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
The second “bucket” would be the Internet-hosted solutions, which
would cover stand-alone and hosted solutions. Stand-alone providers such as
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.
Firms can go to websites4Accountants.com
to see a listing of these providers that include portals. These solutions are
usually the most cost effective from a firmwide view and can be scaled up from
a few users to hosting a portal for every client in the firm. Please note that
the firm should take a look at the anticipated volume of clients and data capacity
needed for the portal as the cost is very dependent on these factors. The 2008
AAA Study found that the vast majority of firms with portals had set up individual
sites for less than 10 percent of their overall client count (though this was
expected to grow).
The final portal bucket is for those larger firms that have sophisticated
IT capabilities and resources and choose to build their own portal. The most
common solution for this group is Microsoft SharePoint, which requires extensive
programming skills, as well as personnel with in-depth security experience so
it is relegated to a very small number of firms. There are also liability concerns
in the event the site is breached or inaccessible during a critical time.
When evaluating solutions, it is very important to narrow them down based on
ease of use and administration, and not just focusing on cost. Following is
a list of summarized features that firms should walk through a demonstration
of prior to making a selection:
Ease of Setup: What does it take to set up a client for
the portal the very first time? Two-thirds of AAA firms in the survey utilized
administrative personnel, while the remaining third had to have the IT department
set it up. For firms that are short staffed from an IT perspective, a delay
in setting up the portal could impact client service adversely.
Ease of Publishing Documents: What steps are necessary to
put a document into the portal? With an integrated DMS, it is usually a matter
of designating the document be made available on the portal, determining how
long it should be available, and who to notify. Stand-alone portals often
require more steps to publish the document, which means more confusion and
Ease of Client Access: What steps does the client have to
go through to access the portal and logon? Most firms will make the portal
accessible through the firm website where they would have a logon (such as
their email address) and a password. The AAA survey found that three-fourths
of firms would email the password or instructions on what the password was,
and 38 percent would telephone the client, which takes additional administrative
time. Firms will also want to ask how clients with multiple business entities
would logon to each unique portal and how many other people within the client’s
business could also have access.
Ease of Client Use: What steps do clients go through to
copy down or move files up to the portal? The portal solution should be easy
and intuitive for novice users or your accounting personnel will spend a lot
of non-chargeable time walking clients through the steps until they become
Notification: Does the portal notify the client and the
in-charge for that client when the portal has been accessed and a file uploaded
or downloaded? This is an important feature to keep firm personnel aware of
when there has been a change so they don’t have to guess the status
of a file.
Audit Trail and Security: Does the portal monitor activity?
Some of today’s portals also document who placed which files in the
portal, who accessed them and if there were new versions, which helps the
firm comply with their confidentiality and document retention policies.
Cost: What does it cost to set up, maintain annually and
add more clients? Firms should be aware of the overall cost per client as
well as space allocated for each client, and the cost if this space is breached.
Firms transferring very large QuickBooks files and not cleaning them up can
find themselves in a situation where the additional storage space makes certain
portal options cost-prohibitive compared to others.
The fact is accountants live in a digital world and need to transfer documents
in the most convenient and secure way for clients. These needs point to accounting
firms adopting client portals, and the time to do it is right now!