This week it’s another workflow optimisation, but this time the subject is an accounting firm and the catalyst is a cloud program rather than a second employee.
One of the most time-consuming tasks for accountants is asking clients to answer questions about their business affairs in the course of completing a tax return or other compliance work.
These requests are most often made by email. The accountant reviews the client’s accounting software file, writes up a list of questions and sends them to the client.
In the best case scenario the client then sends a single email back answering all questions. However, this almost never happens. Instead the client sends back some answers and promises to return later with the rest. The accountant often has to follow up the client with reminders or further explanations of the answers supplied.
“You have to go back to the client and say you have answered questions two, three and four, I’m waiting on one and five,” says Paul Meissner, chartered accountant at Five Ways Group.
The round robin can take several hours per client.
This process, mirrored in thousands of accounting firms, has several bottlenecks. One is control of the information. The only person in the accounting firm who knows how many questions the client has answered is the accountant who sent the original emails.
A related issue is that the answers are stored in that accountant’s inbox which might not be accessible to other staff. If the accountant is away sick or has left the company then other staff have to get access to that accountant’s inbox and search for the responses.
The accountant also has to file any documents sent by the client in the practice management system the firm uses to catalogue client files.
Optimised Client Queries
An alternative to using an email program for client queries is to use a dedicated cloud portal which will manage the collection of answers for the accountant. Meissner uses Xero Workpapers (formerly Spotlight Workpapers); an alternative is Fifo Workpapers, owned by Intuit.
The cloud portal contains the list of questions for the client who can log in and update the questions at any time. The portal has three chief improvements.
The first is that anyone with login details can access the portal, whether that’s multiple staff at the firm or employees in the client’s business. It’s immediately obvious how many queries are outstanding and the client can tick off each request individually. It also allows yes/no questions, with the option to add further detail.
The second is that the portal can automate emails to the client. An accountant can tell the portal to send reminder emails at certain intervals.
The third benefit is that the portal provides a central place to store all a client’s documents relating to the project. “It’s really easy for clients to answer. They can upload their documents and everything saves there,” Meissner says. “Anything you can stop doing on email is good.”
Meissner estimates that using a cloud portal saves two hours per job. The savings at $250 per hour, for 400 clients, amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.