Are Portals Finally Coming of Age?

Top Technology Initiative Article - From the May 2017 issue.

Portals have been in existence in the accounting profession for around 20 years. Many public practice firms set up proprietary portals that had integration benefits to their practice management systems and were integrated into early web sites.

Even more firms used products like Citrix ShareFile to transfer large files and set up inexpensive, easy-to-use portals to transfer files such as QuickBooks desktop files or scanned images of documents. Citrix has added eSignatures, a document gathering facility with its PBC list tool, and an approval workflow to make working with clients more automated. XCM’s workflow product had a notable breakthrough in 2015-2016 with two-way collaboration from a public accounting firm directly to an industry business workflow and back to the accounting firm. Several vendors are bringing products to market that provide a document gathering and delivery system with SurePrep TaxCaddy, my favorite new portal product of 2016. Other practitioner products released last year included: CCH My1040Data for Axcess, cPaperless SafeSend Returns, and Pascal Workflow “Payment Protection”.

Another category of client service that we helped start in 1997 is collaborative accounting. Most of the SaaS products enable collaborative accounting, and clearly hosting desktop products, such as QuickBooks in those days, was an innovative step. Hosting with companies like Cetrom, Right Networks and CloudNine Realtime make desktop QuickBooks available anywhere, anytime on any device and provide portals for your clients. As we see QuickBooks Online with two million users, Xero with one million users, and FreshBooks with five million users, it is clear that using a SaaS product has worked for many businesses. But the technology that is breaking through with these products is portals. It seems like every collaborative accounting product has a portal, and the innovations here in 2017 are something to behold. If you have not looked at portals in a while, it is time to see what the publishers have done!

What Portal Tools?

So, who has introduced portals worthy of review? I believe there are at least four new portals of note introduced in 2017. However, there may be a dozen or more that are a good investment of your time to review based on the needs of your practice. Let’s start with the capabilities of ADP’s payroll portal. This vendor has accomplished several things that all good portals should contain: 1) an overall view of all clients, 2) security based levels decided by the firm so only authorized users can see information whether they are in the firm or at the client, 3) the portal can be entirely self-service minimizing the interaction required with end-users, and 4) integrated tools are included to help with normal business activities. In the case of the ADP portal, they have included the IntelliConnect payroll research at no charge from Wolterskluwer.

The next major portal tool delivered is the Sage Accountant Cloud. Announced at Sage Summit, the product has client-centric workflows, and integrates with the Sage Practice Cloud. There are several tools included: Client Manager with Practice Financials, Sage Live with the Services Manager which has Sage Payroll, and integrations to Sage Live, QuickBooks Desktop, QuickBooks Online, Sage One, Sage 50c, Xero, as well as some other planned connections in 2017. The Practice Manager has tools for productivity and control. Sage Match (which is much like Intuit’s Find a ProAdvisor) and other supporting tools such as Pegg make for a well-rounded, single-stop portal.

Another product that caught our attention on release last year on November 1 was Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Financials. This tool has integrated inventory, costing and financial reporting. Microsoft has recently released the Dynamics 365 for Financials portal. You can find more information at www.D365.microsoft.com/portal. This tool includes several client-facing capabilities: login, unprocessed payments, cash accounts balance, overdue purchase invoice amount, overdue sales invoice amount, taxes due, leads, depreciation posted, and other key business metrics. The design includes the ability to hover over information and see the underlying data. The design publishes rows and views, in real time, and provides access to the full tenant client. Also included are proactive notifications. Microsoft has plans for more connections in 2017. You can see for yourself – by signing up for the free trial at the sign up page. With Microsoft’s Cloud strategy including more than 100 datacenters globally, a new release of Windows 10 last month, and continued migration to Office 365, Dynamics 365 for Financials can round out an entire strategy using Microsoft tools. According to a report in The Economist in March, the total revenue generated by Microsoft’s cloud strategy is greater than the former cloud leader of Amazon Web Services.

One final new portal of note comes from the SaaS vendor Zoho and their new ZohoOne strategy. This vendor has a collection of 30+ tools that include accounting software, portal, VOIP phone integration, CRM, email, eCommerce and web site capabilities, payments, expenses and more. Zoho’s premise is that most people are interacting with either web browsers or mobile devices, and their products are optimized to work with both. For a complete, collaborative portal experience, Zoho’s Portal could be your ticket.

What To Do?

Over the past few columns, we have discussed business strategies and other critical factors like cash flow. For over 20 years, I have recommended that you implement a portal strategy. Many of you have done that, but it is time to look at your business needs, and determine if your current portal is meeting your needs. Virtually every software publisher has implemented a new portal incorporating responsive design (that adjusts to various web browsers or mobile devices on the fly). All the portals reviewed this year have become easier to use, and serve more broad client needs. Think about the portals you use on a regular basis. Is your portal as good? Why not?

Consider the features that you consider important. This could be document upload, payments, expense reporting, financial reporting, final document delivery, collaborative accounting, payroll, and more. You can look at the tried and true offerings that have been updated from AccountantsWorld Portal in its Accounting Power Suite, XCM Portal, CCH Portal’s major overhaul, Citrix ShareFile with many new workflow features including eSignature and document gathering, or one of the many new offerings in the market. While we wouldn’t suggest limiting your search to only the products named in this column, you’d be remiss if you didn’t take the time to look at and understand every portal listed in bold above.


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