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Clients Need Help Understanding Portals

Christina Wiseman, Thomson Reuters Portals may have been one of the hottest discussion topics for people buying technology products for the tax and accounting community. But hot topics don't equal hot sellers and a recent study of technology use by accounting firms showed that their use of portals is not quite what headlines and stories would lead us to believe. And there may be a very basic reason for that.

"People don't know what a portal is," say Christina Wiseman, Thomson Reuter's product manager for web services and mobile products.

The numbers come from the recently released Accounting Firms Operations and Technology Study conducted by Randy Johnston and Leslie Garrett. And even though the use of portals by firms is still not overwhelming, it is one area where a majority, 52 percent, said they use a portal to share documents with clients.  The survey found, not surprisingly, that the use of technology at small firms was low in all product areas.

Only 47 percent said they send tax documents to firms via portals. And what was troubling to Wiseman was 29 percent of those surveyed email some tax documents to clients.

Although there may be reluctance, CCH says it is seeing acceptance of its Axcess Portal, which can be used with its ProSystem fx desktop and Axcess cloud applications.

"We are still seeing growth every year, 10 percent growth last year," notes CCH product manager John Barnes. "We do see small firms that are using it as well as large firm." However, Barnes agrees that the mindset of a firm has a lot to do with whether portals are implemented and used effectively.

Like Wiseman, Barnes says customers are familiar with portals, even if they do not recognize that such services as on-line banking involves their use. "The vast majority of consumers probably leverage some kind of web interface than can be considered a portal.

Thomson has been highly visible in publishing statistics about portal adoption. In January 2013, Thomson said the use of its portals had passed more than 1 million by staff and clients. It has not updated the numbers since then.

NetClient Portals
This year, Thomson is responding to the study by putting a different emphasis on the promotion of its NetClient CS Portals. That includes educating firms on the need to make portal use part of workflow, instead of pitching them as something to be used only be technology-oriented clients, Wiseman says. "The misconception is that only some of my clients will want this," she continues.

"If you are only using portals for a few clients, they are not part of the firm's process," she says. That breeds a lack of support from staff since using portals then becomes "an extra thing they have to do." Firms also fail to adequately explain the benefits of portals to clients.

That being said, adoption of portals does seem to be increasing at Doc-It, which introduced its portal nearly a year ago.

"We have had some uptake in that," says Kevin Murray, the company's director of finance and operations. Murray believes some demand is being driven by state regulations regarding the emailing of confidential client financial information.

Doc-It released its WebPortal nearly a year ago as part of the Doc.It Suite 4. Murray says an advantage of that approach is that the portal is provided as part of the suite at no extra charge. "You get it as part of the monthly subscription, so why not use it?" says Murray. He notes that the portal can be used in connection with the suite's document management capabilities.

Axcess Portal
As does DocIt, CCH places its emphasis on the ability of the Axcess Portal to integrate with other modules in its product suite. One of the big advantages, says Barnes, is the ability of all products to access the common Axcess database so that all applications share the same client information.

The company plans to increase the ability of mobile users to utilize the portal. "That's where I think we will see a lot of growth," Barnes says.

Among more recent enhancements, the portal has also received additional protection with customer data being encrypted even when it's not being accessed. There are also improved search capabilities – it now utilizes SQL FTS for indexing and searching for contents of files added to portals, which CCH says provides more accurate search results. And with the preview of files pending approval, firms can open a preview of files uploaded by clients and awaiting firm approval before they are imported to Axcess or ProSystem fx Document.

OfficeTools Professional comes at integration from another area—integration with practice management software for tax and accounting firms. Its Client Portal can be used as a stand-alone product or integrated with the practice management application.

Clients can directly message firms via the portal. Firms can send invoices to clients via the administration panel or through the Practice Management application and clients can utilize the portals to pay invoices. OfficeTools notes portals completely reflect the firm's branding.

Portals are also relatively new to the product line up of CCH Small Firm Services. Its PortalSafe, powered by eFileCabinet, also not quite a year old. PortalSafe integrates with the CCH unit's TaxWise and ATX tax preparation products.

PortalSafe comes in three editions. At $24.95 per month, or $234.95 per year, the Professional version offers 5GB storage, two professional users and 150 client portals. The Premium edition offers 10GB five firm users and unlimited client portals for $34.95 per month or $334.95 per year. With the PremiumPlus level, the features increase to 20GB and unlimited firm users and client portals. That product is priced at $59.95 monthly or $574.95 annually.

Bob Scott
Bob Scott has provided information to the tax and accounting community since 1991, first as technology editor of Accounting Today, and from 1997 through 2009 as editor of its sister publication, Accounting Technology. He is known throughout the industry for his depth of knowledge and for his high journalistic standards.  Scott has made frequent appearances as a speaker, moderator and panelist and events serving tax and accounting professionals. He  has a strong background in computer journalism as an editor with two former trade publications, Computer+Software News and MIS Week and spent several years with weekly and daily newspapers in Morris County New Jersey prior to that.  A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Bob is a native of Madison, Ind
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