By Deanna C. White
A little more than a decade ago, when client portal technology first arrived on financial professionals' radar, many regarded it as little more than a hip technology accoutrement for firms who wanted to offer a new "option" for exchanging information with their clients.
Today, profession officials say that client portal technology is no longer an accessory for accounting firms – it is a necessity for firms that want to do business in the ever-expanding world of wired commerce.
Driven by the need to meet regulatory compliance in the area of data security (a number of states have already passed laws prohibiting firms from sending confidential information via unencrypted e-mail or mail), and to meet the demands of an increasingly more tech-centric clientele expecting to transact business online, many tax and accounting firms are turning to client portals to meet their needs.
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"Ten years ago, client portal technology was a service differentiation, but now it is a client's expectation", said Scott Fleszar, vice president, strategic marketing at Thomson Reuters. "Individuals and businesses are used to interacting with service providers, retailers, and financial institutions online."
Web-based portal technology allows clients to conveniently and securely log in to their accounting firm's Web site to access documents, tax returns, financial statements, and other materials; upload files for their accountant; receive news and other messaging from the accounting firm; pay invoices with a debit or credit card; and even access online small business software.
"Most people can easily identify with portals in terms of online banking. The way you use the Internet to access your bank accounts and investment services is similar to the way client portals work", Fleszar said. "It is a secure way for individuals or businesses to connect to a service provider with a unique username and password to access resources or exchange information."
Damon Russel, technical product manager at CCH, says that beyond security, client portals offer an array of benefits applicable to all financial firms, whether they are small firms with fewer than ten employees or large organizations. Some of those benefits include:
- Giving clients the ability to access vital documents from any location 24/7 via secure online reporting.
- Offering clients the ability to upload documents of all sizes, which often can be a problem with e-mail
- Allowing firms the ability to communicate with clients in an asynchronous way; i.e., neither the accountant nor the client needs to clear his or her calendar to conduct business.
- Granting firms the opportunity to increase their billable hours, because the freedom from phone calls and meetings allows them time to cast a wider net to secure new clients.
- Creating greater efficiency and generating cost savings, because the conversion to a paperless operation saves firms money on printing and mailing and increases office worker efficiency.
Both Fleszar and Russel agree that one of the greatest benefits of any client portal system is the ability to repeatedly drive clients back to a firm's Web site where messaging about the firm can be marketed to its clients. Russel said",Portals are a great way to give firms the 'sticky factor' they want with their clients by driving them to the Web site."
Statistics from Thomson Reuters and CCH reveal the portal trend has definitely caught on.
According to Fleszar, Thomson Reuter's NetClient CS portal technology, which was introduced in 2001, currently serves over 2,500 firms and supports more than 500,000 individual portals.
"In the past two years, adoption of the product has really been increasing", Fleszar said. "For most professionals, it is no longer a question of if they will adopt a client portal but when. Portals now have a broad market acceptance." Some of the unique attributes of NetClient CS technology include:
- Direct seamless integration with other products in the CS Professional Suite, including UltraTax CS, Practice CS, FileCabinet CS, GoFileRoom, and GoSystem Tax RS.
- Sophisticated client portal features beyond document presentation and file exchange, including stock quotes, news and information, online invoicing and bill pay, Web-based individual client organizer, small business accounting software, payroll options for business clients' payroll time entry and remote payroll check printing, and configurable automatic e-mail notifications for the firm and the client.
- Scanned Form 1040 client source documents are automatically populated to the client portal when the completed 1040 tax return is posted to the portal.
Russel said CCH's ProSystem fx Portal has experienced exponential growth as well. Since the system was relaunched with additional features in 2009, more than 1,800 firms are using ProSystem fx. Distinctive factors of ProSystem fx include:
- CCH's name and reputation.
- Complete integration with all the ProSystem fx Suite products, including Document, Tax, and Engagement.
- Options to access the software using Microsoft's Silverlight 3 platform as well as a simplified HTML login.
- Configurable e-mail notifications to alert firm staff or clients when files have been added or modified.
- The ability for firms to secure folders so that only certain firm or client portal users have access.
- User-configurable information panes, such as Files Recently Added, Notifications, and Files Expiring Soon.
Russel urges CPAs who are wading into the portal waters to do their research. They should contact as many vendors as possible to find out which product would best work for them and select a vendor that provides a free trial, as CCH does, to make sure the product meets their needs.
Both Russel and Fleszar agree the portal trend is likely to expand rapidly in the smartphone and tablet age, as both firms and clients demand to be cut loose from their desktops and access their information from any location at any time.
But ultimately, Fleszar said, the use of client portals will continue to grow because they provide symbiotic efficiency between tax and accounting professionals and their clients. "From an internal perspective, the portal can make firms more efficient and save them time and money. Externally, they provide clients better service, assert a more tech-savvy image for the firm, and align with the expectation from many clients for doing business online. Portals allow firms to strengthen their relationships with their clients by creating more ongoing interaction with those clients over the Web", said Fleszar.
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