Working with Remote QuickBooks Clients, Remotely

Doug Sleeter's Profile

QuickBooks for Windows is a desktop product, but nowadays we find that there is a great deal of interest in being able to work with QuickBooks from a remote location. This could be an employee wanting to work with data while on the road, a manager checking info from home, or an accounting professional managing a client’s data. Today let’s talk about how an accounting professional can work with client data without making an on-site visit.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t visited a client’s site to actually work with their data for several years now. By being able to work with my clients remotely I’ve saved hours of traveling time (not to mention time spent waiting for access to a computer, or chatting with the business owner about local politics or the weather). In addition, by being able to work with remote clients, I now can serve clients all across the nation, even internationally rather than just in my own town.

There are many ways to accomplish this, and each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen some very animated discussions about which approach is best – everyone has an opinion. The argument over which is the best tool for working with a remote client reminds me of the old argument as to which kind of computer is best – are you a Mac or are you a PC? To me, that isn’t the point. These are just tools that accomplish particular tasks. Rather than  promote a particular method, I like to look at this issue in a different way – I work with all of the tools, and I use the one that best fits my customer’s needs.

Why am I writing about this? Isn’t this all information that has been around for years? Well, as I meet with and talk to groups of accounting professionals I’m always surprised to find that many people just aren’t aware of the options that we have.

Let’s take a look at some of the tools that are available.

File Transfer

This is the basic method of exchanging data with a remote client, which too many people still use. Trade files with them.

The client works with the file, then they make a backup copy and transfer it to you. You restore that copy on your system, do your work, and then send it back to them. Simple!

Some problems with this:

  • The client can’t update or add info in the file while you have it (without workarounds).
  • If the client DOES update the file while you have it, when you hand your copy back to them they lose all the work that they did.
  • You have to ensure that this syncopated dance is done properly – you have to remember who has the “real” copy.
  • Potentially poor security, depending on how you handle the transfer.

You have different mechanisms to make this work.

  • Sneakernet: That is, just copying the file to some sort of media and physically moving it from one site to another.
  • File sharing: You can use email (a very bad idea) or some service like DropBox (poor security, not the best choice).
  • Secure portals: You can use a secure file sharing system like SmartVault , or a portal system like Sharefile. I’ve used both, with great results. See my review of SmartVault, and Doug Sleeter’s  article that talks about both.
  • Synchronization tools: I have not reviewed this, as it is still being beta tested, but if you want to using the file sharing approach then something like IntegriSync might be worth looking at. Intuit was looking at setting up this kind of service a few years ago, but that never made it to the real world. These are check-in, check-out systems that should help you avoid the problem of two people updating the file asynchronously.

This isn’t the way that I would normally recommend working with a client, but sometimes you have to resort to this. A very low-tech solution with many potential problems.

Record Transfer

This is a more complicated approach in some cases. Rather than trading a file back and forth, how about just exchanging the information that has been changed? There are several ways that this can be done:

  • QuickBooks Accountant’s Copy: This is built in to QuickBooks. If you are using QuickBooks Accountant, you can have your client create an “accountant’s copy” of their file. They send that to you (using one of the “file transfer” methods I spoke about above), you import it to your computer. You make changes, then send back your “accountant’s changes” to the client. The advantage here is that your client can continue to work with their copy while you are making your updates. The disadvantages are that there are restrictions, both to the date range you can work with (only data before a cutoff date) and to the kind of data that you can update. Also, there have been some problems in the past with the accountant’s copy becoming corrupted, so you couldn’t exchange data. You will also find that if the client upgrades their QuickBooks installation while you have the data, you can’t give them back the work you’ve done. Some people like this system, some avoid it whenever possible.
  • QuickBooks Send General Journal Entries: This is a different feature from the Accountant’s Copy, and it again is built into QuickBooks Accountant. If you have a copy of the client file, you can make General Journal Entries and “send” them back to the client. No limit on what the client can do with their data – you are just posting over the GJE’s. The limit, of course, is that you can only do GJE’s, not other types of transactions. See my article on Send General Journal Entries.
  • Transaction Utilities: There are third party tools that you can use to move data from one QuickBooks company file to another. The Data Transfer Utility by Karl Irvin is generally acknowledged as the best utility available for moving data between two QuickBooks company files. The Transaction Pro Importer and Transaction Pro Exporter by Baystate Consulting are the premier tools for importing data into and exporting data out of QuickBooks.  While these are excellent tools that every accounting professional should have, they aren’t what I would use for working with a client file on a regular basis. There is a learning curve, and they are really aimed at slightly different kinds of situations than the regular transfer of updates between an accounting professional and a client.

Transferring records has advantages over transferring the entire file, but these are the methods I am the least likely to use for working with a remote client. Lots of extra work to manage these approaches.

Remote Login

Now we get into the kinds of tools that I have used more often over the past few years. A “remote login” tool is a program that lets you reach out to your client’s computer via the Internet, so that you can work directly with their file. You get away from the hassles of exchanging data between two locations (either whole files or just records). There is one copy of the database, all work is done there. Simple!

Well, of course, it isn’t always that simple. In general, to use these kinds of programs you need to “take over” the client’s computer – therefore the clients can’t be using that computer themselves at the same time. This might not always be convenient for them. It may not be convenient for YOU, because you may have to do this kind of work in the off hours.

It also requires that your client have a greater degree of trust in you, since you will generally have complete access to their complete computer system. You can see anything that is available on their computer. Laura Madeira told a funny story at the Sleeter Accounting Solutions Conference a few years ago, about what she saw on a client’s desktop when she logged in late at night. Sometimes you see things that you really wish you hadn’t…

There is a long list of products that can be used to do this, and it seems that I’m hearing about more every day. Everyone has their favorite, every product has it’s good and bad points. I do recommend that you try a few different products before you settle down to one. I’ve used quite a few, and the details of how each worked varied quite a bit. Find one that fits your business situation.

Some are free, but the free versions tend to be either slower or to have limitations (like not being able to print on your own printer). Some require you to purchase a license for every user, some provide you with a bulk license. Some have an annual fee, some a one time fee, some are free. It can be confusing.

One important feature to consider is “unattended login”. Normally when you have to access a client’s computer they have to be there to initiate some action, or at the very least to click on something to give you permission to access the system. With “unattended login” you can log in to that computer any time that it is on and connected to the Internet. This can be an important factor.

I’ve used several products over the past few years, including LogMeIn, GoToAssist, and TeamViewer. Each had good points. I’m using TeamViewer almost exclusively now. You purchase the product rather than paying an annual fee, and you get a lot of useful features. I can do remote “attended” logins, I can set up a repeat client with “unattended” logins (for no per-user fee), and I can also have “net meetings” where I can provide training to a number of different users at the same time. You also can put your own branding on the product and have a login link in your website. It fits the kinds of work that I do very nicely, for a very reasonable fee.

Hosted QuickBooks

When we talk about “Hosted QuickBooks” we are talking about having your copy of QuickBooks installed on a remote computer system that you access via the Internet. I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the future.

Your client set this up with their own, if they wish. They can establish a Windows Server environment in their office and install RDP (or “Terminal Services”), so that a user can log in to a virtual workstation from any computer that has Internet connectivity. I’m not going to go into detail on that, as it is an expensive and very technically complicated thing to do. The client is responsible for the hardware, the Windows software, the system policies, the user policies, and the specific settings that QuickBooks requires. In general, you will see this limited to QuickBooks Enterprise installations. There are some very knowledgeable ProAdvisors who can set up and manage this kind of system for a client.

In my mind, a better solution is to let an expert company do all the maintenance and setup for you, so that all you have to do is to log in to your computer (from any Internet enabled location) and use the system. All the costs of the hardware and operating system software, all the headaches of Windows security updates, are the responsibility of someone else.

Of course, there are fairly high user fees for this, but it is often easy to justify the cost if you are looking at all of the issues involved. Don’t look at just the monthly fee you pay, look at what the cost is of setting up and maintaining your own  hardware.

If your client is using a Hosted QuickBooks system then you will be able to log in and use their system easily. You have the advantages of the “remote login” system, as there is just one copy of the database and you don’t have to worry about syncing, but you won’t have the disadvantages. You aren’t tying up a client’s computer, and you don’t have to worry about them letting you in or leaving the computer on. It is always available.

Due to licensing considerations there are a limited number of authorized Hosting services. For the most up-to-date list, see the Intuit Hosting Program website. At this time, the list includes:

  • Cloud9 RealTime
  • Right Networks
  • InsynQ
  • Uni-Data
  • Xcentric
  • Coaxis International
  • myownasp
  • NovelAspect
  • Swizznet
  • Qutera
  • Real Time Data Services
  • nGenx
  • Harborcloud
  • Proxios
  • WY Technology
  • Infinitely Virtual
  • Skysphere

Another variable involved here are there are essentially two flavors of “hosted” systems. You can have a “shared virtual server”, where you are sharing the resources with other users. Your data is completely safe and separate from the other users, but since you are sharing resources your performance may be affected by those users. See this article by Joanie Mann for some considerations.

You can also have a “private virtual server”  (or “dedicated virtual server”), where you are not sharing resources with the other users. This is more expensive, but you will find that you have a greater degree of flexibility as well as (usually) better performance. The Sleeter Group has moved to this kind of system, see Doug Sleeter’s article about how this is working out.

As an example, here are some screen shots from an account I have with Cloud9 Real Time.

Typically with a shared system you will have some sort of front-end package that shows you the applications that you have subscribed to through the service. This can be QuickBooks of various flavors, Microsoft Office applications, add-on products and so forth. You can access this front end from a web browser on any computer.

Cloud9 Real Time Dashboard

If you click on one of the icons in this dashboard, a window opens that logs you in to the server and presents the application, just as if you were running this on your own desktop. The company file that you are using, however, is on that remote server. You are accessing this in multi user mode, and can do everything that you can normally do with a local file.

QuickBooks 2011 on Cloud9 Real Time Shared Server

If you have to work with the desktop version of QuickBooks, with a client file that you don’t have locally, this is an excellent way to collaborate with your client. You can access the data from any browser. Your client can, also, so if they have multiple offices or need to access data while “on the road”, they can do so easily as long as they have an Internet connection.

Integrated Applications

Maybe you don’t need to access ALL of the data, or use the actual QuickBooks client program? There are some ways to get to a client’s desktop data even if you can’t get to the client’s desktop itself.

There are many QuickBooks Compatible programs that can access desktop data remotely, through data that is synchronized with the “Cloud”. Some of these products do their own “syncing”, some use a synchronization process set up by Intuit.

Two examples of Cloud based products that do their own syncing are Method and Bill.com.

  • Method CRM is based on the Method programming tool that you (and other developers) can use to access your desktop data. It keeps a copy of your QuickBooks data in their cloud based server, and the applications will interact with that data. This is an excellent application that provides you with access to a wide range of QuickBooks desktop data.
  • Bill.com doesn’t copy all of your QuickBooks data to the cloud – it exchanges key elements of your data that are related to the specific functions that the product provides. This is an excellent application for managing a client’s receivables (see this article).

Intuit also has the “Sync Manager” tool which synchronizes your desktop database with the Intuit Cloud servers. This method isn’t as fully developed yet, although it is advancing rapidly. Two examples of management tools that you can use to work with your client database are ZenCash and Mavenlink.

Online Accounting Systems

I can’t pass up a mention of this – if you are going to work with remote clients, consider bypassing the hassle of getting to their desktop data or the expense of hosting it in the Cloud – why not just go with a Cloud based accounting system to start with?

Two good examples of this are QuickBooks Online and Xero – we will have articles about other products in the near future. I mention these two specifically because they have excellent tools set up to help the accounting professional to collaborate with a client.

Of course, these products are different than the desktop version of QuickBooks. You have to understand what they can and cannot do, and evaluate what the client needs, before you can recommend any of these. They are excellent choices in some situations, and poor choices in others.

A Real-Life Scenario

OK, let’s look at a real-life scenario. This may sound REALLY contrived, but this is an actual case that I was involved with.

There was a client that was brought to me by an accountant who didn’t understand the details of how QuickBooks works with inventory. They wanted me to help the client with some problems in how their items were set up and why their COGS were messed up (and they wanted some custom software, but that is another story). This is a company that imports cut flowers from overseas.

The inventory problems were easy to see – they had set up all of the flowers in the item list as inventory part items. They were cutting PO’s to the growers, but they didn’t have time to do any item receipts. Bingo – negative inventory (and a lot of other problems). And they shouldn’t have been using inventory part items because these flowers only spent a few hours in their possession, non-inventory parts would have made more sense.

The interesting part to me was that they were set up to use a QuickBooks hosting company. They were using Cloud9 Real Time and had QuickBooks running on a shared virtual server. I hadn’t worked with this kind of installation before this time.

What makes this interesting was the way that they were using this system:

  • Charlie in Costa Rica, NOT thinking about QuickBooks at the momentThe accountant managing their books was based in Florida.
  • I was brought in as a consulting, I’m based in California.
  • The business manager, overseeing the operation and managing shipments, was working out of Canada.
  • The data entry clerks were in Colombia, South America.
  • During this engagement, for a period of time, I was logging in while I was on a trip to Costa Rica.

The only way that this could be accomplished (using QuickBooks Desktop, which was a firm requirement) was to use a Hosted QuickBooks system.

Did it work? Initially there were problems. Using a shared virtual server in this case wasn’t the best option, because they are placing a very large load on the shared resources. In addition, we were testing out some new custom software on the system, which placed an additional load on the system.  In the long run, all of the problems were resolved when the client moved to a dedicated virtual server (also provided by Cloud9 Real Time).

Choose Your Best Option

Working with a remote client is going to be more and more common. Cloud based accounting products, and other applications, are gaining in popularity and are adding new features all the time, but we still have many clients that need to use the desktop version of QuickBooks. You can still work with these clients remotely as I’ve shown above. I believe that it is important to understand ALL of the methods that we have available to us, so that you can pick the right option for the client.