For many years the AICPA brought together CPAs from a multitude of disciplines, business types, and technological backgrounds to identify, evaluate, and debate the technologies having the most significant impact on the accounting profession, culminating in the AICPA publishing their annual Top Technologies list. For this month’s article, we are harkening back to that era and providing the “CPA firm top ten” technologies that should be utilized by today’s accounting firms. The ten items listed below are the must haves for today’s optimized CPA firm.
Cloud: Without a doubt, cloud technology is one of the most important technologies to be utilized by CPA firms as it provides consistent and secure access to all the firms’ applications and data, which is an absolute requirement in today’s hybrid/remote work environment. Moving to the cloud significantly reduces the need to have internal technology leadership resources to design, implement, and maintain an increasingly complex server environment, which is an expertise seldom found within most CPA firms.
Digital workflow: While many firms have evolved their due date and project tracking systems over time to utilize a combination of applications, spreadsheets, and cumbersome manual reporting processes, the advent of dedicated workflow tools in the cloud has provided a single, comprehensive dashboard for all firm personnel to utilize and rely upon. Whether responding to a client request, evaluating capacity bottlenecks, or scheduling future work, today’s workflow tools (CCH Workflow/Workstream, Thomson Reuters Firm Flow, Canopy, etc.) are mission critical for keeping everyone in the know, regardless of their location or their department.
Managed workstations: Laptops initially gained prominence within firms that experienced natural disasters as those firms standardizing upon them recovered significantly faster than those primarily with desktop computers. Utilizing laptops as your only workstation not only promotes familiarity with a single device that allows portability, but also allows the firm to manage/control this single device by policy, which is significantly more secure than allowing personnel to additionally utilize a home computer that other family members also access. Firms can also enforce verification of the latest security patches, system updates and the blocking of USB storage devices on firm-owned workstations, which is somewhat difficult to enforce on employee-owned equipment (bring your own device - BYOD).
Modern portal: Just as workflow organizes internal activities of firm personnel, today’s modern portals mange document ingress and interactions with clients. While legacy portals are basically a file cabinet on the Internet, today’s portals (SuraLink, CCH Collaboration Hub, Thomson Client Center, etc.) can provide clients a request list of documents (in lieu of an organizer or checklist) which they can drag in digital copies to fulfill. Modern portals also have dashboards to let both the client and the firm know what percentage of required documents have already been provided as well as to provide reminders of upcoming deadlines. They also allow for communications/inquiries between the client and the firm members dealing with that client which is better than emailed documents that are usually only available to the specific sender and recipients.
Bookmarked client source documents: Tools that force a firm standard for organizing tax source documents create efficiency by making it easier to know exactly where to look for a tax workpaper, but also where to place the one-off documents that may be provided by the client to a firm member via alternative methods such as a text message, email, or (gasp) fax machine. Tools such as SurePrep 1040Scan, CCH Scan, Drake Gruntworx, etc. lead the way to organizing information as well as to import data automatically into the tax return via Optical Character Recognition (OCR).
Automated source input: OCR tools reduce the preparation time of individual tax returns as data from the most recognized tax forms are automatically input and verified, saving time in both preparation and review. SurePrep, CCH AutoFlow, Drake Populate, etc. are examples of products firms are using today which can free up professionals’ time to focus on higher value work.
eSignature tools: The process to get client signatures for engagement letters, tax filings, and other authorizations can be streamlined significantly with electronic signature tools such as cPaperless SafeSend, DocuSign, RightSignature, Adobe Sign, and Ignition. Centralizing these processes in administration promotes efficiency and follow-through to acceptance, reducing errors by professional staff that may not be trained on using the tools or following up to ensure that documents sent for signature were completed.
Digital collaboration: Communicating effectively in today’s hybrid/remote work environment goes well beyond using email, text messaging and your phone. Today, these means of communication also require screen and data sharing, video calling, and appointments to be integrated into a digital collaboration tool. While Zoom and Slack have been very popular, Microsoft Teams is integrated with the Microsoft Office 365 platform which most CPA firms and their business clients rely upon for their contacts, calendar and email which are natively integrated and constantly being improved upon, making them the clear leader in collaboration.
Digital invoicing/payment: While firms have long emailed invoices to clients, in most cases, the steps utilized replicated their cumbersome manual mailing processes which sent out one invoice at a time either through physical mail or electronic mail. Today’s integrated systems can not only send out invoices en masse, but also facilitate the collection of payments including posting payments within the firm’s practice management application. Solutions such as Affinipay CPACharge and QuickFee are leading such integrations with the major practice management vendors.
Optimized internet: Hybrid work environments mandate that communications both internally with remote personnel and externally with clients be seamless including the use of video conferencing and live data sharing. These types of calls require faster and more reliable connections then in the past so firms should regularly review their internet contracts to ensure they have the best quality line (under 50ms “ping” time) from the vendors servicing their location. Cable and static bandwidth providers are constantly flipping for the top spot while simultaneously reducing cost, so firms should renegotiate vendor contracts every two years to make sure they have the best primary and secondary providers. Remote users should also renegotiate their internet contracts and consider 5G wireless which in some areas may be the fastest internet connection.
Information technology will always have a significant impact on the accounting profession and implementing tools that are on the leading and stable edge will help firms work and service clients most effectively.