Security is the main advantage of using a client portal, but each portal product has a range of functional beauty (and hassle) that informs which tool will be the best fit for a particular firm. Below are three firms’ experiences with three different portal products, and their benefits.

Secure and efficient

Product: NetClient CS (Thomson Reuters)
Firm: Ross & Co. CPA
On record: President Glen Ross
Start date: March 2005
Clients: 800+ returns
Price: Price bundled into other services from Thomson Reuters

Objective: Ross & Co. wanted to be a firm that embraced technology, which prompted it to seek a client portal to make them look “cutting edge,” Glen Ross said. He said that the portal offered by Thomson Reuters was a “better, more efficient way of delivering documents to our clients.”

Implementation: When Ross & Co. selected NetClient CS, the firm sent out a notice to all its clients informing them that this was how documents would be delivered from then onward. The firm didn’t give most clients an option to opt out. “My firm’s been around for a long time, and some clients have been with us for 50 or 60 years,” Ross said. “So we made exceptions for clients who don’t have computers and so on.”

Ross said that he didn’t need much support during implementation beyond learning basic functionality.

Advantages: The main advantages, Ross said, are the same reasons his firm selected NetClient CS in the first place: It allows a more efficient and secure way to share documents.

“No one can convince me that mailing something on paper is going to be more secure than via an electronic format,” Ross said. “It’s as secure as possible. Our clients are all over the country and the world. Using portals makes them providing information to us just as easy as us to them. We don’t have to wait for mail anymore — our clients are uploading docs all day long. It totally cut down on turnaround time and time working in the office because of that speed of online collaboration between us and clients.”

Challenges: A small pain point Ross has with the product is that its appearance could be a little more modern. “It still looks a little bit older in terms of layout style, and not quite as sleek as current Web site design is trending towards,” he said. Additionally, some clients were confused about how to upload documents, but the firm solved that problem by writing a step-by-step tutorial that has worked “100 percent of the time.”

The future: “I consider a portal as an extension of your own Web site,” Ross explained. “It should be useful, interactive, dynamic and have no static pages of information. Adding portals makes your Web site more interactive, so ultimately I’d like to see the portal more integrated into all of the services we’re providing for our clients.” Some examples, he said, could be a function for clients to message the firm through the portal, or the ability for clients to directly e-mail documents from their portal with automatically masked personal information.

“I’d like to see functionalities that are on the forefront of security and that make things more interactive with us as a firm.”

Great customization

Product: SmartVault Client Portal
Firm: Jason M. Tyra CPA PLLC
On record: Principal Jason Tyra
Start date: 2014
Clients: 150-200
Users: One
Price: Approximately $25 a month per client

Objective: Tyra’s firm was using Intuit DMS, which integrated with the Intuit ProSeries tax software. In 2014, Intuit discontinued that specific product, and that integration was only available through SmartVault.

Implementation: “Implementation was pretty easy,” said Tyra. “Client files in DMS had to be converted and uploaded, and the SmartVault team did that for me.” Tyra had to make an appointment with SmartVault, and SmartVault accessed his computer remotely to perform the migration for him.

Advantages: Among the advantages Tyra listed were the white labeling options such as creating a custom URL, and the ability to upload the firm’s logo into the system, and change the color scheme.

“If [customization] is an option for whatever service I’m using, I always use it because of identity theft issues,” Tyra said. “It’s good for clients to see that they’re still inside my ecosystem, such as it is.”

“I can customize the way client folders are set up and set the default rights, etc.,” he added. “SmartVault integrates easily with various software, and also provides an opportunity to enhance the security of document management. Anything you would need to do, you can do.”

Tyra also appreciated that the software allows clients to reset their own passwords and user names.

Challenges: “SmartVault is a startup, and while the product has definitely gotten better over time, there were fewer features when they first rolled out and I had some billing issues up front,” Tyra said. “Also, it’s not always immediately apparent that you can do something inside the software or the range of things you can do. However, the technical team is very easily accessible. I get a human right away and someone who can actually help me. But whenever I call, it’s to ask for a feature that’s already in there. It’s not as intuitive as it could be.”

The future: Tyra said he would like to be able to automate data entry for tax returns.

“Intuit was supposed to have a feature on Intuit Link where clients could fill out a tax organizer online and that went away without explanation,” said Tyra. “If SmartVault could come up with a fillable organizer that you could import back into your software, that would be great.”

Click, click, pass

Product: CCH Axcess Portal
Firm: Dermody, Burke & Brown CPAs LLC
On record: Director of information and document management Terry Gagliano
Start date: 2006
Clients: 900
Users: 80
Price: Approximately $4,300 per year

Objective: The main reason Dermody, Burke & Brown started using CCH Axcess Portal was for the confidential file sharing. However, the firm supplements the portal with ShareFile because they have some clients who are reluctant to get on board with a portal environment.

Implementation: Terry Gagliano, who has been with the firm for more than three decades, said that when the portal was first implemented 10 years ago it was “clunky.”

“In the beginning it was horrible,” Gagliano recalled. “It was hard for us and for the clients. It made you want to just shut it all down and start over. But they’ve come a long way. It’s now very simple to start a portal.”

Gagliano explained that the firm takes on the responsibility of the administration of a portal, and does not expect clients to participate in that process because they don’t want to burden them.

Advantages: Ease of use today makes up for the growing pains in the beginning. “It only takes a couple of clicks to get a client’s tax return or financial statements to them,” Gagliano said. “You literally right-click and publish. We don’t have to create e-mails, create a file, make a password, and so on.”

Challenges: “On our end, when we go to publish a file to Portal, the screen for knowing what folder to send it to should be totally rewritten,” Gagliano said. “There is a big white space, and small print with an arrow, and the files sometimes don’t get to the right place. The premise and how it works is great, but the design needs to be better.”

The future: Currently, when a client adds a QuickBooks file to a portal, the firm is notified and it comes into the firm’s document tab called “Incoming files.” The accountant then has to save it to their desktop and bring it into Engagement, Gagliano said. “It would be great if we could go from Portal to Engagement. We want a separate shortcut just to go to Portal and do what we want with the file. It’s because of that hassle that clients say, ‘I don’t want it — just give me ShareFile.’”

Ranica Arrowsmith

Technology editor for Accounting Today.