Adrian pearson is A VETERAN UK CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT AND the founder of ledgerscope - A SOFTWARE COMPANY MAking great tools for accountants in practice.

Online document management portals - not a good idea

Readers of this blog will realise that I am a technology junkie. In particular, I am constantly looking for new software and services that I can apply in a business context. But there can be a danger in such enthusiasm: if I am not careful, I can end up looking for a use case for some cool new software, rather than the other way around.

Online document management was a good example of this.

The idea that our practice could have a secure online storage facility where we could publish documents for subsequent download by clients seemed a no-brainer. Clients could also use the service to upload files for our attention - especially big ones that are not suitable for email, such as Sage and QuickBooks accounts backups.

We implemented the online document portal in 2007 and proudly introduced it to our clients. Fast forward to 2012 and it is no longer used.

In the practical, real world that our clients operate in a document portal proved to be a hassle, something that got in the way rather than smoothed the process.

We (I) didn't think "client first". If we had done we would have realised that: 

  • Our clients didn't really want to learn how to use some additional software just to get the same things done.
  • They were frustrated at receiving an email telling them a document was now available on the portal when they thought the document could simply have been attached to that email.
  • Because clients only used the portal rarely (perhaps once a year at accounts time) they could never remember their username and password.
  • For time-sensitive documents, clients would email us as well as using the portal - to be sure we did not miss the document.

For our own part, staff became frustrated that the portal was another data silo, not integrated with our other practice management and production software. We found that documents were often duplicated in the online portal and our CRM software because this was seen as better than storing a link to the document in the portal then having to login to retrieve it.

We also had to spend time with clients every year helping them to reset their passwords and reminding them how to navigate the online portal again.

Online document portals intuitively seem a good idea for professional firms. It just seems like the modern way to do things. But in practice we found that good old email still works best.

For transferring large files, or situations where online document management is very suited (such as "data rooms" for due diligence purposes), there are plenty of secure file sharing solutions available - such as Dropbox and Box.net. These are often free to use and have the likely benefit that clients and other users might already be familiar with them.

There is no benefit in a firm having their own, branded online portal in my experience. It's just cool technology looking for a use case.

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