captured hours by 5 percent by going to daily
    time entry.
  2. Daily Expenses: Capturing expenses should be done on a
    daily basis, as well, for both client reimbursable and firm reimbursable expenses.
    This is particularly easy today as both these types of charges can be tracked
    in time and billing, as well. Many firms still have their personnel create
    separate expense reports in Excel or write down information on a manual expense
    form, which the administrative department has to re-key into time and billing
    when they receive the report. By entering expenses directly with time on a
    daily basis, the likelihood of missing an item is drastically reduced, and
    the employee can print the completed report out of time and billing and attach
    receipts. When reimbursing expenses, remember these commonly small checks
    take administrative processes to create and track, as well as time out of
    the auditor’s day to run them to the bank. By using direct deposit as
    a non-taxable reimbursement within payroll, the firm will streamline the expense
    reimbursement process.
  3. Daily Billing: With time and expenses up to date, firms
    can create an invoice with the completion of every client project. As most
    firms have gone to dual monitors, the ability to review WIP and receivables
    information on-screen has become a practical alternative to the traditional
    month-end paper markup and re-key process. And honestly, the individual’s
    knowledge of that client, and what should be billed, is at its best when they
    complete the project, rather than a month later when they are trying to remember
    any special circumstances along with the hundred other bills they are trying
    to get out. Best practices today are to push the billing down to the in-charge
    on an engagement, which usually equates to the top one-third of employees
    having the capability to create an invoice. This process is particularly effective
    for tax-return only clients, whom you only bill once per year.
  4. Digital Invoices: Printing, stuffing, stamping and sending
    month-end invoices can be a time consuming and expensive process because it
    is very manually intensive. Some of the top time and billing applications
    have the capability to have a client designated to receive a digital invoice,
    which creates a *.PDF of the bill, saves it to the network and e-mails it
    to a client at the same time as when all the other designated digital invoices
    are generated. Please note: This is different from the manual process of having
    a staff person generate the invoice in a *.PDF file, manually save it to the
    network and attach the file via e-mail. While this second process is acceptable
    for a few invoices, most firms find that it is not practical for generating
    a large number of invoices.
  5. Digital Delivery of Reports: Many firms create custom
    internal reports to manage WIP and receivables that are either generated out
    of their time and billing or generated with the help of Excel to combine data
    from different sources. These reports are often created on a monthly basis,
    printed out and then copied for all the owners and mangers, who receive them
    in a paper format. Firms should consider generating a *.PDF of the report
    and placing it on the firm’s intranet. Recipients would be e-mailed
    a link to the reports and have immediate access without the cost of printing
    and delivering. This is particularly effective for multi-office firms where
    the delivery can be delayed for days. An added benefit is that the intranet
    page can build an archive of previous reports, which are backed up every night.
  6. Integrated Flash Reports: Most time and billing applications
    can integrate digital dashboard tools into their systems, which allow for
    real-time analysis of firm-wide information. For firms that enter time on
    a daily basis, trends can be evaluated daily and include alerts for when certain
    situations occur such as a person’s utilization dropping below 50 percent
    or a $5,000 receivable hitting 31 days. These reports are based on a concept
    of “data cubes” that allow all information to be viewed in multiple
    formats such as production by client, the same information viewed by the staff
    involved or analyzed by the service codes. Some of the dashboards can be customized
    for individual employees or other flash report information that the firm keeps
    in time and billing to manage the practice.
  7. Tracking Vacation: We are constantly amazed at how many
    firms take information out of time and billing and re-key this data into Excel
    for tracking, such as monitoring vacation hours accrued and taken. Virtually
    every time and billing system today will allow you to drop in a carryover
    amount for the previous year’s vacation accrual and then incorporate
    the current allocation, which can be equally allocated throughout the year.
    The benefit of this is that firm personnel would be able to look up their
    vacation availability without having to ask administrative personnel, and
    the firm’s internal human resources person would monitor this from within
    their time and billing without re-keying. Please note that this is something
    that staff should be trained on looking up, and the instructions should be
    documented on the intranet or within the vacation policy pages of the personnel
    manual so they can easily access the information themselves.
  8. CPE Management: In addition to vacation tracking, there
    are many firms that re-key their CPE data into Excel or another database to
    manage. Again, any time personnel have to re-key and reconcile information
    in another application, efficiencies are lost. All of the top time and billing
    applications allow for the creation of custom fields for individual state
    requirements such as instructor name, sponsoring organization, type of CPE,
    and qualified versus non-qualifying CPE hours. Let’s face it, the person
    taking the course has the best access to this information and should enter
    it when they do their daily timesheet. When firms get administrative personnel
    involved in re-keying CPE hours, they are adding time because they then have
    to get the information from the person attending the CPE.
  9. Centralized Contact Management: There has been much talk
    about Customer Relationship Management (CRM), which CPA firms have been very
    slow to adopt. While these programs work amazingly well with proper training
    and implementation, it takes a significant change in firm culture to get them
    to be utilized, which is why the dedicated CRM solutions have such a high
    failure rate. Firm partners are all for marketing efforts as “long as
    they don’t have to change anything they are doing.” Firms must
    analyze what they really “need” and are willing to maintain for
    contact management. For most firms, this encompasses list management for holiday
    cards, labels for firm newsletters/niche mailings and e-mail contacts. These
    are categories and custom fields that most of today’s time and billing
    applications can set up, so we recommend centralized maintenance of all contacts
    within time and billing as a minimum. For firms running on today’s high-end
    databases such as SQL, not only can these databases maintain clients, but
    they can maintain prospects, as well, particularly with the newer multi-processor
  10. Outlook Integration: For more robust utilization of contact
    information, some time and billing programs can create a custom export to
    a firm-wide Outlook Public Folder, which would allow the data to be used in
    an interface that naturally integrates with Word, e-mail and label printing
    programs. Most of today’s time and billing systems run on high-end databases
    like SQL, which can also be custom coded so that the data can be exported
    to specific fields and categories within Outlook. This would allow firms to
    maintain all updates in time and billing, and then run the export or linking
    application to update the firm-wide contact list, where all authorized viewers
    would have access.

Most of these features have been around for years so firms can learn about
how to implement such features from their time and billing vendor’s websites
or via web-based training. To learn how to optimize these processes, we strongly
encourage firms to send a person to the vendor’s annual User’s Conference
at least every other year, where they can evaluate processes first-hand and
network with other users that can share successes as well as warn firms about


Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is president of InfoTech Partners North America,
Inc. and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading
best practices and technologies.

See inside NOVEMBER 2006