Can I use the client portal that came with my website? Or choose one of the old brands? The wrong secure client portal could cost you dearly in client retention, as well as security.
We compare 11 client portals and additionally discuss 7 portal alternatives (such as DropBox) for accountants and tax practitioners. The two most important features to compare secure client portals are:
Is it easy to use? Majority of accountants in our survey selected ease of use by clients as the top concern for their portal. And for good reason. If it is not easy to use, clients will not use it and just send you email instead. That puts your business at risk. To compare ease of use, we look at how easy it is to send files, receive files, and manage files.
How secure is it? While all portals claim to be secure, some only encrypt data during transfers (to protect against network snooping), while others also encrypt it when stored on their servers (to protect against data theft). Each uses different security safeguards to protect against hackers. Some also backup data at remote locations to protect your data from hurricanes, floods or other natural disasters that can make one location unavailable.
Additionally, we also report current pricing and branding options, to help you make your own comparison.
Several articles such as in the Journal of Acountancy and other websites have emphasized the need for secure client portals, also known as customer portals, document portals, client file sharing portals, or file transfer portals.
However, previous client portal reviews and comparisons such as this, this and this only compared 4 or 5 of the tax or accounting client portal software options available. We compare 11 portals and hope to evolve this article to include others over time.
The secure client portals we compare are listed below, organized into 3 categories.
|Category||Secure Client Portals|
Thomson Reuters NetClient CS, ClientWhys, BuildYourFirm
|Standalone||Citrix ShareFile, Encyro, SmartVault, OneHub, LeapFile|
File Services (e.g., DropBox, Box, Google Drive,
Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Drive, Apple iCloud), and
Encrypted Email Services
These portals come as part of a website or other software package. If you are purchasing the package as a whole, this is useful but if you are creating a free or low cost website using WordPress, Wix or other alternatives, this option is usually too expensive. Or, if you are having a custom website designed rather than using the canned website provided as part of those packaged products, again this option may not be desirable. Also, because the client portal is just one feature of a larger product, it may not as feature-rich or up to date on security technology as some of the specialized products. If you are not interested in packages, skip to standalone portals.
The top secure client portals in this category are:
CPASiteSolutions provides SecureFirmPortal, as part of their website package.
Ease of Use: Sending files is not as easy as sending an email because it requires multiple steps. You must create a user (fill a form with 5 fields) corresponding to the client to whom you wish to send files. You then upload files into a folder for that client, or move files from your own folder (you cannot copy) to the client folder. You would then separately email the client, asking them to login to the client portal account you created for them and then find the files. Most standalone portals provide for a much easier experience.
Receiving files from clients is easy and clients need not create an account. They click a 'secure send' link on your website, which opens up a form to upload files and enter their information such as name and email. The form works on mobile devices but is not designed to be mobile friendly.
In terms of file management, you can create folders and organize files into them. Folder creation and organization must be manually performed however. The portal allows downloading one file at a time, unlike some others (e.g., ShareFile, Encyro) that allow downloading multiple files at once.
Overall, SecureFirmPortal is moderately easy to use, and easier than some of the other accounting software integrated client portals that do not allow clients to send you files without creating an account.
How Secure: CPASiteSolutions boasts of 11 layers of security and they include most of the security features expected of well-designed software. Data is encrypted during transfers and when stored on their servers. Information is not provided regarding backups at remote locations to protect data from events that affect an entire data center.
Pricing starts at $58.50 per month, for 5GB of portal storage space. The price includes not just the portal but also a pre-packaged website, chosen from their set of designs, and content (blog posts, guides, newsletter) provided by them. The hope is that clients access the content on your website, as if it is your content.
Branding options include the ability to enter your firm's name on your client facing portal page. There is no branding on the form for clients to send files without login.
The NetClient package, is a comprehensive suite of applications for tax, payroll, and other accounting needs. It includes a portal as well as a mobile app. It is one of the more complex products with a rather intimidating user interface loaded with features and settings.
Ease of Use: Before you can send a file to your client, you must create a user account for the client. You can either ask the client to sign up, or create an account for them. Within the client portal, you must provide them instructions to click on specific items such as 'File Exchange' to actually find your files. This is unlike other portals where you can send an email link that directly takes the client to the new files you want to send.
Receiving a file also requires almost the same setup as sending, as clients need a portal account to send you any files.
File management is moderately easy. You can download multiple files at once but drag and drop for upload is not supported.
Overall, as far as the portal functionality to send and receive files is concerned, this product is probably among the hardest to use. Some accounting firms actually make YouTube videos, such as this one to explain totheir clients how to use the firm's client portal.
How Secure: NetClient reports security practices that include restricting access to their data centers and organizational security practices such as employee training. However, the use of encryption for data storage is not reported. Data backups at remote locations are not reported either.
While pricing is not transparent and is not provided on the website, information from prior years suggests that the NetClient CS price is around $200 per month, after a $500 setup fee. Each portal account receives half a GB in free storage and additional storage costs $5 per GB, similar to what is mentioned in this Journal of Accountancy article. The price does not include your website (additional $70 per month) or the accounting software itself, which must be purchased separately.
Branding options include adding your firm's name, contact information and a photo (logo or other image) on the client facing portal.
The CCH Axcess Portal is part of an accounting focused software suite that includes tax preparation and practice management features.
Ease of Use: Sending or receiving files requires creating a client account first. This entails filling a form with several fields, including inputs such as storage size to be allocated. Many other products do not require you to be concerned with such engineering details. You are required to also set permissions for users, such as make one or more of the client organization's users as Administrators who would then manually create accounts for others at the client organization. This makes sending and receiving experience similar to the NetClient CS product, but more difficult than other choices.
File management is similar to other portals, multiple file downloads are available, though drag and drop for upload is not supported.
A salient feature of the CCH Axcess portal is that it allows your client to create a portal account for others to share files with. For instance, you create an account for your client and your client may in turn create an account for their mortgage broker to share their tax return. This is very helpful for client retention as your portal becomes part of their entire network of providers. The process however is complex and likely requires detailed instructions, unlike some other products (e.g. Encyro) that allow direct sharing with others.
How Secure: The portal is secure and provides an SOC report to existing users. Files are encrypted during transfer and when stored on their servers. Remote backups are not reported.
Pricing is not transparent on the website, and requires dealing with sales people. Information on the web suggests that the price is $700 per year (about $58/month), which appears similar to CPASiteSolutions but does not include a website. The price also does not include the other components in the package such as tax preparation and practice management modules that must be paid for separately.
Branding options include adding your business logo and name on the portal login page.
AccountantsWorld's Cloud Cabinet is part of the accounting focused suite of products from AccountantsWorld but can also be purchased separately.
Ease of use: Like most other portals in this category, sending or receiving a file requires creating a client account first. Then you upload documents to the folder shared with that client. And then you would email the client to login and find their files. The email does not include a direct link to the files.
File management is likely easier than other portals in this category. It offers a default folder structure that you can customize.
A salient feature of this portal is a PC application, CyberDrop, that lets you create folders on your PC (using Windows File Explorer for instance) and then automatically replicates them to the cloud portal.
How Secure: CloudCabinet provides detailed information on their security and appears to be one of the more modern designs. Data is encrypted during transfers and when stored on their servers. It also among the few portal choices that back up data at multiple locations.
The price starts at $595/year (about $50/month) and includes 5GB of storage. The price is for the client portal alone and does not include other AccountantsWorld software.
Branding options include adding your business logo.
ClientWhys provides an integrated website, marketing and portal package, similar to CPASiteSolutions.
Ease of Use: Sending messages is easy, and you would login to your own portal account and send a message almost like sending an email. You do not need to create a client user account. However, the client does need to sign up before they can read your message or download the attached files.
Receiving files is similar to most other portals in this category and clients do need to first create an account. Account creation for the client must be initiated by you.
File management options include creating folders and sub-folders. Creating users in easier with ClientWhys compared to other client portals in this category and matches the ease of use of some of the portals in the stanalone category: the client account is auto-generated when you send them the first message.
A salient feature of ClientWhys is that it includes a "public" folder that lets you share commonly used files with all clients at once. You add a file to the public folder and an email notification is sent to all your clients who already signed up for your portal account.
How Secure: ClientWhys reports their security practices for controlling access to their servers, and the use of encryption (HTTPS/SSL) for data transfers. However, they do not report the use of any encryption for data storage. They also do not provide any information regarding data backups at multiple locations.
Pricing starts at $59.95/month, for up to 350 clients and leads. The price includes the portal, as well as a website, with canned marketing content for a newsletter and blog, along with related features.
Branding options include adding your legal disclosure, contact information, time-zone, and photograph.
BuildYourFirm also provides an integrated website and client portal package. They additionally sell training for marketing and other services.
Ease of Use: Sending files to clients is similar to other portals. For clients, it is easy to send you files without creating an account. They can send you a file (multiple files are not supported) using the guest upload feature on your portal page, similar to CPASiteSolutions. You may also send them a link to request a file, also without creating a client account.
How Secure: BuildYourFirm reports the use of state of the art access control methods to limit access to their data center. They use encryption (SSL) for file transfer but do not report the use of encryption for data storage. Backups at an off-set location are only created with a one week delay.
Pricing starts at $83.33/month for up to 5GB of storage, and includes a website, along with canned content for newsletters or blogs and basic marketing features.
While the website is highly customizable, branding options on the portal include your business name and logo.
To summarize the website/package integrated portals, CPASiteSolutions' SecureFirmPortal, ClientWhys' LockBox, and AccountantsWorld's CloudCabinet stand out as the easier to use options in this category. CPASiteSolutions is the lowest priced option in this category that allows clients to send you files without creating an account. AccountantsWorld is the only one that offers a PC applications to automatically upload folders from your local disk to the cloud, and is likely also the cheapest. ClientWhys offers a public folder to send common files to all clients at once.
The table below lists the key features side by side. None of the portals in this category allow a client to receive a file without signing up.
|Portal Brand||Send to client
|NetClient CS||No||No||Yes||Not Reported||Not Reported||$200.002|
|CCH Axcess||No||No||Yes||Yes||Not Reported||$58.002|
|AccountantsWorld||No||No||Yes||Yes|| Yes (unspecified
|ClientWhys||Yes||No||Yes||Not Reported||Not Reported||$59.95|
|BuildYourFirm||No||Yes||Yes||Not Reported||Yes (1 week delay)||$83.33 1|
1Price includes additional features such as a website, besides the secure client portal.
2Pricing is not transparent on provider website and is obtained from other sources.
These products offer a portal by itself. They can usually be easily integrated into your website. Files produced by your tax, payroll, or accounting software can be transferred to/from clients using these client portals but client information entry is not shared with your accounting software.
The advantage of portals in this category is that, because they specialize on the portal itself, most are better designed. They are typically easier to use than the integrated products. Using standalone components allows you to mix and match what suits your needs and switch separate providers piecemeal if the need arises, without disrupting your entire workflow. The flip side is that you need to make more choices.
In terms of price, most products in this category are cheaper than the integrated portals. Further, many of these products provide a free trial to use before paying, which is not the case for the higher priced integrated products.
Some of the top products in this category are:
Citrix ShareFile is a sophisticated file sharing option, that additionally offers integration with Microsoft Office applications and collaborative file editing.
Ease of Use: Sending files is relatively easy. You login to your ShareFile account, upload files and send them to any email address. You do not need to create a client account, and the client also does not need to create an account. They can access the files simply by clicking a link.
Receiving files is also easier than most integrated category portals as you do not need to create a client account. You simply login to your ShareFile account and create a link to request files from your client. However, each time you need to request files, a new link needs to be created and then sent to the client. This is not as easy as some of the other portals (e.g. CPASiteSolutions, Encyro), where you do not need to create a special link every time.
However, creating a portal account for your client does require work, similar to integrated category portals and is harder than other choices in the standalone category. To allow a client to have continued access to their files and not simply through email links that expire, you will manually create an account for the client. Then, you will create a folder and then edit its permissions to share the folder with that client. You would then add files to that folder and ask the client to login to their ShareFile account to find the shared folder. This is harder than some other products (e.g. ClientWhys, Encyro) that create client accounts automatically as needed. Clients can only use their account to share files with you and not any others.
File management is easy as you have full flexibility in creating folders. Similar to the AccountanstsWorld portal, ShareFile also provides a desktop application to automatically synchronize selected folders on your Windows computer with the ShareFile portal.
How Secure: The ShareFile system is secure overall. Data is encrypted during transfer and when stored. While remote backup is not directly reported, ShareFile does report that it provides protection against emergencies, which is typically achieved through remote backups. One security weakness however is that ShareFile does offer some settings that the user may mistakenly use to make shared files less secure. For instance, one can set the email links for the files to never expire. This would mean that if old emails saved on old devices are stolen, the file links would allow accessing sensitive files.
Prices start at $16/month and additional features such as electronic signatures are available in the upgraded $60/month price.
ShareFile, offers more branding options than the integrated portals category and among the best within the standalone category. You can not only set a business logo, business name, and your contact information, but also adjust the colors for your client's view.
Encyro offers a highly sophisticated and easy to use secure file sharing and client portal option. It automates most of the tasks associated with creating client portals. A free trial is available for 30 days and no credit card is needed to avail the trial.
Ease of Use: Sending files is as easy as sending an email. You login to your Encyro account, attach files or type a message, and click Send. There is no need to create client accounts or even worry about whether the client signed up or activated their account.
The client can receive the files simply by clicking a link in their email and if they want continued access to their files, they can themselves set a password to automatically create their account. There is no long form to fill out in order to create an account.
Receiving files from clients is easy as well because you do not need to create an account for the client. The client can simply access your upload page link, either from your email signature or your website, to directly send you files or messages securely. The upload form is optimized for use from desktop computers and mobile devices. Clients can use their phone camera to take a picture of a paper document or receipt to upload as well, directly from the upload page link.
Managing files is also highly automated with client folders created behind the scenes. Files received from clients, including those without Encyro accounts, are automatically stored to auto-created client folders.
A salient feature of this product is that it allows importing your email contacts (such as from Gmail, Outlook or other email systems). Even though Encyro does not require you to create client accounts, importing the email contacts makes it even easier to send messages to your clients because you need not copy-paste or type their email. Encyro automatically shows you matching contacts as you start typing a name or email address.
Also, Encyro lets your clients share secure files and messages with others. This is very helpful for client retention as your portal becomes part of their entire network of providers. This feature seems unique to Encyro within the standalone portals category. In the integrated portals category CCH Axcess also allows clients to create portal accounts for others, but the CCH process is more cumbersome.
How Secure: Encyro offers many layers of security from using security certified data centers to secure organizational processes. Data is encrypted during transfers and when stored on servers. It is also one of the most modern systems and uses data backups at multiple locations to protect your data from natural disasters and major events. Encyro maintains three copies at the primary data center, and within a 30 minute delay, copies data to a distant data center where another 3 copies are created (total 6 copies).
As an additional security benefit, Encyro seems to be the only client portal that allows you and your clients to use their Google account or Facebook account to login. This means that you can benefit from all the security settings of those logins without having to even create an additional password.
Prices for the Encyro portal start at about $10/month, with no specified limits on storage space or number of clients, making it one of the lowest priced options.
Branding support on Encyro includes your business logo, personal photo, business name, personal name, and contact information as well as custom colors. A salient feature of Encyro branding is that it can automatically customize your page colors to match the colors in your logo.
SmartVault is also a sophisticated client portal with many customizable settings. It offers an additional feature to integrate with QuickBooks, that allows you to attach files to QuickBooks entries, such as attaching a receipt to a ledger entry.
Ease of Use: Sending and receiving files is not as easy as with other standalone client portals. There are setup steps just to get started - you are manually required to create folders (called 'vaults'), potentially a separate one for each QuickBooks file. Most of the SmartVault functionality also requires you to install their desktop software.
After your own setup, much like the integrated portal options, SmartVault also requires you to first create a client account, before sending or receiving files. Once the client user has been created, you first upload files to a folder, usually that client's folder, and can send a file.
If the recipient does not have a SmartVault account, you can still send a file securely to them but they will be required to create an account before receiving the file or message. PDF files however, can be sent without the recipient creating an account but you must manually provide a password to your recipient (such as on the phone) to access such PDF files. This is cumbersome but allows sending at least PDF files to recipients who do not wish to create an account.
You can only send one file at a time, which can be limiting. Multiple PDF files are supported but no other types such as Excel, Word or scanned images.
The client receives a link that they can click to enter their SmartVault password and reach the file in their client portal account.
For clients to send or receive files, they must do two things. First they create an account, by accepting your invitation email and filling out a form with 8 input fields. Then, they can browse to the folder in their account. There, they can download files or upload files to you. They cannot send files securely to anyone else, unlike some of the other portals (e.g. CCH Axcess, Encyro) that do allow that.
File management is relatively easy, because similar to AccountantsWorld CloudCabinet and Citrix ShareFile, SmartVault also provides a desktop application to access your files on your local computer and automatically send to the portal.
How Secure: SmartVault uses many security safeguards. Data is encrypted during transfers and when stored on their servers. SmartVault uses multi-location data backup. It maintains two copies at the primary data center, and within a 24 hour delay, it ships data to a distant data center where another 2 copies are kept (total 4 copies).
Pricing for SmartVault starts at $30/month and includes the client portal as well as the installed apps.
Branding options include adding your business logo, business name, as well as setting a custom color.
OneHub is another sophisticated client portal that allows securely sharing files. It offers additional features such as watermarking documents and adding custom user agreements to the portal signup. It also provides mobile apps.
Ease of use: Sending and receiving files requires creating a client account. You would first invite a user and have them sign up. Then you can share files or folders with them. Sending or receiving files involves simply uploading files to the shared folder. One can send files to clients without an account, by sending a link to a shared folder or file, but the links do not automatically expire, making this method of sharing rather insecure.
How Secure: The OneHub system is designed with many security features including encryption and data backups. Data is encrypted during transfers and when stored on their servers. Remote backup information is not provided. It also offers permission settings to limit the access levels of various users and clients. However, the option to share files with users without an account presents a security loophole because those links do not expire automatically, unless one upgrades to the more expensive ($99.95/month) plan.
Pricing starts at $29.95/month and includes 3 users. A more expensive $99.95/month plan offers additional features such as automatically expiring shared links, document watermarks, and audit trails.
Branding options include adding your logo and setting a custom color.
LeapFile is another great file sharing portal that offers custom branding and Outlook integration.
Ease of Use: Sending files is easy if you use Microsoft Outlook for desktop, though you will be required to install the LeapFile desktop application and the Outlook plugin. You compose an email and attach files using the LeapFile plugin in Outlook. Files are sent securely to your recipient but will automatically expire. Clients can access files by clicking the link without creating a LeapFile account. However, they do need to enter their email after clicking the download link from their email notification.
If you wish to provide continued access to those files, you must manually create a user account for the client. Then you create a folder and share it with them. You may then upload files to the shared folder to send and your client may upload files for you to receive. This is more tedious than other products (e.g. Encyro) that automatically create the client account.
File management options include creating folder hierarchies. Files received from clients are not automatically organized however and show up under a list of incoming transfers, requiring you to manually organize them.
Pricing is not transparent and requires contacting their sales team. Even though the lowest plan starts at $10/month but that only outgoing files and no client portal. To both send and receive files, the cheapest plan is $20/month but even that does not include the client portal or custom branding.
Branding options include your logo and business name.
The key features related to ease of use and security for standalone secure client portals are listed in the table below.
|Portal Brand||Send to client
|ShareFile||Yes||Yes||Yes, must create
custom link for
|Encyro||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes (30 min delay)||$9.99|
|SmartVault||Yes (with restrictions)||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes (24 hour delay)||$30.00|
|OneHub||Yes (reduced security)||Yes (reduced security)||No||Yes||Yes||Not Reported||$29.95|
|LeapFile||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Not Reported||Not Reported||$20.001|
1Price does not include a client portal but only the feature to send and receive files.
There are options other than client portals to exchange files and messages securely. These are usually low cost and provide security, but fall short on the client retention aspect.
Most alternatives may be classified as file storage services or encrypted email services.
Some of the better known file storage services include DropBox, Box, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Drive, and Apple iCloud.
Most offer a free plan but the free plans typically do not include security features. While they do allow sharing files or folders with others, the shared folders are not secured. For instance, to send or receive files with a free DropBox account, you would create a folder and share it with a client. The client will then be able to upload to or download from that folder. However, the link used to access the shared folder is not secure because it is not password protected and does not expire. For this reason we consider only the paid plans from these products that do include security features.
The business oriented versions of Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Drive and Apple iCloud are designed more for internal file sharing, for your own files or within an organization. While they can be used to share files with clients, that is not something supported easily and out of the box. While all of these are great products in and of themselves, trying to use them as client portals does not yield a good experience either for you or for your clients.
DropBox and Box come closest to offering features that can allow them to be used as client portals.
DropBox for Business does allow sending files with secure links that automatically expire. They also allow sharing files with free DropBox users. However, since they do not provide a client portal, you do not have a specific portal link to share with your clients and no easy way to add branding. The business users plan is more expensive than some of the standalone portals and hence choosing this option is less appealing if you need a client portal.
Box.com also lets you send files using links in emails (and the links expire). You can receive files from others by creating an upload widget to request a file. This widget can then be placed on your webpage. However, to give continued file access to your clients with security features, you need to manually create a folder for each client, and then share the respective folders with the clients. Each client will need to create a Box account. However, the price with custom branding and security controls comes to $15/month and is higher than standalone portals.
Encrypted email services can also be used to send documents securely. However, for the client to send documents or secure messages to you, they will need to create their own encrypted email service account, which is typically very difficult for clients. Also, it does not give you the benefit of client retention. If you do decide to use encrypted email, there are many options available and we compare the ones relevant to business use in a separate post.
To continute making your choices, please feel free to refer back to the summary comparisons of integrated portals and standlone portals. You may also signup for a free trial for Encyro (no credit card needed).
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