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Portals

Client Portals: The Time is Now!

Special Feature

From the April/May 2009 Issue

Are you concerned about the amount of confidential information in your organization
that is being delivered via e-mail attachments? Is it being delivered securely?
Is it being delivered to the proper recipients? Are you keeping track of who
is sending which files to whom?

If you’re not comfortable with your answers to these questions, then
it’s time to give serious consideration to deploying a portal in your
practice. This article provides you with an understanding of what a portal is,
how it can benefit your firm, what you should know about portals and how to
develop your portal deployment strategy.

WHAT IS A PORTAL?
So what is a portal? Well, it is a term that is very broad in scope and meaning.
Let’s begin with a basic definition of a portal as it relates to accounting
and tax professionals: It is a gateway to a collection of electronic information
and files that is accessible over the Internet via web browser.

For accounting, tax and financial professionals, the most prevalent application
is a portal that provides clients with secure, online, self-service access to
their information. It’s the information that you deliver via your portal
that ultimately determines its value. The information that can be provided on
a client portal can range from simply posting static (PDF) copies of tax returns
and financial statements at one end of the spectrum to a collection of real-time,
client-specific information such as portfolio valuations, bank account balances
and KPI’s (key performance indicators) from the client’s accounting
system on the other end. The quality of the information you publish on the portal
and the ease of access are the two key value drivers for your clients.

ALTERNATIVE
PORTAL STRATEGIES

You can choose from a multitude of approaches to develop the form and content
of your portal, so I would like to outline some of the key strategies you can
choose for your portal solution. I’ve organized the discussion into three
topics: form, content and technology. Let’s start with form. While there
are many different forms a portal can take on, I like to frame the discussion
by describing three alternative forms, which can, in fact, be combined to provide
a more comprehensive portal site.

ONE-WAY OR ‘PUBLISHING’ PORTAL
This is the most common form of portal being deployed by accounting and tax
firms today. The nature of this portal type is to post electronic documents
and files such as tax returns and financial statements that can be accessed
securely and confidentially by clients.

The driving force behind the increased deployment of this portal type is the
corresponding increase in the deployment of document management systems (DMS)
in accounting and tax practices as they work through the transformation to a
digital (paperless) practice model. The publishing portal is a natural extension
of the DMS, and the value becomes more apparent as the volume of electronic
documents and files continues to expand exponentially.

TWO-WAY OR ‘FILE TRANSFER’ PORTAL
This is a portal that allows your clients the ability to securely and confidentially
upload electronic documents and files for your retrieval. The classic example
is to upload a QuickBooks data file instead of sending it via e-mail attachment,
CD or flash drive.

Actually, this type of portal has been deployed for many years in the form
of an FTP (file transfer protocol) site that allows files to be uploaded and
transferred back and forth between the accountant and the client. The primary
difference with this model today is the design of more user-friendly html (hypertext
markup language) web pages to navigate the file transfer process.

REAL-TIME PORTALS
Real-time portals are designed to provide access to a collection of dynamic
information that provides value to the client, such as current portfolio valuations,
bank account balances, KPIs (key performance indicators) from the client’s
accounting system, or industry-specific news and information. This type of portal
is a little more sophisticated, primarily because it typically involves integrating
with other applications to feed the information to the portal.

The evolution of real-time portals in accounting and tax firms is likely to
be slower, if for no other reason than the fact that we are typically working
with historical information. However, financial planners and investment advisors
are more likely to deploy real-time portals due to the nature of the time-sensitive
information with which they routinely deal.

ESTABLISHING YOUR PORTAL CONTENT STRATEGY
In the classic scenario of “the chicken or the egg,” your content
is going to determine the form of your portal. Alternatively, the form of your
portal will determine the nature of the content you can provide. The prudent
approach is to decide what sorts of information you want to ex-change via the
portal and let that decision determine the type of portal you will need. This
decision-making process can be relatively simple.To help you through the process,
I have provided a checklist of the typical types of information that you may
want to consider providing on your portal.

As you plot your portal con-tent strategy, keep it simple and don’t
try to do too much too quickly. Your portal model will evolve over time, and
the technology solutions will evolve, as well. They will become more robust
and easier to deploy, manage and use. I think it’s reasonable to expect
that the portal you deploy today will look much different many years from now.

PICKING YOUR PORTAL TECHNOLOGY
Once you have established the form and content of your portal model, selecting
the appropriate technology solution will be a more strategic process. You will
know what you want and be better prepared to participate in vendor presentations
of their solutions. Many different options are available for your portal technology.

You
can deploy a “home grown” solution based on a portal development
platform such as Microsoft SharePoint. Alternatively, you can utilize an accountant-centric
portal designed specifically for tax and accounting professionals. Most of the
accountant-centric portal solutions are delivered in an ASP (application server
provider) model, which means that the vendor provides both the portal software
and the hardware/infrastructure platform via remote access to a secure data
center. For most small firms, this is my recommended strategy since you are
unlikely to have the depth of IT infrastructure and personnel to develop, deploy
and administer the portal in-house.

A vendor-managed portal provides for a much simpler deployment and will generally
provide a more secure platform via the data center model, as well as a more
cost-effective solution through a “shared services” model. On the
other hand, if you are a larger organization with state-of-the-art infrastructure
and a qualified IT services team, then developing your own in-house portal solution
may be a viable alternative. The primary benefit of the “in-house”
approach is that you can design the portal to your individual specifications.

The supply of vendor portal solutions is expanding with the market demand.
I am a proponent of the accountant-centric portal solutions that are offered
by vendors who provide accounting, tax, practice management and document management
solutions designed for the unique needs of accounting and tax professionals.
You should take a thorough look at three to five solutions to gain a better
perspective on the range of functionality available. If you have deployed a
DMS, your provider should be at the top of your list of potential portal solutions.

The integration between the DMS and the portal is key to controlling the efficiency
of managing your published portal content. Also, integration with your tax and
accounting software will allow you publish tax returns and financial statements
directly to the portal. Regardless, you have to establish a structured process
for posting information to your portal, along with the appropriate policies
to control the quality and security of the information.

It’s important to remember that the portal is most likely the first time
in which you are providing clients with direct, self-service access to your
electronic information, so you should proceed with caution.

BENEFITS OF PORTALS
I’ve discussed how a portal can be used to exchange information with your
clients. This is a good point in the article to articulate the benefits to help
you appreciate the value of a portal for your organization.

SECURITY
In my opinion, this is the number one benefit of deploying a portal. Since most
electronic information is exchanged via email attachments, you are subject to
two key vulnerabilities — sending confidential information to the wrong
person and having the message intercepted by an unauthorized third party during
transmission. The latter is why we have seen increased regulations prohibiting
the transmission of personal data via e-mail., i.e. social security number.

From a practical perspective, sending the email to the wrong person is the
much more probable breach of the privacy of the email communication. With a
portal, you can significantly reduce the amount of email attachments you send.

CLIENT SELF-SERVICE
We are knee deep into the area of self-service access to electronic information.
Since accountants are responsible for some of the most critical and confidential
information that businesses and individuals rely on, they cannot afford to ignore
the growing trend towards using portals to give clients control and options
to access information on their own initiative at anytime, from anywhere.

FIRM VALUE
I firmly believe that deploying an effective portal solution for your clients
can have a direct and positive impact on the value of your firm. The reason
is that as you establish an “electronic link” to your clients via
the portal, it becomes an important supplement to the personal relationships
you have with your clients. Your firm’s identity with your client will
be strengthened by the fact that whenever they interface with the portal, your
firm’s brand and the value of the services you provide them will be continually
reinforced. The more you can enhance your client relationships via automation,
the more you increase the value of your firm to a potential suitor.

EFFICIENCY
Many firms are beginning to realize that using email as the primary method of
exchanging electronic documents and files can be very inefficient. Generating
an e-mail to transmit a file requires composing a message and navigating through
your network storage to find and attach the file. And you have limited ability
to track the access.

Deploying a portal that is directly integrated with your tax, accounting and
DMS software can eliminate many of the labor-intensive steps required to exchange
information with your clients, particularly if you consider sending printed
documents through the postal system. Just stop to think about what’s involved
in sending a client a paper copy of their tax return in comparison to posting
it to your portal.

FIRM BRAND
A more indirect benefit of deploying a client portal is the impact it has on
enhancing your firm’s image in the marketplace. Make no mistake about
it; the evolution to a more virtual marketplace for the exchange of business
information is going to expand rapidly in the near term. A portal demonstrates
that your firm understands the importance of this characteristic of the 21st
century business model. That will help you attract young entrepreneurs as clients
as well as young staffers entering the profession.

A ROADMAP FOR DEVELOPING YOUR PORTAL STRATEGY
Hopefully, I’ve provided you with a meaningful perspective on the value
and role of a client portal for your practice. If you think this is an initiative
you want to pursue, the following guidelines will help you develop your portal
deployment strategy.

DETERMINE YOUR PORTAL CONTENT REQUIREMENTS
Analyze the nature of information you exchange with your clients to determine
where the greatest opportunities exist to share that information via portal
technology. Also consider the opportunity that a portal provides to share information
with clients that may not be practical under traditional methods.

One example is to post a copy of an organized file of supporting tax return
documents in PDF format so that the client has access to copies of their K-1s
W-2s, 1099s, etc. Give some thought to expanding the scope of your portal information
a few years out, after you have developed a track record.

EVALUATE PORTAL SOLUTIONS
Develop a short list of potential portal vendors. I recommend that you focus
on accountant-centric solutions that are developed by vendors who target the
accounting profession such as many of the other vendors listed here. Schedule
a demonstration with each vendor of their portal solution to learn about their
unique features and functions and to provide you with a base of comparative
information.

DEVELOP PORTAL DEPLOYMENT PLAN
Once you have procured your portal solution, it is imperative that you spend
the time to establish the processes that you will use to publish information
to the portal. I recommend that you conduct a CRP (conference room pilot) whereby
you gather a sample set of client files and documents and walk through all of
the procedures necessary to get the information on the portal.

An integral part of the process is establishing each client’s secure
portal access account. Throughout the CRP process, you should focus on identifying
all of the issues that need to be addressed and deal with them. An extension
of the CRP is to select a representative sample of clients and do a pilot deployment
of the portal for them. This will allow you to walk through the entire process
and get a good sense of the types of issues clients will have when accessing
the portal.

The more you can refine this process before you roll out the system to all
of your clients, the better prepared you will be to avoid costly and potentially
embarrassing false starts with the deployment.

TRAINING
Once you have established your portal policies and procedures, train your staff
on the proper usage of the portal and address any questions or issues that they
identify. Inevitably, your staff will identify issues that you missed in the
planning process.

MARKETING
Use the deployment of the client portal as an excellent opportunity to reach
out to your clients and let them know you’re enhancing the services your
firm offers them. Consider scheduling a client briefing in your office to demonstrate
how the new portal can benefit them. This will give you the chance to expand
your client’s awareness of the entire array of services your firm offers
and to meet the staff that they may communicate with on a regular basis but
rarely have a chance to meet in person. One firm I am aware of promoted their
portal as an integral part of their “green” initiative, which is
at the top of mind for many people these days.

PORTAL ADMINISTRATION
Be sure you assign responsibility for administering the portal to the appropriate
person(s) in your office. Someone needs to have responsibility for managing
the information being posted, administering client accounts and login info,
and troubleshooting client problems. Don’t underestimate the importance
of this role. The last thing you want is to post a file to the wrong client
portal account.

We’ve covered a lot of information here, but I hope you have developed
a better understanding of both the opportunities and challenges associated with
this technology. In my opinion, it’s not a matter of “if”
you should establish or portal, it’s a matter of “when.” And
I believe the time for most accounting and tax practices is “now.”

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Mr. Higgins is Strategic Advisor of CPA Crossings, LLC. He specializes
in advising accounting, tax and financial professionals on how to leverage technology
to improve productivity and profitability. Contact John at johnhiggins@cpata.com.