5 Productivity Tools to Streamline Your Bookkeeping Workflow

business_automatioin_productivityProductivity. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to having a highly profitable bookkeeping business. In a service like ours which is very labor intensive (even with online technology), time really is money. Being as efficient as possible has a very real effect on your bottom line! We can build efficiency when we approach our business as though we are building a machine, using a very specific process.

I’ve found that income can be increased and ultimately maximized, especially when starting out as a solo freelancer, when we follow three critical steps:

1. Documentation
2. Automation
3. Delegation

They should be carried out in that order.

The first step, documentation, means you write down the steps you follow to operate your business. This is especially valuable for everything related to working with your clients. A big picture view of your workflow is a key place to start your documentation. By having this information written down (most of us try to keep it all in our heads), it makes it easier for you to provide consistent, quality service for your clients, and expand your business in a deliberate, organized way. It also puts you in a great position to hire and train help, when you’re ready for the third step in the business machine building process.

The automation step is where you get technology to do as much of the “work” as possible. One method of automation most of us are familiar with these days is downloading transactions automatically using bank feeds instead of manually doing the data entry. Whether you work with clients locally or on a remote basis, automation is the most cost-effective way to lighten your load and increase your income simultaneously. It’s also how we start transitioning from a bookkeeping clerk to a bookkeeping information manager.

Finally, depending on how big you want your business (and income) to grow, the delegation step means hiring help. That is, taking on employees or subcontractors, either locally or virtually (or both). In my experience, this works best only AFTER you’ve got the first two steps mastered, since hiring help can be both expensive and time consuming. Done wrong, it can quickly eat up your time and profits — the absolute opposite result we’re after when hiring help.

Now for some tools you can use…

5 Online Tools

To help with those first two machine-building steps, here are 5 online tools that can be very valuable in systematizing your workflow, as well as documenting your processes for reliable and profitable productivity.

SmartVault – This is one of my favorite workflow tools, especially for working with clients on a virtual basis. It’s really not so much the secure, cloud-based document management, since that is available in other systems. But for us as freelance bookkeepers, it is the additional unique tools included, especially the Inbox feature that makes it easy for clients to provide source documents (even if they are new to paperless technology). The inbox makes is very easy to stay on top of what has and has not been done. It’s a bonus that it also integrates with most of the popular bookkeeping software (QuickBooks, QuickBooks Online, Xero, FreshBooks and more)

The cost is very reasonable and they provide great customer support. It’s a key tool in my own business toolbox and my clients love it too. Even if you’re just starting out, this one pays for itself as soon as you use it to work with your first client! You’ll want to sign up for the plan specifically designed for bookkeepers (that’s what I use).

QuickBooks Online Accountant – If you work virtually with your clients who use QuickBooks Online (the web-based version of QuickBooks, QBO for short), Intuit has just recently made some significant updates to this handy free tool for bookkeepers and accountants. It really makes working with your clients more efficient and fluid. QBOA, as it is called for short, is really an organizing tool that integrates seamlessly with QBO. It helps you keep your clients’ books organized and in tip-top condition. Intuit has now added workflow and client communication features that are quite slick. If you’re part of the ProAdvisor Program (either the full paid version that includes QuickBooks desktop software or the free Cloud version), you also get a free QuickBooks Online Plus account. Sweet deal.

QuickBooks Online has come a long way over the past few months. And the newest upgrades to QBOA makes this my new favorite way to work with my QBO clients.

Workflow Max – I haven’t personally tried this program (yet), but it looks promising. It is designed for service-based firms and integrates with Xero bookkeeping software (same software company). They also have a Practice Management version specifically for accounting professionals. Those who specialize in supporting clients using Xero will want to take a look at this. Either way, the cost seems quite reasonable. If you’re already part of the Xero Partner Program, at the Silver level you get this practice management functionality for free.

I’ll report further on this as I learn more, but mention it for those who plan to specialize in Xero software, as fellow TFB Premium freelance bookkeeper Derrick Storey is doing quite successfully.

Trello – This simple, free tool is great for laying out your procedures and working your schedule. It works well whether you’re a solo bookkeeper or want to build a virtual team. It uses an easy “cards” system that allow you to collaborate and document the work that needs to be done with deadlines, reminders and notifications, create checklists, and even attach files, pictures and links so you have everything you need in one place. It’s best suited for project work (linear workflow), but can be adapted for regular monthly bookkeeping cycles, if you set up a “board” for each client. Simplicity is the strength of Trello. Try it for documenting the processes you are keeping in your head for making quick progress if you are focusing on the documentation step.

Trello is definitely one of my go-to tools, especially for client project work.

Streak – If you use Gmail for your main inbox and either Chrome or Safari as your preferred browser, then you might never need to leave your inbox to manage your client work! This handy Gmail extension is still being developed, but the more I use it, the more dependent I’ve become on it. Streak is very flexible and comes with easy instructions for using its various features. It was originally created as a customer relationship / project management tool, but it can be adapted for keeping track of your client workflow as well. I use it to work with clients who are not using QuickBooks Online. One of the most valuable features is tying client emails to a specific “box.” You can also set reminders, keep notes, as well as a running commentary of what has been done and what is yet to be done. You can also attach files for easy reference, all within Gmail. I like this tool a lot and use it in my daily workflow so I don’t have to “remember” where I left off or what needs to be done next for monthly client work.

At the time of this writing, the features available with the free level (not a trial) are adequate, but I have noticed that since I started using it, some of the previously free features have been migrated to the paid level. This tool is still developing, but worth looking into if you depend on email for client communication and use one of the supported browsers.

Bonus Tool for Solo Bookkeepers – Action Enforcer – This program is great for personal productivity, but also has features that support creation of an efficient workflow. I often use this tool (the desktop software version) for the top priority work I need to do when I have many demands coming at me all at once. It helps me save my sanity! Using a method called “time boxing,” it helps you balance your To Do List with the time you have available to get billable (or other tasks) done in a day. The countdown timer is invaluable and a real eye-opener to see your TRUE productivity.

Online version (free)

Desktop version (paid)

The Most Profitable Productivity Tool

There is one tool that will make you more profitable than ANY of the above.

In a word: ACTION!

As bookkeepers we like to take in a ton of time to analyze a multitude of details, but that will only get you to the starting line. The best way to actually turn your bookkeeping business into a productive and profitable machine is to choose just ONE action… and execute it. Then repeat.

By the way, if you want a step-by-step action plan and guidance on making your bookkeeping business more productive quickly, consider joining us for, “How to Organize Client Work for Maximum Productivity” now available on the TFB Premium training program.

So what one action will YOU take right now to increase your workflow productivity?

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Freelance Bookkeeper Spotlight on Derrick Storey

tfb-star-spotlight
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an interview with a fellow freelance bookkeeper for the TFB Spotlight – long overdue, in fact!

These interviews are where you’ll hear from grassroots freelance bookkeepers who are in the trenches building their businesses from the ground up. This interview is about 50 minutes in length, so it’s a great way to use your lunch hour to kick back and see what tips you can pick up from the experience of others running the same kind of business.

In this spotlight interview, get to know fellow freelance bookkeeper Derrick Storey, a veteran freelance virtual bookkeeper from New Zealand who has taken bold steps to transform his local bookkeeping service and proven that you can truly thrive no matter where your business is located when you work on a virtual basis!

Freelance Bookkeeper Derrick "DP" Storey

Connect with Derrick on LinkedIn

Visit Derrick's website



Download the audio MP3 for anytime listening: RIGHT CLICK HERE

Have a listen and let us know what you found most helpful about Derrick’s story in the comments below.

Resources Derrick Mentioned on the Call:

  • The Insider’s Guide to Your Own Virtual Bookkeeping Business – Online training and resources that show you how to start and quickly grow a freelance virtual bookkeeping business, with your first few clients in as little as 30 days
  • The Freelance Bookkeeper Premium Membership – Low-cost monthly training and community of freelance bookkeepers who want to take action and get results, one month at a time.
  • Xero – web-based bookkeeping software for “beautiful bookkeeping” services
  • Action Enforcer – desktop productivity software that is versatile and easy to use for maximizing your personal daily workflow

 

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Straight Talk About Bookkeeping Fees

bookkeeping fees dilemmaWhich is the “BEST” way to structure your bookkeeping fees…

  • Hourly Rate?
  • Flat Rate?
  • Standard Packages?
  • “Value-Based Billing”?

Most choose hourly.

The simple reason why most of us choose an hourly rate is because it’s just easier. We feel like we’re getting paid for the work we do, and clients follow our lead. Of course, this is often also how employees are paid, and that mindset has its own traps for both you and your clients.

Most of us have heard that we *should* offer packages or learn how to stop “trading hours for dollars” in order to be more profitable. But HOW to do that successfully has been vague and/or complicated. The lines between packaged services, flat-rate billing and so-called “Value-Based Billing” are rather blurred.

How can you know which method will work best for YOUR freelance bookkeeping business?

Here’s a quick rundown of the various ways bookkeepers have come up with setting their fees, and a quick-reference chart for matching those method and the services that work best with them, if you’re looking to try an alternative to hourly billing…

Packaged Fees

This is where you put together a specific set of services (a package) that clients choose from for a menu-type offering. Most often I’ve seen it done with three main choices (such as Bronze, Silver and Gold), each with their own base price. Some allow add-on customization. Pricing levels may also be based on number of transactions and bank / credit card accounts. This method gives the perception of buying bookkeeping services in the same way that physical products or online software services are sold. The client chooses the “size” that fits best for what they think they need, and puts in their order.

The way to come up with these packaged rates is often by categorizing typical services and volume levels based on experience or specialty. This type of fee structure is usually applied to regular month-to-month bookkeeping services.

While it’s a very popular fee model, not all freelance bookkeepers agree that packages work well for our types of services. (See QuickBooks Online advocate Stacy Kildal’s take on this issue)

Flat Rate Fees

Using flat rate fees is often a more flexible option for setting your rates with clients, and therefore, can be applied to most services a freelance bookkeeper might offer. It’s basically where you provide a flat dollar quote (or estimated range) for services, either on a monthly, quarterly, annual or project basis. There should also be a written engagement letter that spells out the specific expectations and terms involved. Most often these rates are set based on a calculation of estimated hours with some wiggle room for unforeseen elements or a percentage of scope creep or other anticipated costs.

I personally find this to be the most effective method to use for fixed price fees because it is easily customizable to the client’s specific situation. Clients who initially must be offered an hourly fee (such as shoebox clients or those needing data file cleanup with no initial access to records) can later easily (and confidently) be transitioned to this type of fee model once more information and/or experience with that client has been established.

“Value-Based Billing” Fees

This pricing method is newer than the previous two in the bookkeeping services sphere, and in concept, is popular. However, in practical usage, the jury is still out as to whether it is practical for freelance bookkeepers. The idea is to price services based on the value that results for the client’s business, not based on hours or effort expended by the bookkeeper. This pricing method has been used within the legal profession and high-end business consultants. I’m not so sure it translates well for bookkeepers.

Clients value the services we provide in varying degrees and this may be a method for upgrading the quality of the clients you serve, assuming you are specializing in a high-end industry or possibly mid-market clients. But the method for coming up with a fee is rather subjective and can be quite time-consuming, since the client needs to buy into the idea of fees being based on promised results (which can be tricky for a bookkeeper). This type of structure may be suitable for clean-up projects done for a specific purpose (such as a tax audit), goal-based consulting or possibly training services, but I honestly don’t see it working well for regular month-to-month bookkeeping.

Flat Fee Pricing Models to Services Matrix

Typical services and the type of pricing models as an alternative to hourly billing:

Packaged Services

Flat-Rate Fee

“Value-Based Billing”

Monthly Bookkeeping

Monthly Bookkeeping

Bookkeeping Cleanup / Catch-up

AP / AR Services

AP / AR Services

Virtual CFO

Payroll Services

Payroll Services

Periodic Check-Up Services

Tax Prep Services

Tax Prep Services

Business Consulting

Software Training

Software Training (Custom)

 
 

Bookkeeping Cleanup / Catch-up

 
 

Periodic Check-Up Services

 
 

Business Consulting

 

So which types of pricing models have you been using? Do you charge only by the hour for your services? Or are you using some type of a flat-fee pricing model? I personally use both the packaged and the flat-fee structures, and occasionally, still hourly fees as well.

There is no “right” method, since it’s your business and you get to decide how you want to charge for your services. But if you’d like to explore a deeper dive into packaging your services and setting your rates, you may want to join us this month in TFB Premium, since the next lesson is all about How to Package Your Virtual Bookkeeping Services

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4 Big Virtual Bookkeeping Roadblocks… and How to Get Past Them

virtual_bookkeeping_roadblocksWithout a doubt, the hottest thing in the freelance bookkeeping world is taking your services online and working on a virtual basis with your clients. Nearly all of us recognize immediately the advantages to working from your home office instead of traveling to meet or service your clients’ bookkeeping needs on-site.

Just a few of the delicious advantages are…

* Geographical boundaries are expanded. You can work with clients no matter where they are located, as long as they have a high-speed Internet connection, which the vast majority of clients now have.

* More efficient and profitable. You can work more efficiently and rack up more billable hours because you’re not wasting time traveling and can batch your work for streamlined workflow from one client to the next.

* More flexible schedule. You are not confined to “normal working hours” to get your client work done. That means you can be more available to your family, as well as work during the time of day when you are at your best.

But these advantages and freedoms also creates some new challenges that can be easily overlooked until you’re already in the thick of it. Working through the Internet can be tricky. Let’s explore the top 4 virtual bookkeeping challenges we face so you can get past them in your  own business and set yourself up for true online success.

#1 – Clients

Without clients you don’t have a business. Yet there will definitely be clients you wish you didn’t have. The good news is, you don’t have to work with clients you don’t like! Talk to your boss (you!) about the problem and get permission to work only with the clients you WANT to work with. If you find that you’ve gained a client or two that isn’t a good fit, decide on a cut-off date for the relationship to end. Do what you said you’d do for each of them, and then refer them to to a fellow bookkeeper who would be happy to have the as a new client(s).

In fact, this is the very reason that I recommend using a “win-win or no deal” clause in your engagement letters for ALL clients. (You ARE using engagement letters with all your clients, right?) It works as your insurance policy from ever getting stuck with a client that is, or over time becomes, a PITA client.

Other steps that protect you from getting stuck with undesirable clients in the first place include…

* Defining an “Ideal Client” profile and keeping that handy whenever a new prospective client calls
* Defining one or two specialty services (so you’re not doing work you don’t want to do)
* Create internal systems to support good client relationships

#2 – Cash flow

As a service provider you only make money when you perform the bookkeeping work you’ve been hired to do, whether month-to-month work or projects. This can make cash flow a real challenge. If your cash flow starts to dry up, you can get yourself into trouble fast.

Here are a couple strategies that can help…

  • Treat yourself as one of your clients and set up a business budget that allows for business savings. This will give you a cushion to work with if / when you hit a slow patch. You’ll also want to allow some funds to support consistent marketing so you can keep your pipeline of new client prospects full.
  • Make it easy for clients to pay you quickly and regularly. If you aren’t already accepting e-check and credit card payments online, set up a PayPal account for your business and switch monthly clients to a flat fee. That way you can use the “subscription” function for automatic payments. This is a win-win situation for both you and your clients.

#3 – Proactive Communication

When I hear from virtual bookkeepers who complain constantly about their clients, I listen for what they see the problems are. Often it boils down to the bookkeeper waiting for the client to lead the relationship, especially when it comes to getting the information needed to complete the monthly payroll or bookkeeping. What doesn’t seem to occur to them is that WE are the ones who should be taking the initiative to foster frequent and productive communication with our clients!

Here are a few simple ways to immediately shift from reactive bookkeeping clerk to proactive bookkeeping professional…

  • Pay attention to each client’s preferred mode of communication and use that primarily (you should also note it on your internal client files as well for future reference when you delegate the client work to your staff)
  • Set a specific schedule for regularly communicating with each client to assure that work gets done on time without unnecessary log jams due to lack of communication. That is part of what the clients is paying you for – to help keep them on track!
  • Pick up the phone when necessary to handle urgent matters quickly and professionally. Remember your clients are busy people and have many other demands pulling at them too.

#4 – Time Management

When you run your business from home, you get to set your own working hours. But if you’re not good at managing your time, you could end up working around the clock. In addition to client work, you have a business to run! That means administrative tasks like invoicing, paying your own bills and email are added to your daily to do list. Add to that family responsibilities and you have a schedule bursting at the seams!

Here are a couple tips for staying focused and productive…

  • First thing in the morning (before reading email) identify the most important 3-4 tasks you’ll focus on for the day (no matter what) – then get the first task done immediately!
  • Before approaching a task, estimate how long it will take you to get it done, and then use a countdown timer to help you stay focused. (This can even be fun!)

Personally I use a cool tool called “Action Enforcer” to do both of these at the same time.

There’s no question about it! The benefits of working virtually far outweigh the challenges. By taking just a few simple actions, you can almost completely remove these success roadblocks and build your own highly profitable virtual bookkeeping business.

By the way, if the idea of setting up a virtual freelance bookkeeping business is something you’d like to take a deeper dive into, then you’ll want to join hundreds of other freelance bookkeepers who have taken their business online and check out my full-blown training course.

The Insider’s Guide to Your Own Virtual Bookkeeping Business

If you’re already working virtually, but feel like you need to crack the code to success, you find The Freelance Bookkeeper Success Formula a short-cut to getting what you want from your business.

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Virtual Bookkeeping: Is Data Entry a Thing of the Past?

bookkeeper_data_entryMore and more freelance bookkeepers are using online tools and automation to provide virtual bookkeeping services. The fast advances in technology is having a big impact on how we get the bookkeeping done for our clients. In fact, the goal of some virtual bookkeeping practices is zero data entry.

Is that really possible, and what impact does that have on your business?

Since I’ve run my own business 100% virtually since 2003, I get lots of questions about making the switch to online tools to get the books done more efficiently. In fact recently, one of my students asked if there is a way to scan client’s receipts directly into QuickBooks.

While I don’t know of a tool (yet) that is quite that streamlined, at least not “out of the box,” here’s what you’ll find available to save on data entry time (some of these may be built into software you’re already using!)

There are three basic categories of tools: Scanning solutions, bank download solutions, and what I call bridging solutions. Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

Scanning Solutions

Running with this idea of scanning receipts, there are tools that can scan your receipts and using OCR (optical character recognition) technology, they extract the needed information and summarize it for your review and manipulation. Some of them do integrate directly with QuickBooks.

A couple examples of these are ScanWriter and Shoeboxed.

ScanWriter is a very powerful tool and works with all kinds of paper-based data that you want converted to transactions and imported into QuickBooks. The downsides to this solution for solo freelancers is the cost, the set up and the learning curve. If you have a client who has a large volume of transactions on a month-to-month basis (or a big catch-up bookkeeping project), this is a great solution and worth the investment of time and expense. But if you serve small clients and documents are not used consistently, this probably won’t fit your needs (or budget).

Shoeboxed has come a long way since its humble beginnings and is worth taking a look at if you have clients who are still paper-based for the majority of their transactions and are resistant to participating in the conversion to digital information. Shoeboxed even makes the scanning easy because they will do it for you! Simply send them your paper source documents and they will scan them (in a secure environment), use OCR technology to extract the information and now they will even send it to QuickBooks. Again, I recommend this service if you have regular month-to-month clients, since it is a subscription based service. The cost can easily be built into your fees.

Bank Download Solutions

QuickBooks, (and I would guess other) desktop software, makes it possible for you to pull your client’s bank transactions into the bookkeeping records to eliminate the initial data entry. Most online bookkeeping software programs do the same (many of them much more elegantly than the desktop programs, in my opinion). A few examples of online bookkeeping that works well with bank downloads are QuickBooks Online, Xero, Wave and FreshBooks.

With more and more clients doing the vast majority of their transactions without paper, this is a great way to get the initial transactions recorded. You may, of course, still need additional documentation. This is especially so when clients use bank debit cards, since the banks often provide precious little information about these type of expenses / withdrawals.

If you are not using bank downloads yet, this would be your best first step toward reducing much of your month-to-month bookkeeping data entry.

Bridging Solutions

Some transactions are not as easily linked to the bookkeeping records. Especially when you are dealing with desktop software. An immediate example that comes to mind is PayPal. Many businesses use it, but it’s not always an easy thing to get the many transactions (especially if your clients use it for online purchases and/or sales) into the desktop software. PayPal themselves provide a “simple” method to pull the data into QuickBooks, though honestly, I would NOT recommend it. It over-simplifies the income and expense reporting and would need a good deal of massaging for meaningful use of that information.

A tool that is invaluable as a bridge into QuickBooks is the Transaction Pro Importer. While there is a bit of a learning curve and set up, this tool (available for both for QuickBooks desktop and Online versions) will help you to pull in electronic data in exactly the manner you want it to appear in your QuickBooks file. This is a QuickBooks-exclusive tool and will not work for other software programs.

If you are using other software for which you’d like to find a more automated way to pull in transactions without data entry, you may need to do some searching to find tools that will serve as the gateway to your bookkeeping program and the transaction data source. With so many apps available, though, it’s worth the search!

What Technology Cannot Do (not yet anyway)

With data entry going away, does that mean that the need for bookkeepers will also disappear?

The answer is a resounding NO! While technology is removing the need for mindlessly typing in data, even with it getting “smarter” at an astounding rate, human oversight and management is still needed! There will continue to be adjustments and corrections needed. As humans, we also are the only ones who can put meaning into the financial information and understand the actions that need to be taken because of what the numbers are telling us.

That, of course, requires us to step up our game as bookkeepers and use the time we save with automation to provide higher level services to our clients. And we are in the perfect position to do so! In fact, I predict that the most successful freelance bookkeepers will be those who provide management and consulting add-on services to their clients.

That’s the direction I’m headed in with my own business, and it’s also the topic of this month’s training lesson in The Freelance Bookkeeper Premium trainings: Client Budgeting, Forecasts & Value-Added Services

What about you? Have you found ways to eliminate data entry in your business (or at least streamline it)? What have you found most helpful with the modern technology in your freelance bookkeeping practice?

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