Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 37 seconds

It is a competitive world out there for accounting firms. The advent of cloud-based technology that can be accessed anywhere at any time has greatly expanded the average firm's geographic reach. Firms are no longer dependent on servicing clients or gaining new ones in a specific region, and many have achieved a nationwide or global presence.

 

To add to this, many clients and businesses increasingly view accounting services as commodities any firm can provide. There is a strong demand for alternative pricing arrangements, quick turnaround and 24/7 access to accountants in order to stay competitive and retain business.

To accommodate the current demanding environment, today's accounting firm must turn to its internal or client-facing operations for increasing efficiency, productivity and profitability – and its competitive edge. One key secret to optimizing operations is tightening up workflows and shedding unnecessarily manual processing.

Workflows make up the framework that processes and people must follow to ensure critical or day-to-day tasks – either in-house or client-facing – are completed. Every business has them, whether documented or not. They are often viewed as "the way things are done." For example with accounts payable, each time a bill is paid, specific people need to be involved, steps taken to avoid redundancies, secure practices reinforced and results documented

However, workflows are like a car's engine. They do not get our attention until something is broken. For instance, suppose a vendor has not received payment for services calls. Where is that bill now? Has it been paid? Or is it still in the approval process? How much time has passed since the bill was submitted?

Also like a car, workflows need constant review and maintenance to ensure they are running at an optimal level. And if you give them the proper care, you will find numerous benefits emerge.

The Benefits of a Well-Tuned Workflow
A strategic, best practices-based workflow can greatly enhance firm productivity, decrease administrative gridlock, optimize the use of staff expertise and build stronger relationships with clients. It just makes it easier to run your firm effectively. Specific benefits include the following:

Improved visibility. Easily ascertain the exact status of each task within the workflow and who is currently attending to it.
Reduced errors. A fine-tuned workflow ensures that you are not reinventing the wheel each time. It also lets everyone know what the next steps are and how long they should take, reducing mistakes and guesswork.
• Increased efficiency and productivity. With a refined workflow, unnecessary work or extra steps are eliminated. Continuing the AP example, the functions of approving, paying and receiving payments are faster and more reliable.

Key Tip: Use Technology to Reinforce a Workflow
While steps to establish and refine a workflow may seem ponderous, remember that often cloud-based technologies automatically reinforce workflows and collect valuable information during the process. Use technology to lift many manual portions out of your hands. You will immediately realize benefits by migrating paper-based processes to digital, cloud-based services.

It gets even better. Technology can create role standardization by automating workflows and ensuring that the right individuals are performing authorized functions. For example, in Bill.com approvers are automatically routed all bills, so there's never the delay of a paper invoice sitting on someone's desk for approval. Additionally, it can support the creation of custom roles by allowing some users greater approval authority while enforcing a decreased participation level for other users.

There is one workflow that is critically important and well-supported by technology: audit trails. Technology can reinforce internal controls and reduce fraud risk by maintaining a log of all activity related to a payment, including any changes or notes made to items and the user, date and time the changes were input.

An Example of How to Redefine Workflows
To optimize firm or client payments workflows, you must first identify current processes. For this example, we will look at approval processes. Start by documenting your current approval process. Identify where it starts, where it goes, where it ends and every person who touches it on the way.

Questions that will help you do this include:

• How does the process start?
• How do you interact with the payee or payer?
• How many staff members are involved in the process?
• Do you know where some of the delay points are?
• How involved are senior staff?
• How long does the process take?
• What are the goals and objectives of the process?
• How long does the process take?
• How does technology support this process?

Next, ask yourself what you would like to accomplish with your ideal payments process. Would it be to require less time for completion? Perhaps include fewer people? Take the time to imagine what the positive results of an improved workflow would be.

One item that should always be on top of your ideal workflow is the documentation of any changes. Workflows can encompass anything from invoice approval to a tax return. If there are changes in the workflow, are they documented? Can you quickly ascertain who made the change and why? This also speaks to an audit trail. Ask yourself what information you need for an audit trail and how you can capture it.

Finally, ask if your clients are satisfied with the end result. There is the temptation to default to an automatic "Yes!" in this case, but avoid falling for that. Instead, if you are unsure, ask a few long-term and trusted clients what their perception is.

Conclusion
Reviewed and refined workflows can significantly benefit accounting firms and small business clients by saving time, increasing accuracy and decreasing fraud – all of which help save money and improve cash flow.

Developing a workflow to optimize these benefits and embracing that workflow are increasingly a core driver of robust financial management and success in this competitive time. Today it is easier than ever to revamp or tune up workflows with technology. Cloud-based financial services tighten up and automate traditionally time-consuming and tedious workflows. They are worth checking out.

John Rettig, Chief Financial Officer of Bill.com, brings more than 20 years of strategic finance and operational leadership experience in both private and public companies to his work. Rettig most recently served as the Chief Financial Officer of Exponential Interactive, Inc., a leading digital media company with 750 employees and operations spanning 26 countries. Previously, Rettig served in senior finance roles at high-growth companies in the e-commerce, software and Internet spaces, including Reflect.com, a Procter & Gamble personalized beauty spinoff; Achieva.com/Kaplan, Inc., a leading e-learning company; and E-Global Network, Inc., a software infrastructure company building payments systems. He also served as Senior Director of Finance for [email protected], the broadband access and Internet portal created by the $6.7B merger of @Home and Excite, Inc. Rettig holds a Bachelor of Science degree from St. Mary’s College.


Last modified on Thursday, 23 October 2014
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