- Document management tools can automate workflows that take time but add little (billable) value.
- Cloud-based document management options mean you can get rid of the office server.
- Permission controls allow granular access to documents, an essential in multi-service firms.
There’s nothing worse than looking for a document in your inbox, online drive, hard drive, download folder or recycling bin – and turning up empty handed. Chasing documents is a fact of life in the information age, but it’s hard to justify billing clients for time spent searching for files because you lack a proper filing system.
The document management category has witnessed a most welcome burst of investment in the past decade. New players include SuiteFiles, FYI Docs and Nimbus Portal Solutions, with overlapping or adjacent players in practice software Karbon and automation platform FuseDocs.
Reckon APS recommends Virtual Cabinet for document management within its suite. However, in 2017 Reckon spun off Virtual Cabinet to UK company GetBusy and encourages firms to contact GetBusy directly. MYOB has focused on moving its practice suite to the cloud in modules; document management hasn’t yet made the cut.
The pandemic forced firms to reconsider how they manage their documents. Yes, you can fire up a VPN (virtual private network) when you need to access the office server. But staff will find it easier to use a browser or local application to access files stored in a high-bandwidth cloud repository.
Document management has also evolved into something much more powerful than a slightly nicer filing system. It is quickly becoming a locus for useful and powerful automations that slice hours of unbillable time from the working week.
Software that improves your business operating procedures
Sole traders and small firms that have never used document management software before can expect an upgrade to their usual operating procedures.
A major advantage of document management tools over a basic folder system \(which most of us use on our computers\) is being able to view correspondence at the group level. That solves the problem of when an accountant is working on multiple entities and misses key information because a document is filed against a different entity or person.
Document management tools can file correspondence at the group, client or even job level.
“We search at the group level and that means we miss a lot less,” says Rebecca Mihalic CA, partner at businessDEPOT in Sydney. “I don’t have to worry about where I’m filing things.”
Of course, document management works best when it is supported by good processes. That means deciding how you’re going to name, tag and file documents (taxonomy). Retaining a folder structure with financial years, quarters and months, with tags for special events such as “JobKeeper”, makes searches much faster and more accurate.
Smarter document management also neatly solves the question of what to do with your office file server. Several firms have moved their intranet and knowledge base into their document management tool, too.
Advantages of permission and compliance controls
One feature critical for multi-service firms is granular access or permission controls. To comply with financial services regulations, firms need to ensure accountants aren’t able to access clients’ financial planning folders. This is usually solved by giving financial planners a separate set of tools.
However, clients often discuss multiple matters in one email. With document management software, financial planners can use the same document management tool as accountants to save emails to their own, protected folders.
“Only certain people in the firm can look at certain cabinets. The security around who can see things is really strong,” Mihalic explains.
Access is the ‘most wanted’ feature
Even before the pandemic, firms were keen to move away from desktop-bound systems. When Sydney practice North Advisory Chartered Accountants migrated from an email server to the cloud-based Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) in 2018, it wanted an online replacement for its document management, too.
The firm was using MYOB Document Manager, an add-on for the practice management suite MYOB Accountants Enterprise, which performed excellently at indexing client files. But once the firm had the ability to view and edit documents almost anywhere with Microsoft 365, it also needed access to the files.
“I couldn’t use my home computer or phone to access a file or a tax return,” recalls Marius Fourie CA, North Advisory’s managing director. “You were confined to the desktop computer that ran the software.”
North Advisory already had access to SharePoint Online, the document management tool included in the Microsoft 365 suite. However, the interface is too generic for most firms.
Fourie found SuiteFiles, a document management “skin” that overlays SharePoint Online with an indexing file system similar to desktop equivalents.
SuiteFiles also allowed him to search text within documents, something that MYOB’s tool wasn’t capable of doing at the time (it now has full text search). SuiteFiles’ integration with Xero Practice Manager also made it easier to replace MYOB Accountants Enterprise, and save thousands of dollars a year in software licences.
“If we push documents to Xero Practice Manager it auto-updates the related job and client folders in SuiteFiles,” Fourie explains. New jobs in Xero Practice Manager will also auto-create folders in SuiteFiles, which “has become a backend interface for Xero Practice Manager,” he says.
The web of integrations that underpin a multi-application stack gives accountants the option of choosing their own interfaces. Fourie prefers using Outlook for ease of use, while some of his colleagues still use a classic folder system in Windows Explorer.
“Each of my accountants has their own way of working but the end result is the same,” he says.
Firms that use document management software well can save several hours a week in administrative tasks. For example, when a client requests documents, Fourie quickly creates and shares a folder rather than downloading the tax return and attaching it to an email.
SuiteFiles’ integration with Microsoft 365 means accountants and clients can also work on the same Excel spreadsheet simultaneously. Microsoft 365 saves changes online automatically and keeps an audit trail of all changes by each user. This saves hours by eliminating multiple versions of the same document lost in endless email chains.
Templates and workpapers are another benefit
Document management tools also provide libraries of templates for common workpapers or emails. Email templates can pull data from practice software such as a client’s name, phone number, postal and email addresses.
Fourie has an email template set up for leads that come through the website who haven’t responded to the initial contact attempt.
“We have a template that says, ‘Thank you for your query, we have reached out to you, let us know if you want to get in touch.’ We just have to add a name and it sends,” Fourie explains.
Part of the value of document management software is also in the quality of its content. Workpapers for tax returns for different entity types need regular updating, as do procedures and checklists for common and new procedures.
Business Fitness has one of the deepest libraries of supporting materials that it updates regularly.
“When COVID started they brought out a workpaper for that immediately” that calculated eligibility for JobKeeper and other benefits, says Zara Connell, practice manager at Eagle Accounting in Cairns, Qld. “I don’t even think we heard from our HR or tax training guys for another month or so.”
The e-signature advantage
Client portals are a common feature in document management. Nimbus Portal Solutions has long championed the portal and has led with the integration of electronic signatures. Thanks to deeper integrations, you no longer need to export the document to a separate e-signature platform when you are using most document management solutions.
SuiteFiles sends documents directly to clients for signing. Afterwards, it files the signed copy (tagged as “signed”) under the original in the client’s folder.
North Advisory now destroys any physical documents it receives or sends them back to clients. Says Fourie: “It’s a magnitude of hours saved a week on admin tasks that have nothing to do with the actual accounting work.”
“It’s a magnitude of hours saved a week on admin tasks that have nothing to do with the actual accounting work.”
How automation works in the real world
Document management tools are automating workflows that take time but add little (billable) value for accountants.
The move to cloud software has seen firms switch to a combination of applications rather than a single practice suite. Some firms are using online file manager SharePoint Online, included in their Microsoft 365 subscriptions, to store documents. Xero’s free Xero Practice Manager is also popular, despite it only focusing on job management.
Document management tools will automatically create folder templates for clients in practice management tools or online file managers and sync files in both directions. These integrations are usually connected to proposal management software such as Practice Ignition, which acts as the trigger for the workflow.
For example, businessDEPOT’s Mihalic has created a multi-app workflow that eliminates a lot of the prep work for individual tax returns (ITRs).
She sends a client a proposal for an ITR using a template stored in Practice Ignition. When the client accepts the proposal, Practice Ignition creates a job from a template in Xero Practice Manager and assigns the job tasks to an accountant. Xero Practice Manager then creates a client folder in FYI Docs, which in turn sends a template email to the client with an online form and a checklist of relevant documents.
When the client emails back the documents, FYI Docs stores them in the client folder and syncs the files with Xero Practice Manager.
Karbon and FYI Docs are the most committed on the automations front. Karbon has a clear advantage when it comes to process automations as it manages jobs as well as documents.
However, if you’re just after document management, FYI Docs is hard to beat, especially if you’re a Xero-heavy firm. Thanks to deep integrations with the Xero client accounting file, it can automatically create and email reports on a regular basis. For example, it can pull the balance sheet and P&L from Xero each month, attach them to a template email and send them to the client.
FYI Docs will also check a Notice of Assessment from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) [this is not yet available in New Zealand] against the value in Xero. If there is a discrepancy between the two numbers, it assigns it to the client’s accountant.
Keeping a tab on tax affairs
Although businessDEPOT doesn’t deal with ATO correspondence for their clients, Mihalic uses this automation to keep a tab on their tax affairs.
“Now we know [of problems with assessments] before our clients do,” she says. “A lot of firms still act like a mailhouse [for the ATO] – they want that opportunity to eyeball it and check it. But that’s a waste of everyone’s time when 90-plus per cent of them are accurate.”
Mihalic’s favourite automation has nothing to do with documents at all. FYI Docs uses artificial intelligence to detect words in emails that could have a negative sentiment. It then flags those emails for partners to investigate.
“If a client is angry or upset, it will create a task for me with a link to the email so I can see what’s going on. Nine times out of 10 it’s not a problem with us.
“I trust my team to bring things to me, but every now and then humans get in the way and you just need to know what’s going on. It’s a big comfort to me.”
For partners, the goal of automation is to be across the most serious issues before they become worse. “It’s all about us knowing what we need to know, not [knowing] everything,” Mihalic says.
“It’s all about us knowing what we need to know, not [knowing] everything.”
Moving to the cloud during lockdown
Cloud-based options for document management have emerged in the past decade to challenge the practice suites from MYOB, Reckon APS and Sage HandiSoft.
Business Fitness, which has made HowNow document management software since 2006, has also expanded into online software.
Zara Connell is a practice manager at Eagle Accounting in Cairns. “The desktop version was very similar and the transition has been almost seamless,” she says. “The look and feel and capability has been almost the same.”
The actual transition took several hours of pushing data from the desktop to the cloud. But after that, Eagle Accounting was able to get rid of its office server.
Business Fitness also provided advice on how other firms were working during last year’s pandemic-mandated lockdown.
Although Eagle Accounting had set up VPN (virtual private network) access for its server, a cloud-based solution was far easier to use.
“We had to scramble with COVID. We knew that if we had already transitioned we could have just gone home, plugged in our computers and logged in,” Connell says.
What you need to know about popular document management software
The table below outlines some of the key facts users need to know about document management software for growing businesses. The options listed here are by no means exhaustive. A product’s inclusion should not be regarded as an endorsement by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand. Information included in this guide has come from the relevant vendors.
|Product||Cost||Document management features offered||Does the software have a document template library?|
||Subscriptions are based on number of users or transactions. Plans start at A$14 per month for an annual plan.
||A suite of products known as the DocuSign Agreement Cloud streamline the end to end processes around how agreements are prepared, signed, acted on and then managed. The products include solutions in document generation, contract negotiation, contract lifecycle management, ID verification, electronic and digital signatures and agreement analytics. CLM and eSignature solutions include the ability to store and manage documents.
||Yes, templates can be created as part of the document generation, CLM or eSignature products.
||The Starter plan costs A$10 per user per month (excluding GST) and includes email and task management features. The Intermediate plan costs A$30 per user per month and provides a comprehensive set of document management and CRM tools. The Pro plan costs A$50 per user per month for access to all features, including advanced automations.
FYI Docs is an online document management and automation engine, purpose-built for accountants in practice. It is on a mission to halve the time spent on compliance and administration through the automation of repetitive, highly predictable tasks. FYI Docs allows you to:
|Yes, FYI Docs allows users to create standard emails and documents in seconds using templates that incorporate practice stationery, rich text and merge fields. Users can also apply templates that merge client data from their practice management system. They can even set auto-filing defaults as part of the template, so that emails and documents created using templates are automatically filed at the point of creation.|
||Starts at A$35 excluding GST per user per month. Minimum three users (Note: additional charges may apply for implementation, data migration and training)
||HowNow X is HowNow’s latest and most advanced document management platform, designed to help enterprise firms be more productive and efficient with its robust integrations with all major practice management systems, Microsoft Office, Adobe Sign and many other software providers. HowNow X features advanced document template creation automation, PDF editing tools and Workflow for job and task management.
||Yes, by subscribing to our Smart Suite module which includes over 500 templates including Workpapers updated monthly plus clients can add their own templates
||Starts at A$49 per user per month.
||Karbon is a collaborative work management platform for accounting firms. It brings all your planning, clients, work, and communication together, in one place. It includes some basic file management functionality that allows you to automatically store and organise documents against clients and jobs.
||Yes. 50+ templates are included with every new trial. And further templates are available for download on the website.
|MYOB Document Manager (DM)
||Starts at A$295 (excluding GST) per year.
||MYOB Document Manager (DM) enables customers to store all their client communications in one organised, searchable and secure space. Whether capturing emails and scanned documents, or filing financial statements, workpapers and tax returns generated from your Accountants Enterprise suite, Document Manager helps create, file, retrieve and approve documents and collaborate on them with your staff.
||MYOB DM provides a template facility for users to store their own templates.
||Entry level is A$35 per staff seat per month (excluding GST). Bulk seat discounts apply at 11+ seats
||Nimbus by Nimbus Portal Solutions is a full featured cloud document manager with integrated client portal, digital document signing, bulk emailing, smart webform checklists and appointments with support for both external and internal workflows. Document management features include custom metadata, views, virtual in-trays, file conversations, five navigational methods, online view and edit, PDF creation and manipulation and integration to desktop MS Office.
||Yes, fully user managed.
||Super Suite is A$45 per user per month. Semi-Suit is A$25 per user per month. Simply Suite is A$10 per user per month.
||SuiteFiles is a cloud-based document management for accountants and is fully integrated with Xero Practice Manager. It allows users to keep all of their business documents, including emails, in one place and access them remotely.
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