A Client Portal is fast becoming a necessity for any accounting practice. Whether it’s a big player with 350 staff members or a tiny 3-person outfit, a CPA firm must choose a Portal solution.
The number one reason for this is federal privacy legislation, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, as well as state laws, both of which are stricter than ever regarding your clients’ financial and personal information. To stay in compliance, accounting firms must ensure that their clients’ data is protected.
Historically, many firms have relied on email to send files back and forth to their clients. But this poses two major problems. First, email is not secure. It’s relatively simple for users on either end to expose their inboxes to other staff; and while email is in transit, it sits unprotected on servers. Second, emailing large attachments, like QuickBooks files, is tedious at best, and impossible at worst.
Client Portals offer a secure environment, with multiple layers of security, where you and your clients can easily exchange documents and files and stay in compliance with the law.
Balancing Security with Ease of Use
The majority of Portals on the market will offer adequate security for your firm. It’s harder, however, to find a Portal that’s easy to use, for you and your clients. If your Portal solution is not user-friendly, then it will likely be ignored in favor of email, thus reintroducing privacy concerns.
So how do you pick the best Portal for your firm?
In this article, I present tips from CPAs using a variety of Portals to point out what works and what doesn’t.
The extent to which your clients feel comfortable using the Portal has a huge impact on the success of the technology for your firm. Simply put, if they don’t use it, then it can’t safeguard their data. It’s important to make sure the software doesn’t turn off any of your clients, because it’s your job to maintain security.
Retrieve Files Quickly
When researching Portals, ask the provider how easy it is for clients to download files you’ve placed in the Portal for them. An effective method is a notification email that alerts the client that a file is waiting for them and includes a link directly to the Portal.
Ideally your client would simply click a link in the notification email and the waiting file would automatically start downloading. However, this poses a major security vulnerability. Unfortunately, to keep the system secure, your clients need to log in before downloading the waiting files.
But the software must still be crystal-clear for your clients, or it will cause headaches for you and for them. Kara Haas, CPA, PA, of Englewood, FL, learned this the hard way: “Before I started using LeapFILE, I tried one product that was downright painful. My two most tech-savvy clients couldn’t remember how to download their files each time,” she notes.
One stumbling block when logging in to the Portal is that it forces the client to remember their password. Some CPAs report that this presents a difficulty. “Most clients do have trouble remembering their passwords,” explains Edward McNeil, CPA, Partner at Ercolini & Company LLP in Boston, who uses CCH’s ProSystem fx.
In addition, the ability to reset passwords for clients can present a problem. Chris Farmand, CPA, CITP, of Jacksonville, FL, says that he’s used a Portal where the username and password is set by the system, and it can’t be changed. Unfortunately, the username is the client’s email address and the password is their Social Security number – which Farmand believes is not secure enough. “It’s completely inexcusable for a Portal provider to set such obvious passwords,” he states.
Initially you may think that as long as the Portal works for your clients, then it will be successful. However, it’s just as necessary for the Portal to be intuitive for you and your staff. As a service-based business, your time translates into your revenue. You need a Portal that pays for itself by increasing firm efficiency.
Intuitive Filing System
If files aren’t displayed in a logical way in your Portal, then the time-saving features of the software will quickly be compromised as you scroll through hundreds of files. This is a headache for smaller firms; and for larger firms, who may receive hundreds of files a day during tax season, it can lead to virtual chaos.
Farmand points out the benefit of a robust document management system (DMS) that works seamlessly with a Portal. He would like to find a DMS that allows him to share permissions with the Portal. This would allow him to simply check a box once to share the file with the client in a read-only format.
Just as it’s important to be able to easily reset the password for your clients, you should look for a Portal that allows you to reset your own password. If there’s ever a security breach – even if you just suspect one – you’ll want to immediately change your password to something more complex.
Training and Support
As with any complicated software, all firms need a certain amount of training and support, for them and for their clients. Be sure to choose a Portal that provides this. Can you get the support you need through phone, email, help files, and tutorial videos? Do you have adequate training information to send to your clients?
McNeil appreciates his provider’s phone support. He says, “CCH has a call center, which we use for all their products. They are usually very helpful.”
When it comes to training clients, CPAs use a variety of methods, from internal videos and screen shots to sharing the materials provided by the Portal provider. “We downloaded the user guide in a PDF format and attach this to the notification that goes out to the client when their portal is set up,” explains Amy Powers, Tax Manager at Grennan Fender Ruta LLLP in Orlando, FL, which uses ProSystem fx.
Remember, for a Portal to keep you in compliance with privacy laws, you – and your clients – must actually use it. When researching Client Portals, look in to client usability, firm usability, and support. Don’t let niggling technical issues prevent you from fully adopting this powerful tool, which helps you exchange personal and financial data safely, and keeps you in compliance with the relevant legislation.