GUIDE-BLOG: A non-geeky guide to choosing tax practice software. By Nichola Ross Martin
Is it a natural reflex, or a sad fact of evolution? The moment someone starts talking “IT”, my eyes glaze over and I’m overwhelmed by the urge to hibernate. I’m not unappreciative of the wonders of information technology, it's just more a case of preferring driving to analysing the running gear.
Using many different types of software in practice over the years I have to admit that recently I’ve been trying to get on with HMRC’s tax software - all in the spirit of journalistic research, you see. Like many of you out there who do the same, it is not merely a matter of altruism, it is on the basis that it is “there” and it is free, and it should, after all, work.
I am a dab hand at using HMRC’s PAYE software (it is strangely satisfying entering payroll details when racked with insomnia). This year, I also managed to get the hang of the Companies House online filing system for small abbreviated accounts, but all things considered, I am running out of meaningful things to do at 5am after the events of this January. It was not a good month for me and HMRC’s SA software. I got thoroughly unstuck, and it got, well, thoroughly stuck. Not because it had changed or had become more tricky or anything you could actually understand or write about, but just due to the high user demand at certain times that made it uncompromisingly, unbearably slow, and to can it all, prone to freezing up. I fared even worse with CTSA online – two hours not to finish three basic returns.
Now, time is always an extremely valuable commodity as you get older, and not more so than to an accountant when filing deadlines are looming. I probably wasted several days of it in faffing around with HMRC’s online services this year. As a direct result I have made up my mind that I am giving up – and not just for Lent. No, I have resolved to go and buy third party software so that in 2007/08 I will be able to file returns as I like it – as and when it suits me, with little ado about anything, because there will be nothing to delay me, or annoy me or anything else like that, at all, ever.
Pondering where to start
I can see from postings on Any Answers and the Memberblog that I’m not the only one out there who’s struggling. There seem to be a huge number of products in the market place and judging by comments, the reviews, the shoot-outs and the surveys, most tax software seems well up to the task in hand. All in all there are a lot of “main players” and they all have a good fan base. The £99 to £1,500 p.a question is which one is going to be right for me and why.
It seems that it is actually not too difficult to narrow it down (initially), as there is a fairly major choice to make early on: do you go for some kind of integrated practice software (think: linking modes that all interlink around a central database) or one that will integrate if you want to do that in the future (think, no dream of: “intelligent” modules) or, whether you are happy to run lots of different software and so settle for the mere necessities like SA and CTSA tax software within a tightly controlled budget. Maybe, in this bracket, you can push out the boat (beyond the first buoy) and go for something that is a little bit more expensive but still a “stand-alone”.
I like to call these by the generic name of WYSIWYG meaning that “you get a tax return on screen and then you fill it in”. Literally: “what you see is what you get”, and more certainly a cheaper package than anything with any “module things.”
DO NOTE HERE: WYSIWYG does not normally mean what I say it does here, but as I say this is “non-geek”, so this is life, as we must appreciate it in this article, at least and please geeks, do not pick me up on this minor faux pas.
So, to re-cap, and possibly, really irritate some people too, my gut reaction is that you will save yourself a massive amount of time (and that also means money) if you understand that the choice of software that you ultimately make is not down to anything other than your own mindset. Simply put, do you:
- “Dream Big”?
- Have plans to “Grow Your Practice”?
- Have a healthy urge for an “Easier and Simpler Life”?
If you answer “Yes” to any of these, just move on and start looking at integrated practice software. I have no doubt that it will change, new companies will enter the market and every year something “ground breaking” will appear, but it is a bit like alternative energy sources, you could be hanging around and waiting for years…and years….so invest now and get on the ladder, and above all, move on.
The alternative choice is just as good, this is all “horses for courses”, after all.
Why spend lots of money integrating software when you don’t need to? If you can manage with spreadsheets, email, and the odd database, you may be able to create all you need. What You See Is What You Get solves many matters, but if you have an eye on things financial, ease of use, size of practice and desire to keep on going in the way that you like to keep on going it may be better to just say “Hang it, I want to run my practice comfortably with some basic, no frills, functional software”. WYSIWYG is pretty stuff, and I am not discounting it by any means.
In the following weeks, I look at the options. I have a good idea what I want, I am going to look at end reports, extra functions, tips along the way, and work out the cost. Here's what I cover: