By Deanna C. White
There used to be a time when financial professionals at tax and accounting firms spent hours of their time in back offices copying returns in triplicate or communicating with their clients through daylong games of phone tag or trips to the post office.
But there's little doubt that over the last two decades they've learned to embrace technologies like QuickBooks, FileCabinet CS, and electronic filing to transition their offices to a more efficient and cost-effective paperless platform.
Now, many of those same professionals have to decide whether to cross the newest net frontier: client portal technology.
To technology industry professionals, it's a foregone conclusion. Client portal technology, they say, is a necessity for anyone who wants to do business in the ever-expanding world of wired technology with an increasingly tech-savvy clientele that expects to transact business online.
However, despite the great advantages client portals can offer – 24/7 access to vital documents via secure online reporting, greater efficiency of accounting firm workers, substantial savings in printing and mailing costs – some firms are still weighing whether portal fees and the leap to a new technology make it worthwhile for them to cross the portal path at this time.
This October, AccountingWEB spoke to three tax and accounting firms that have adopted Thomson Reuters' NetClient CS portal technology for use in their practices. All three users, one that has used the technology since 2007 and two that have only used it in the past year, agree client portals are more than a mere tech trend. They believe the technology is here to stay.
Here's what they had to say:
Priya Kuttuva, CPA, ACA, with Mehar Associates, PLC, in Hiawatha, Iowa. Mehar Associates is a five-person firm that provides accounting, auditing, payroll, and tax services to individuals and businesses.
Kuttuva said the firm, a former QuickBooks user, transitioned to Thomson Reuters' NetClient CS portal technology in 2007. In the five years since that transition, Kuttuva said, the NetClient CS portal has dramatically increased access to vital documents for both Mehar clients and the firm itself.
"Our clients love the fact they can access their data anyplace, anytime", Kuttuva said. "Many times they have employees who are traveling, but the portal still allows them to update their data [from the field]. It allows them to be more flexible with their clients."
The portal's accessibility also allows Mehar to service its clients in the most expedient manner possible, thereby reaping rewards in terms of employee productivity, customer service, and the ability to expand its business.
"We're growing very fast, and we have a huge volume of transactions", Kuttuva said. "When clients do their financials, they can contact me immediately and I can instantly pull up their data as well. It allows me to help them very quickly and conveniently."
Brian Greenberg, CPA, owner and CEO of Brian Greenberg & Associates, LLC in Marlton, New Jersey. Brian Greenberg & Associates is a three-person firm that offers tax preparation and planning services as well as financial services to individuals and small businesses.
Greenberg said his firm has been in existence since 1990, and he can still remember the days, even after the advent of electronic filing, when his staff had to spend up to ten hours a week making reams of copies and sending them off in the mail. He said he made the leap to NetClient CS in 2011, predominantly because he wanted to save money on the expenses involved in a paper-laden system.
"We've definitely saved money on paper and toner, but for me, increased worker efficiency is key", Greenberg said. "The biggest thing the portal has done for us is free our staff from hours spent on meaningless tasks like copying and sorting that didn't provide any benefit to our clients."
Greenberg said his clients love the fact that all their tax documentation is stored in one easily accessible place. He's also excited to offer them a new feature in the NetClient CS package – access to a private portal where they'll be able to store all their financial documents if they choose. "They have access to all that personal data in a few simple clicks", Greenberg said.
The only challenge Greenberg said he has experienced in the portal process so far is convincing clients to use the portal consistently. "I would advise firms to educate clients as to how to use the service and reinforce the use of this new technology with their clients, especially the benefit of the new personal finance feature", Greenberg said.
Although Greenberg initially felt a sense of trepidation about the costs of initiating the portal, the cost savings are already apparent. "I'm actually saving money, even though I'm paying a monthly fee", Greenberg said. "CPAs can sometimes be shortsighted as to what they're spending instead of what they're saving, but I would definitely urge people to use this."
Robert Hamrich, owner of Hamrich & Associates CPAs in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hamrich & Associates CPAs is a self-described small firm that processes approximately 800 tax returns and 500 Form 1040s a year, predominantly for small businesses.
After thirty years in the tax profession, Hamrich said he's had the chance to sample the full gamut of tax and accounting technology. He adopted NetClient CS in 2011, and he believes it's critical for tax and accounting professionals to wade into the technology waters.
Hamrich said he first started his shift to a paperless operation in 2003 when he decided to do electronic filing en masse. From there, he transitioned to FileCabinet CS and other paperless technologies, then to a virtual office platform, and finally to NetClient CS.
"I think the reason NetClient CS has been so successful for us is because we took baby steps. If I hadn't ramped up to it the way I had, I don't think I would have done it", Hamrich said.
Like his fellow users, Hamrich appreciates the portal's ability to stimulate savings and worker efficiency. This year alone, he has reaped the benefits of filing more than 200 of his clients' 1040s through NetClient CS and plans to grow that number.
Hamrich believes his clients like the portal system because they feel it's more secure than postal mail, and he thinks it has a marketing advantage as well. Clients, he says, are more willing to choose or retain a tax and accounting firm that is tech forward. But he cautions anyone choosing to adopt the technology to only do so as part of an overall technology plan.
"You can't do the portal thing until you've done all the other things that I've done. If you're not paperless to some degree, the portal isn't as available", Hamrich said. "You have to have an overall vision to be paperless and cloud-based."