Paperless” has been a common firm mantra over the past decade with most firms implementing digital solutions throughout each area of their practices. Oftentimes, firms adopted digital versions of their manual processes and believed they had become “paperless” without really analyzing if the process was more efficient. This in turn led many of these owners to discount more efficient solutions or limit their interest in new technologies because they felt they had already “crossed that paperless bridge.” In our Lean Six Sigma consulting with firms, we often find that a surprising number of the processes that firms have implemented include components that are “knee-jerk reactions” to a problem that occurred a long time ago, yet were retained as part of their digital transition. Examples such as manually signing each return (to prove it was the final version they reviewed) or mandating a second partner review on every return are such examples of adding internal time to firm production, which does not really add value from a client perspective. As interactions with clients evolve to become more digital, partners should make a concerted effort to evaluate whether their firm processes also evolve to not only be more efficient internally, but also to the ease and delight of clients. Below are examples where firms may need to rethink their digital tools and processes for the benefit of their clients and internal personnel.
Portal Usage: Portals have been proven to be an effective tool for transferring files both to and from clients, but they are most effective for clients that use them on a regular basis such as monthly payroll or controllership clients. Oftentimes, firms send out a notification email to introduce a new client to the use of the firm’s portal and expect the client to learn it on their own. This usually creates frustration with clients that rapidly rubs off on the partners as clients make their complaints heard. One recommended solution is to have your personnel contact a new portal client and walk them through the use of the portal explaining how it will be used to upload and download documents. Some firms also post videos of the process along with the instructions on their websites to make it easy for the client. As firms do more communication digitally, it is important to make these interactions as easy and intuitive as possible, which also allows for a positive “soft” touch with the client outside of busy season. We see firms also train their accounting personnel to utilize a remote control tool such as LogMeIn, GoToAssist, or Join.me to provide training and streamline the portal introduction to clients by seeing what is on their screen during the training.
Organizing Source Documents: Many firms still send client source documents to partners to be reviewed for completeness prior to scanning. These documents can sit for days (or even weeks) before they are looked at by the partner, only to find that a significant amount of documents are missing, followed by an awkward call to the clients. Firms should ask the question if it is really necessary for this partner review delay and whether the documents can be tagged directly for scanning for those clients that are low risk/low AGI. To promote source documents file standardization, firms should centrally scan these documents in administration and utilize automated bookmarking and autoflowing technology that works with their tax program. This process forces a firm standard for file organization which improves efficiency when preparing and reviewing returns. Also, using a workflow tool allows personnel to document missing items and update the status when they are received. Rather than wait for the client, firms can send them a PBC list of needed documents which can be tracked in a workflow tool, reducing the frustration for both clients and firm members.
Secure Email: For clients that only interact with the firm once per year, the portal login process can be confusing so a secure email solution may be a more effective option for those specific one-off situations. Applications such as Citrix ShareFile or cPaperless SafeSend can be easier for sending a copy of a tax return to a client securely in this instance and the latest paperless benchmark surveys point to adoption being on the rise.
eSignature Tools: Early adopters of the major tax vendors e-signature tools were disappointed in the capabilities of these tools causing many to look for solutions elsewhere or to go back to their manual processes. Tools such as Citrix RightSignature and cPaperless SignatureFlow integrate with the secure email solutions listed previously, combining those capabilities into a more seamless process which is easy for clients to utilize. These combined tools also streamline the workflow and tracking of documents such as engagement letters and e-file signature authorizations. When firms flowchart the process and time it takes to track 8879s or engagement letters, they quickly see the benefit of these new applications.
Client Invoices: The vast majority of firms still send out physical invoices to clients on month-end basis instead of with projects when completed. Physical invoices require the client to manually forward them or scan them in for payment, so why not just send the client the invoice via email. Every practice management application has the capability of sending a PDF of the invoice to the client which delivers it faster and provides an audit trail that it was sent. When firms evaluate the cost of not only the printing, stuffing, stamping and sending, but also the delay through the mail system, it is well worth the effort to educate staff and clients on the use of digital invoices. Digital invoices are also easier to send throughout the month so personnel can implement invoicing with the completion of projects, which reduces the month-end billing burden. Lean best practices suggest you first target clients that you send monthly invoices to for the greatest return on the process change as you will eliminate the manual processes for those clients for the rest of the year.
When reviewing your firm production processes, it’s very important that you also consider the ease of use for those impacted by the change. By doing so you have a better chance of delighting your client rather than frustrating them.
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP, CGMA, LSS BB is the Director of Consulting for Xcentric, LLC and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of the 2017 Edition of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which is available to members of the PCPS section.