Productivity. 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:
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.
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?