Secure portals increasingly popular to improve client relationships

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Accounting firms looking to improve customer service are turning to secure Internet portals to exchange and share information with their clients. The result is broader, clearer communication and increased efficiency.

A variety of vendors offer these services to accounting firms, with most charging a monthly fee. The key is to select the services that best match the needs of the firm and the needs of the client in this 24/7 business environment. One option is CPA2Biz, which provides services to AICPA members, but many other private companies offer services as well.

CPA Nancy Engst, for example, tried the new SmartVault service and found it to be helpful in allowing her to share QuickBooks files and scanned paper documents. The portal lets accountants see client information at a glance and allows sharing of data without the need for large e-mail attachments. "I love being able to attach documents to transactions, and I'm really looking forward to using it to collaborate with my clients," she said.

In fact, these secure portals are making payroll more attractive to some accountants, many of whom may have viewed payroll services as an administrative burden that was more trouble than it was worth. Now, it's easy to have a paperless process from beginning to end. "Private, secure portals enable clients to enter the initial payroll information and receive a PDF copy of the paychecks, that they can print themselves," said Jon Baron of Thomson Tax & Accounting in CPA2Biz.

Jim Bourke, partner at WithumSmith+Brown of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., used a Thomson Tax & Accounting service, the GoFileRoom ClientFlow module, which gives hundreds of clients access to documents, such as confidential tax returns, through the secure portal. "ClientFlow allows our staff to respond even more quickly to our clients' needs," Bourke said. "The days of clients asking for copies of their tax returns are over. Today, most of our larger clients know that they can easily access their tax returns directly from their portal."

Portals allow clients not only to retrieve and review financial data, but they can fill out their tax organizers, answer online questionnaires, or upload financial data so their accountants can do the processing.

Many CPA firms market their service to their clients as a way to simplify communications and "allow us to work seamlessly with you." Security is another touted benefit, as the information can be accessed from outside the office even during natural disasters.

Sean Manning told WebCPA that he spent thousands of dollars every year mailing 50-page financial statements to his monthly accounting clients. Then he decided to mail a short summary with more details available online through a password-protected client portal. At first, clients were slow to get into the habit of logging on to a secure site to access their CPA's financial data, but more signed up each month, Manning's postage bill went way down, and he considers his change a big success.
 

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We ended up settling on Centroy, a cloud service collaboration app. We ran out of funding with sharepoint, and rolled the dice with a few online vendor trials. In hindsight, we should of pursued this strategy in the first place. They keep things simple with the design, so we don't have to walk our clients through it. Basically, if you can use Facebook, you won't need any training to use Centroy. And that's really the biggest advantage. All the other promises about portals ring true. Better efficiency, faster service, increased retention, etc. But you're right about adoption. It's a show-stopper if the client won't use it. Needs to be secure AND easy to use. We've been pleased to finally be able to strike a good balance this past year.