Digital workflow tracking: A better way to work

How many times each day are you interrupted by someone wanting to know the status of a project? Imagine that you could always provide an immediate answer. Or better yet, imagine they wouldn’t even need to ask. If projects were automatically routed through your firm, every professional would know exactly what to work on next. How much would digital workflow tracking improve the client experience?

Today, accounting firms can use technology to be more productive, provide better client service and improve the bottom line. Implementing a digital workflow tracking solution can streamline project management, making firms more efficient. It can also help create better visibility into client projects and firm activities.

All companies are trying to do more with increasingly tight resources. Competition for talent remains increasingly strong. That means you have to figure out ways to get more out of staff without burning them out. The accounting profession faces constant talent retention and succession planning concerns, rapidly increasing regulatory pressure and significant technology change. Firm mergers, acquisitions and splits are occurring at an incredibly fast pace.

What really differentiates firms today is how they respond to these pressures. Firms must look for new and different ways to solve these problems. It’s our luck that the rapid technology change is providing innovative solutions. And if you choose to see rapid change as opportunity, you’ll find some innovative solutions that help improve your firm.

Firm operations impact client service

You may assume that clients do not really care how you manage your firm. While this might be true, clients do care a lot about results. Refining critical firm management workflows allows firms to be more efficient. In turn, this can help you improve client service and satisfaction.

Most firms are hindered by many inefficient internal processes that reduce productivity. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, accountants are GREAT at providing advice to clients about how to run a successful business. But that sometimes comes at the expense of managing their own businesses. Redundant processes require staff to perform unnecessary steps. Client data often floats among several data sources that aren’t connected or accessible to all team members. Inconsistent processes among partners create confusion within the firm and frustration among the staff.

Essentially, these inefficiencies make it difficult to share information, know the status of projects and hold team members accountable. Without a centralized project management system, a firm’s workflow may be only a series of disorganized stops and starts. Look inside your own business. Take your own advice and improve processes and leverage these important technologies.

What is Digital Workflow?

Workflow refers to the processes people, teams and/or systems follow to complete work. A workflow might be the completion of a tax return, audit or other engagement. While a workflow can be a manual procedure, digital workflow tracking technology available today can empower you to electronically document and automate your firm’s workflows and achieve greater efficiencies.

Technologies like scan/autoflow, digital signatures and integrated client portals can significantly streamline the work involved in the tax process. But a digital workflow also requires the ability to track a project from beginning to end and create consistent, repeatable processes across the firm. It’s important to note: A digital workflow is not just a computerized version of a traditional process! It’s important to consider the unique advantages that new technology provides. That way, the firm can fully take advantage of all the possibilities for efficiency. That might  include changing workflows based on information that was not available in a paper environment.

For instance, in a digital world, you no longer need a paper log in the admin area. You can electronically replicate that without any additional data entry simply by changing the status of the project. You don’t need to build an electronic log in Microsoft® Excel® or Access®, or create custom fields in the program. Often the system inherently tracks it for you, without an additional effort on your part.

The Benefits of Digital Workflow Tracking: Improved Collaboration throughout Your Firm

The traditional paper route sheet is a holdover from the past. As the work of accounting firms has turned digital, a paper route sheet no longer makes sense. It’s inconvenient and even risky. Automated routing of work eliminates the need to physically move work around the office. It also ensures that assignments can’t get lost. An electronic route sheet is always attached to the right project and always accessible to multiple people at any time.

A digital route sheet can also act as a link to important information that you’d otherwise have to search for by digging through client files. Client information and detailed project notes help staff when they aren’t familiar with all of the details of the client they are working on. This enables better client service and reduces time spent searching for information.

A digital workflow tracking system also makes it possible for staff to work on projects from anywhere. This is so much harder to accomplish in a less digitized workflow world. Even Excel® spreadsheets of assignments will not afford this kind of flexibility. This type of mobility makes it easier for firms to deal with seasonal variations in workload by shifting work based on where staff is available. It enables remote work opportunities that keep staff happy as well.

Lastly, collaboration is greatly improved when staff is able to easily find what projects they should be working on next. A digital workflow tracking system can send notifications to specific staff when a project is ready to work on. If your firm works with a pool of unassigned work that staff members pull from, your digital workflow system should make it easy for staff to see which projects are available in prioritized order.

Consistency in Process

A digital workflow tracking system can bridge many different areas of your firm. People generally think of workflow in terms of streamlining the tax prep process, because that type of work is often more price sensitive with lower margins, driving the ultimate need to gain ever more efficiency. However, a digital workflow system should be flexible enough to handle different types of projects, including audit and consulting engagements.

A robust digital workflow system should be highly integrated to other key pieces of technology in your firm so you can leverage shared client data, ease workload imbalances, and create consistent administrative processes. For tax-focused firms, this certainly means integration with the tax software, but in other cases, integration with workpaper, document management, trial balance and time and billing software is also important.

Whether you have recently hired new staff, brought on new staff through M&A activity, or just have a staff who have gradually adopted their own ways of doing things, variations in workflows and manual effort can cause friction within the firm and confusion for clients. A digital workflow system can provide project templates that firms can customize for the variety of work in the firm, and worksteps they can define based on the level of granularity your firm wants to track. Project templates developed with an in-depth understanding of specific needs for certain kinds of projects will result in more consistent workflows and more efficient, happy staff members. As a result, clients receive a consistently high level of service for every engagement.

Real‑Time Reporting Improves Client Service

For managers and partners, digital workflow systems provide line of sight into the work going through the firm. From balancing workloads and spotting bottlenecks at certain key points in the workflow to monitoring due dates, firm leadership can keep a close eye on what is happening in the business. By monitoring how long it takes for projects to move through the firm, managers can proactively identify bottlenecks and solve problems before they affect clients.

When the digital workflow system is integrated with the time & billing system, firm leaders have the added benefit of comparing budget to actual information for even more accurate analysis of firm efficiency without the need of duplicate data entry in each system. This helps the firm locate training and growth opportunities for staff if they spot consistent overages or bottlenecks in key areas of the workflow.

A digital workflow system designed specifically for accounting firms will include due dates for a wide array of federal and state forms. It should also include alerts and notifications that can update firm management, staff and administrators when projects are reaching statutory deadlines, project deadlines and budget thresholds.

In terms of total firm health, many firms are eager to find out information about the work within the firm. This might include how many returns your staff is working on and how they are performing compared to last year. Workflow tools offer transparency into status of work. They allow firms to focus on the work, rather than on managing the work. They no longer struggle to extract answers from systems (primarily spreadsheets) that aren’t timely or accurate.

Digital workflow tracking boosts productivity and client satisfaction

As competitive pressures increase in the accounting industry, it’s becoming more important to not only serve your clients capably, but also efficiently. Digital workflow tracking systems can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the workflow process through automation, transparency, and integration. To be successful in today’s competitive environment, vying for the best talent and most profitable clients, you need to take a fresh look at how tracking workflows digitally can boost both profitability and client satisfaction beyond what is possible with manual workflow tracking.

To learn more about how great workflow improves client service, download our whitepaper: “Connecting the Dots: Technology, Processes, Staff Retention and Client Satisfaction.

AUTHOR

Samantha Grovenstein-Deal

All stories by: Samantha Grovenstein-Deal