Most firms are well on their “paperless” way and have adopted digital technologies and processes within their internal practices. Unfortunately, many of these same firms have not been as effective at getting their clients to use available digital tools, with many clients still opting for manual delivery of tax source documents, returns and financial statements. Portal adoption by clients can make a significant difference to both the firm and the clients if presented in the proper manner, and now’s the time to promote portal usage! While digital delivery of tax returns and financial reports is an obvious purpose for portal usage, many firms are also using them to deliver client tax organizers, engagement letters, electronic filing authorizations and invoices. This use can translate into significant savings for firms with a portal system that integrates natively with their tax application. This article looks at why firms should be educating everyone on portal use and reviews successful selection and implementation of a portal solution.
7 Portal Talking Points Everyone in the Firm Should be Able to Share with Clients
1. Almost everyone is already familiar with using a portal for services such as online banking or payroll, so putting one to work for accounting needs is the next natural step.
2. Portals are among the most secure ways of transferring information both to and from clients. Most CPA vendor-hosted portals are housed in enterprise-class data centers and run by teams of IT/security personnel who continuously monitor activity, a luxury that few firms can afford themselves.
3. Portals offer 24/7 accessibility via Internet-enabled devices to upload or access files, which is just not possible with paper files available only in one place at one time.
4. Portals notify the recipient whenever a file is uploaded or accessed, which means more timely access to the files at the convenience of the recipient.
5. Portals are bi-directional in that they can be used by both the firm and clients or trusted third parties to transfer information digitally. Most portals today make it possible to limit who can see which specific files or who can have access in “read only” format.
6. Portals allow for larger file size transfers, such as huge PDFs or QuickBooks files, which are often too big for email systems.
7. Portals promote a more eco-friendly environment, using digital files sent electronically rather than paper files moved by people.
Educating Firm Users
The first step in promoting portal usage is to educate all owners and staff on these talking points and expecting them to use portals regularly so they are more apt and able to promote usage to clients. This can be accomplished for owners by allowing them to deliver internal reports and firm financials only through the portals. For employees, delivery of paystubs or other personal productivity reports via portals will help get them accustomed to them. Once they become familiar with the nuances of their portal, they will be in a better position to educate clients on the benefits and let them know that the firm trusts the portal for its own internal needs.
Selecting a Portal
What’s the best starting point for portal usage? The first step would be to consider which portal solutions natively integrate with the tax application. Today’s leading tax applications allow for easy publishing of PDF images of tax returns and organizers to the portal with a few keystrokes, including automatic notification to the client via a system-generated email. This is an effective process because the recipient’s portals are linked to the specific client file and the possibility of incorrectly posting an item is dramatically reduced. The second place to look would be to the firm’s workflow or document management tool where final digital documents are archived. These portal solutions may require an additional step to move the file and notify the client. The third option would be to select a stand-alone portal solution, in which case firms should look for a product that can be integrated into the firm’s website. These products are usually less expensive but require that each file placed in the portal manually and they have less email/notification functionality.
Encouraging Client Use
Educating clients upfront is crucial to successful adoption. Consider beginning by calling business users whose use would involve both individual and corporate documents. Using screen-viewing software, such as GoToMyPC, LogMeIn or Join.me, will allow the firm representatives to walk the client through the process and answer any questions about uploading or downloading files. Many firms introduce portals to clients in the initial call or email by telling them that this is how they will be working with clients going forward and outlining the benefits to the client. Firms should also explain how clients can access the portal through the firm website and show them links to help functions, including frequently asked questions, information on resetting passwords and tutorials on portal usage. Publishing links to these resources on the same webpage as the portal will make it convenient for the client to access them at their convenience.
For annual tax return clients, a personal phone call or walk through may not be cost effective and email or physical mail notification may be the more practical solution. Again, many of the integrated portals have streamlined delivery capabilities that feature embedded links within a notification email sent in advance of the busy season. Pushing the majority of organizers and returns to these clients with embedded instructions and support and then educating administrative personnel to respond to questions will help clients adopt portal usage. There will be a small percentage of clients who don’t have email or Internet access or who choose not to utilize the portal, but these users can be expected to be the exception and not the rule.
With the next busy season just around the corner, firms have the opportunity to implement streamlined processes that will help them service clients more effectively and provide increased benefits to both the clients and the firm.
This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of The Practicing CPA, a publication of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.