By Jody Grunden
The tools that are used by a distributed firm with remote clients are going to vary greatly from those of a traditional brick-and-mortar firm.
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Every tool we consider or use has to be cloud-based. Nothing can be restricted to a single computer or location.
Previously, I referred to two of our tech stacks as “admin” and “production.” You can also consider them internal versus external tools: internal being the tools we use to work together as a team, external being the tools we use to do the work we do for our clients.
Our admin tools include the following:
- Accounting software: In addition to handling accounting for our clients, we need to keep all of our own accounting information organized and in one place. We recommend specifically looking for a program that is cloud-based, allowing you to access information securely from any device.
- Bill pay: Bill pay software can be very handy in automating the process of paying bills, so nothing slips through the cracks. Again, cloud-based is the key here. Some accounting programs include bill pay functions, and some third-party bill pay applications are designed specifically to integrate with accounting software.
- Client Interaction: You’ll want to consider which tools you’re going to use for online meetings, videoconferencing, screen sharing, email, instant messaging and file sharing. There are a variety of programs out there with different features. Will you need to record any of your calls? Will you be offering webinars? You’ll want to look specifically for the features you know you’ll need. You’ll also want to consider ease of use on the client-side.
- Cloud storage: Again, there are a lot of options to choose from when it comes to storing and sharing files. The most important considerations are ease of use and security.
- Expense management: Sure, you can have employees submit paper copies of receipts the good old-fashioned way, but we’ve found that using an expense management system is a game-changer. This becomes especially important as your company grows. We recommend using a program that allows employees to scan receipts for reimbursement and reporting purposes.
- Internal communication: Internally, you’ll want to consider which communication tools you want your team to use, i.e., virtual office and instant messaging. These tools will become central to the culture of your company.
- Meeting scheduling: Again, you can take the old-fashioned approach here – emailing days/times back and forth until you can come up with something that works for everyone involved, but there’s a better way! Scheduling software enables you to share your calendar link so anyone can see your availability and schedule a meeting on your calendar at a time convenient for them.
- Productivity tools: You may choose to use Microsoft Office, which is the time-tested suite of products developed that includes Microsoft Word, Excel, Access, Publisher, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Google offers a similar suite of products. There are other similar products out there that are gaining popularity, particularly with remote companies, because they’re free and offer convenient sharing and collaboration features.
- Recruiting: We get thousands of applications every year so recruiting software became a necessity for us. This type of software enables us to easily track applicants. We recommend looking for a program that provides functionality for applicant sourcing, resume parsing, video interviews and more.
- Security: Security is incredibly important when you’re providing financial services and your team works remotely. You want to ensure that your files are encrypted. We also recommend using a secure password management service. Take advantage of multifactor authentication whenever it’s available on an application. There are several free authenticator apps that allow you to authenticate multiple applications with just a single app. Some applications offer other security measures such as information rights management, encrypted email, phishing, and spam filters and data loss protection – things that may be included but need to be configured by the application administrators. Sometimes the options are available as paid add-ons but are worth considering based on your company’s needs.
- Task management: By nature, communication and collaboration have to be approached differently on remote teams. We have to be more intentional with our communication when it comes to what we’re working on, and we tend to utilize collaboration tools to their fullest extent. We find task management programs invaluable on our team as they enable us to see what's being worked on, who's working on what and where something is in a process.
- Time tracking: Even though we do not bill our clients hourly, everyone on our team keeps track of their time. This is a good practice for every company. You need to know where you are spending your time and where your employees are spending their time, and the only way to do that is to track it. Some time-tracking apps make it easy with timers that can be turned on and off for each project worked on. Some let you turn your calendar events into time entries. Features like these make it easier for your employees to keep accurate records.
- Workflow automation: Automating what you can, when you can, will make you more efficient over time. Always be on the lookout for tools that allow you to automate tasks and save time.
Our production (audit, tax, accounting, and CFO) tech stack tools include the following:
- Audit and audit research: If you’re performing audits, you’ll need audit and audit research tools for workflow management, client status reports, etc. that are easy to use and secure.
- Accounting software: If you’re handling accounting for remote clients, you’ll need cloud-based accounting software.
- Bill pay: As with automating the process of paying bills internally, you’ll want to automate this for your clients’ bills as much as possible.
- Dashboarding: We use a dashboarding tool for building and sharing real-time business dashboards on web browsers, TV monitors and mobile devices. This allows our clients to see how they are performing as a company and how their performance compares to the industry as a whole.
- Expense management: Just like I mentioned above for your internal process of submitting receipts, you can make your clients’ lives easier by getting them set up with an expense management system for receipt reimbursement and reporting.
- Forecasting: Using a forecasting program allows you to simplify complex budgeting and forecasting practices for your clients.
- Time tracking: We’re “agnostic” on the client’s time-tracking system. We take the information out of their time-tracking system and incorporate it into our client financial reporting system and KPI programs.
- Tax: Tax software offers innovative features that make the processing of tax and accounting information more efficient and profitable by completing tasks such as scanning source data directly into the software and managing the status of returns. Resources like this help turn tax preparers into reviewers.
Overall, as you’re considering which tools to use, you want to select tools that are as user-friendly as possible. You don’t want to have to hire an expert to help people learn how to use them.
When it comes to the tools you use for the services you provide, you will also need to consider whether you are going to specialize in one specific type of accounting software (i.e., QuickBooks, FreshBooks or Xero) or whether you want to remain “software-agnostic.” There are pros and cons to both approaches. If you specialize in one specific program, your team may become experts in that program, but you may be limiting your potential customer base if certain companies do not want to change the software program they are using. On the other hand, if you are software-agnostic, you can work with clients in whichever program(s) they are using, but your team will have to learn and be comfortable with all of them.
Working remotely with clients requires thinking outside the box a bit and using some non-traditional methods. This more in-depth overview of the types of tools we use was meant to help you think through some of the tools you may need to add to your tech stack.
It may seem like a lot at first, especially if you’ve never offered services remotely before; however, all of these tools will help you build excellent client relationships, provide value for your clients and help your team become extremely efficient with their time. All it takes is a little patience and an openness to try these new tools and adapt as needed.