The changing face of communication
The way we work has changed. Over the last few years, and no doubt even the last few months, we’ve seen advances in technology that have revolutionised the way we communicate. When was the last time you mailed a letter? Or received one? (Excluding those from regulatory bodies!)
Our clients are less reliant on the printed word too; the use of cloud-based accounting software, bank feeds, online document management, and social media means that they are getting used to working in the digital age – and they expect us to be there too!
They, just like us, are also fairly time poor. Who has time to zip up the data file, put it on a flash drive, drive it over to the accountant and then wait to see if they can actually restore it? There’s a fantastic example of an inefficient, outdated process.
For the last two years, Efficiency of Process has been the second biggest challenge for Australian accounting firms according to the Good Bad Ugly. Many firms are looking for better solutions to speed up and also secure the way they communicate with clients, particularly when dealing with large amounts of data. However, the physical transfer of files isn’t the only challenge being faced.
The problem of security
Security is more of a concern than ever, and when communication includes tax file numbers, you can’t rely on email to meet the necessary security standards.
Email is actually less secure than using the good old snail mail (Australia Post, now too expensive and slow to be a viable option), and while sending the Friday funnies to a client instead of your neighbour in the next cubicle or attaching the wrong file doesn’t always set off alarm bells, when you’re dealing with sensitive financial data on behalf of your clients, security breaches are no laughing matter.
Some privacy laws require that organizations encrypt their clients’ personally identifiable information that is sent online electronically, so sharing such information through email does not comply.
Almost daily we hear of companies having their email servers hacked, stolen from or compromised. If we can’t trust email and don’t want to wait on the mailman, what do we do?
Enter the Secure Client Portal
A secure client portal is an electronic gateway to a collection of digital files, services, and information, accessible over the internet through a web browser.
Essentially, it is a sharing mechanism between a firm and its clients, however, unlike email, it provides the appropriate level of security. The firm provides a secure entry point, typically via a website, that allows its clients to log into an area where they can view, download, and upload private information.
Other advantages of client portals, as distinguished from email, include increased file size limitations and self-service access to a private repository.
Client portals can also be used in conjunction with workflow automation and document management systems to maximize work environment efficiency, incorporating digital signatures to provide true file collaboration.
But is it fit for purpose?
In sports training, there are principles that are applied in order to make decisions about which kind of training is performed. One of these is the principle of specificity.
This principle states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.
In other words, the client portal needs to be the right solution for your firm to gain the desired benefits of more efficient process.
No matter which product you are considering, and putting aside the necessary security functions for a moment, a client portal is a communication channel, so the product must fit with the guidelines of what works for your clients in terms of communication.
In other words – don’t just get a client portal because you want one!
What works for client communication?
There’s no point implementing a solution that your client won’t use. In order to succeed, there are a number of areas that need to be considered. You should ask the questions ‘Does this style of communication…’
1. Enhance the client relationship? Your relationship with the client is paramount. The system being considered must meet the needs of the end user (i.e. your client) and provide relevant and ‘wanted’ information and functionality. There’s no point having a system that your staff love and your clients hate!
2. Integrate with my other systems? A lot of the data that you want to communicate to your client is already in existence somewhere else. If you have to make copies of this data to upload or deliver it, the efficiency can be lost. A client portal that integrates with both your practice management and document management systems ensures there is no double handling or double entering.
3. Allow access for the whole team? Both your clients and your team will benefit from the ability to access all client communication from a secure, central location – and don’t forget third parties like banks, solicitors and mortgage brokers.
4. Provide the required level of security? Most data and information held by an account is sensitive. Any breach would have a severe impact and the losses may not be limited to your reputation.
5. Give the client control over their data? Clients like the ability to be able to self-serve when they need information, and if your solution provides this option, they will appreciate being able to access data in ‘work’ or ‘home’ hours.
Once you’re certain that implementing a client portal will meet the needs of your obligations to security and privacy and will fit with your communication style and client base, you can move on to considering functionality.
No matter which brand or product you consider, the basic questions remain the same:
1. Does it have a user-friendly interface that can be customised with your own branding? Brand awareness takes a lot of time and effort to achieve – don’t waste your hard work!
2. Will it integrate with your other contact databases? Or do you have to create another one?
3. Does the provider have templates and collateral for promoting the use of the portal to clients? You will need to educate your clients in order to encourage them to use the technology you’ve put in place.
4. Is the product backed with professional support from an established provider? With the prevalence of fleeting one-man-band software start-ups in the industry, there is beginning to be an emergence of a preference for longevity in providers.
5. Are there additional costs for large files and excess data usage?
6. Does the portal operate from within your current software tools? Or does your team need to learn another system to be able to use it?
7. Is there security around who can send files to whom? It is important that files aren’t sent in error or to the wrong client!
8. Are digital signatures incorporated? This is the ultimate in collaboration – send, sign and return, all without printing a single piece of paper.
9. Does the client need multiple logons for multiple entities?
10. How is the data backed up?
11. Are you comfortable with where the data is located?
Expanding the possibilities
A client portal should be looked at as more than just a file transfer system. The possibilities for collaboration in the digital age extend not only to clients, but to related parties – think banks, financial planners, insurance brokers, solicitors.
Once all these parties can come together on the web to look at the data relevant to them, regarding their mutual clients, we will truly have achieved data collaboration.
You spend less time on client and document management tasks and more time nurturing your client base and relationships.
In this way, your firm can be seen as a truly client-centric organisation, at the forefront of communication.
Obviously, we’re a little biased. If this article made you keen to find out more about portals, click here to see our brand new HowNow Portal.