A conversation on future-proofing CPA firms

By Amy V. Hollander, CPA; Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M.; Daniel T. Moore, CPA; Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA; Johanna Sweaney Salt, CPA, CGMA; Jeffrey D. Solomon, CPA; and Chris Wittich, CPA

Editor: April Walker, CPA, CGMA

A frequent topic of conversation during AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee (TPMC) meetings revolves around ways to help tax practitioners future-proof their tax practices. This conversation usually is tied to technology — for better or worse. Several TPMC members were asked to share some of their best tips and lessons learned, especially during this continuing challenging time.

What is the one technology-related update that you or your firm has implemented in the past year that has made the most difference in your practice?

Amy V. Hollander: During the summer of 2020, I researched platforms to incorporate into my sole-practitioner practice for document retention, client relationship management, cloud capabilities, and workflow. I decided to go with the platform offered by Thomson Reuters, which coordinated well with my tax software. That said, intentions are one thing — implementation is another — as the program has yet to be implemented, and here we are in tax season again. So, my lesson learned is: Sometimes it is best to seek the professional assistance of others — an IT consultant, in this case, to implement the software. Sometimes the cobbler's kids don't wear any shoes, and although we like our clients to hire us as professionals, we may shy away from paying for expertise.

Chris Wittich: For us, it has been our expanded use of Microsoft Teams. We created new channels for training materials and for our group that have focused on the COVID-19 relief measures. We are using the file sharing now and editing documents simultaneously as a team. We are also using Teams to have group chats instead of email chains with recurring groups of people. We have had Teams for a few years, but it wasn't until this year that we started to use more of the sharing functionality, and it has been great.

Brandon Lagarde: We tend to adopt new technologies in bite-size morsels. During 2020, we fully implemented an electronic delivery and signature service called SafeSend by cPaperless. The default delivery option for every tax return is now SafeSend. A client has to specifically opt out of using the electronic delivery method if they still want the "old school" binder with their return. We are trying to adopt technologies that not only make us more efficient but also enhance the clients' experience.

Ami Oppe: We implemented Microsoft Quick Assist to help our clients with QuickBooks. This is an app that allows you to connect to and take control of another computer. Before the pandemic, we would just be talking to our clients over the phone, trying to direct them without seeing their screen. If that didn't work (which happened often), we would have to go over to their office. Now, we can just take control of their computer, and they can see what we are doing. It has made a huge difference for our clients. They love it! Also, they are now more likely to call for help now that they know we can quickly guide them in the right direction without having to make an appointment with us.

Johanna Sweaney Salt: When our firm made the decision to go 100% remote for client interviews for the 2020 tax season, we signed up for Apptoto, an online scheduling program that automatically books to Zoom. It has been a game changer! Yes, some of our older clients were unable to figure out how to use it; however, our office manager scheduled a time for them on Apptoto and indicated it would be a phone interview. All in all, though, we are thrilled with the efficiency and ease of use.

What is on your post-tax season to-do list, technology-wise?

Daniel T. Moore: This tax season, we are implementing texting as a communication tool with clients. The 2021 tax season via text will be minimal and basic; however, we plan to expand this post-tax season. 

Wittich: We are looking into a solution for automatic billing and collection of monthly fees from clients. There are a number of ways you can do that, but finding the right one that lines up with our internal procedures and billing software will be a priority.

Hollander: Locating an IT consultant to streamline and help implement technology solutions.

Lagarde: We plan to focus on implementation of electronic organizers and utilization of TaxCaddy for our individual clients.

Do you have any lessons learned/horror stories on how not to implement new technology?

Lagarde: Yes — it is often difficult to roll out a new technology to all clients and all team members at one time. We "piloted" SurePrep for one year before rolling it out to all offices and all team members. We should have piloted for a few more years to work out the kinks and to streamline our processes. On the flip side, new technology is constantly changing, so you can't wait five years to adopt a technology. By the time you adopt that one, there is something new that you have to start testing. It is a delicate balance of not being on the cutting edge of technology and chasing after every new piece of technology and not adapting to keep up with the changing landscape.

Wittich: Successful technology implementation requires a product champion. Someone on your team should be assigned to implementation, with the understanding that they will be the single point of contact in the company regarding implementation. Training, training, and more training will be necessary with staff but also with your product champion. So what are the lessons learned? If you do not have buy-in from the product champion, you will most likely fail at implementation. 

Do you have a podcast or something you read that helps you stay on the cutting edge of technology issues in the accounting profession?

Wittich: I follow a few people on Twitter that have innovative, tech-focused companies that are also CPAs. I'd love to find more like that where they are using technology to amplify their reach. Real-world examples of billing efficiency, client intake efficiency, and engagement letter efficiency seem more focused on the client advisory services (CAS) type of practice because monthly bookkeeping lends itself well to some of those solutions. I haven't found much in the way of tax planning, tax compliance, or business consulting with those same real-world examples.

Hollander: I listen to the AICPA's Go Beyond Disruption podcast to learn more about technology-related solutions.

Do you have any practical technology tips that you have recently learned that have increased your efficiency at work?

Oppe: One of the biggest things we have discovered during the 2020 busy season is how much technology we already had available to us. To go digital, we only had to invest in one item: webcams for everyone. We already had Microsoft Teams, and we already had a portal system on our website. We just weren't utilizing this technology like we could have in the past. The pandemic changed all of that. All of a sudden, we were thrust into a world where we had to figure out how to connect with our clients and connect with each other, but not in person.

Before the pandemic, we had a handful of clients that were emailing their documents to us and a few that were using the portal on our website. Now we have so many clients, young and old, uploading their documents to their portal on our secure website. We went from maybe 1% of our clients using it to provide documents to us, to about 30% providing their documents this way. And it is growing every day as we get through this busy season.

Also, before the pandemic, all of our staff meetings and training were done together in the same room. Now, we do our staff meetings and training using Teams. One really awesome feature of Teams is that you can record the meetings. Before, if someone couldn't attend or couldn't remember what happened in a training session, they would need to get that information from another staff member. Now they can watch the training after the fact. If they are really struggling with one section of the training, they can go back and watch it as many times as needed. So, this year, because of the pandemic, we are building up our library of training videos. I imagine we will reap great rewards from this library in the future.

Salt: This applies to clients who do not upload to our portal and drop off/mail hard copy documents instead: We have changed our process in terms of when data is scanned into our document management system. Some firms scan on the front end, some scan on the back end, but we scan in the middle — after the data has been entered on our tax software and before the return goes to final review. This has really worked well with our team in the office on a staggered work schedule (three days in, three days remote).

What is one best practice your firm has implemented related to tax firm data security?

Lagarde: I wouldn't say this is a "best practice" because, in practice, procedures implemented related to data security are a huge pain and not liked by many clients. But we have required that every single email that contains a PDF attachment must go through a secure mailbox, regardless of what type of PDF is attached. The purpose is simple enough — if we are sending tax returns out via email or other tax-sensitive data, we want to ensure that they are being sent through a secure mailbox. However, the system doesn't distinguish between a document with sensitive data and a document with nonsensitive data.

The biggest challenge I have experienced with technology is the focus of many tech developers in developing their cloud products while leaving the old products behind. You are forced to move to the cloud despite the issues that the cloud product may have. When you work in an organization that is split between old school and new school, adoption of new technology can be painful and slow. The organization will look to things like their cloud-based tax preparation software going down on a return filing deadline as a reason why we should never move to the cloud. So the biggest challenge right now is being on the fence about going all in on the cloud and hanging out in the on-premises technology. Then you get a patchwork of some products being cloud-based while other products remain on-premises. This can cause inefficiencies in integration of software across platforms and workflow inefficiencies.

Jeffrey D. Solomon: Data security is such a huge issue for our firm and our clients. One of our internal IT employees prepared a list of "best practices" to share with clients. Those include:

  • Install an anti-virus program and (also important) keep it updated. Make sure it is checking for ransomware and malware.
  • Install all Windows updates and security patches when they are available.
  • Use unique passwords for each online account. The best way to prevent one data breach from having a domino effect is to use a strong, unique password for every single online account you use.
  • Get a virtual private network (VPN) and use it. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and is a good step in hiding your private information.
  • Use two-factor authentication. This is not fun, but it absolutely makes your accounts more secure.
  • Clear your cache. Your browser saves a lot of information about you. Regularly deleting cookies and clearing your browser history helps get rid of some of that information.
  • Don't fall prey to clickbait. Phishing emails can look very convincing. Make sure to confirm the source prior to clicking links in emails or text messages.
Essential investments

Staying up to date on the latest technology and ensuring that your firm has a strong implementation plan is paramount to success in these ever-changing times. When successfully implemented, an investment in technology can pay big dividends in efficiency, effectiveness, and client satisfaction.

 

Contributors

Amy V. Hollander, CPA, is the owner of Amy V. Hollander, CPA, in Clarks Summit, Pa. Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M., is a director with Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. He leads the firm's Tax Services Group. Daniel T. Moore, CPA, is the CEO and founder of D.T. Moore & Co. in Salem, Ohio. Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA, is a tax manager with Walsh, Kelliher & Sharp in Fairbanks, Alaska. Johanna Sweaney Salt, CPA, CGMA, is a partner with Gray, Salt & Associates LLP in Claremont, Calif. Jeffrey D. Solomon, CPA, CVA, is the managing shareholder of Katz Nannis+Solomon in Waltham, Mass. Chris Wittich, CPA, MBT, is a member of Boyum Barenscheer PLLP in Minneapolis. April Walker, CPA, CGMA, is lead manager—Tax Practice & Ethics, Public Accounting, for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Ms. Walker is the staff liaison of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee (TPMC). Ms. Hollander is the chair, Ms. Oppe is the immediate past chair, and the other co-authors are members of the TPMC. For more information about this column, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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