Are Portals a Thing of the Past?

The year was 1999. I saw my first digital document storage system and thought, “Wow! This is what I’ve been waiting for – documents at my fingertips!” It wasn’t long after that when the concept of a portal was the logical extension of the digital document in my office displayed to my client(s). That was 18 years ago, and firms all across the profession have adopted said technologies. (Yes, some ever so slowly, but widespread adoption, just the same.)

As we approach 2018, I think it’s worth asking the question: Are portals a thing of the past? Before we dive into my rationale, let’s define some of the core components of today’s portals:

  1. Document sharing/storage for our clients. (Think 1040s, client organizers, financial statements, payroll reports, paycheck stubs and more.)
  2. Secure file exchange: a place to upload and download files we share and access files shared with us.

I know there can be, and indeed are, other ways portals function in the tax and accounting profession, but as a general rule, these are the core functionalities most firms use.

If your firm is like ours, 30 percent of your clients are business customers that may login to your portal on a somewhat regular basis to obtain their digital documents. This means 70 percent (1040 clients, mostly) rarely login – maybe once a year – and when they do, they’ve forgotten their password and/or they find the portal somewhat complicated to navigate (i.e., organized for the firm’s convenience, rather than theirs).

Digital access to information has seen mass adoption over the past 18 years – for storing and accessing music, photos, documents and more. I have a portal for my banking, investments, doctor, dentist, Amazon and even my veterinarian. You probably have an extensive array yourself, and you likely share my pain – we’re in password and username hell! Do your clients really want to have one more portal from their accounting firm to add to that misery?

Here’s my point: Much has changed in the past 18 years. The iPhone is celebrating its 10th anniversary, document management solutions such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and OneDrive have all become mainstream solutions, and digital document signing is now native to iOS 11. The technology landscape has changed dramatically, yet we’re still putting documents in a portal and asking clients to login to access and share information.

As technologies evolve, so do our experiences with those technologies, which shift our expectations. Here are key shifts I’ve identified:

  1. Clients expect zero friction when making purchases and conducting business transactions.
  2. Clients want information in their pockets, on their smartphones.
  3. Clients want to receive and organize all their information on their terms – no more having digital information fragmented in various silos.

With that said, does your portal solution meet these shifting expectations? Does the way you interact with clients feel modern and secure? Ask yourself where friction exists in your client service and experience. Do you make it easy for clients to store and share information with you, and is the important information you share with them available in their pockets?

Consider this: Assume for a moment that your clients are using one of the consumer cloud storage products mentioned above. (I pick Google Drive for this example because it’s the product I use to store all my digital documents.) Or, better yet, as a modern firm, are you teaching your clients how they should be using one of these solutions to organize their digital lives? Your goal should be to get documents to your clients with the least amount of friction in the most highly secure manner, so they can seamlessly add those documents to their permanent storage solution of choice.

In my example, the accounting firm would securely send me a document (our firm uses Liscio.me to accomplish this). When I receive said document, I’m able to, with one click, add it to my Google Drive in the folder of my choosing. As with each of the consumer document management solutions, the user has access to their files across all their devices. Zero friction, in their pockets – all their information stored where they want it.

This is a significant shift in strategy for most firms, but one I believe should be seriously considered. Rethinking your portal strategy should not be taken lightly; a client-facing shift like this should be well conceived and strategically executed. But, continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done, when expectations are changing, is arguably an ever greater risk to your firm.

Here are three things to consider as you evaluate your future portal strategy:

  1. Is your firm’s portal strategy one of permanent document storage or secure document sharing for your clients? There was a time when I wanted my portal to serve as the client access point for all the documents our firm has for them. However, with the proliferation of portals and the creation of the consumer document management solutions, my thinking has changed.
  2. Frictionless experience has become one of the key drivers for adoption. According to an article on Slice.com, Amazon is obsessed with reducing friction in all aspects of their customer experience. Amazon has continued to simply remove friction so much so from the buying process that last year they garnered 53 percent of all new e-commerce generated in the United States, leaving 47 percent for all other e-commerce vendors, combined. Is there friction in your client experience? If so, work to remove it.
  3. Become an educator to your clients. They have no one to turn to for help in digitally organizing their financial lives according to a set of best practices. I’ve thoroughly structured my digital life around Google Drive; everything I have is at my fingertips, and I love it. I’m using my own personal model to educate our clients, teaching them how to organize their digital lives based on my model. This is where real value gets created –become an educator at heart and teach your clients the direction you know they should go.

Are portals a thing of the past? It’s worth a discussion, and I hope these thoughts have given you inspiration to think critically about the solution your firm offers.