Gearing Up
11 min read

How to Simplify Client Intake with Cognito Forms with Safietou Russell

By Leigh Doyle

Once Safietou Russell's accounting firm SDR Consulting Inc. started growing, she noticed a pattern with her clients: "You would get basic information from a client [when starting a service for them], and then you would have to keep going back and forth for more information or missing documents," she says.

It was a real time waster. To get that time back, Safie turned to automation via intake forms.

In our video interview series Gearing Up, we ask practicing accountants and bookkeepers about the real day-to-day challenges they face and the actual ways they solve them.

Safie joined us to share how her firm manages client intake — and eliminates a ton of administrative work — with Cognito Forms.

The episode explores:

  • How to create a standardized and consistent client intake process.

  • How to break up one big intake form into smaller ones for a better client experience.

  • How Safie makes sure client information is up-to-date each tax season.

  • How to connect intake forms with document storage to avoid data entry.

Want to learn more about from SDR Consulting Inc? Safie has these resources free:

Remember, Gearing Up is published every two weeks, subscribe to get the next episode.

Gearing Up is dedicated to amplifying the creative and smart ways accountants and bookkeepers overcome the day-to-day challenges of running a successful firm.

If you’re ready to share your knowledge on an upcoming episode of Gearing Up, get in touch, submit your challenge + solution using the form.

Not sure if your firm is a good fit? Don't worry — we want to hear from everyone. The solo practitioners, the firms with 30+ staff, the bookkeepers, the CPAs, those who just got started, those who have sold their firms, and everyone in between!

How do successful firms solve day-to-day challenges?

Find out in Gearing Up — our bi-weekly video series. Blake Oliver talks to practicing accountants and bookkeeper what tools and strategies they use to thrive.


Gearing Up episode 1 transcript:

Blake Oliver: Hello, I'm Blake Oliver. And this is Gearing Up, our series where we talk to real accountants and bookkeepers about real challenges they're facing in their practices. In each episode, we'll talk about one challenge of running a firm and how to solve it. Today we have Safi Russell of SDR Consulting Inc on the show. Thanks so much for joining me, Safie.

Safietou Russell: You're welcome, thanks so much for having me Blake. It's definitely a privilege to be here.

Oliver: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your firm?

Russell: Sure, sure, so Safi is my nickname. Safietou is my full name and I'm the founder and CEO of SDR Consulting Inc. I've been in the industry about 19 years, and I'm a CPA and an Enrolled Agent, and also have my Masters in taxation. And here at SDR Consulting, we mostly work with small business owners helping them from business formation all the way through the tax preparation and all that fun stuff in between.

Oliver: Where are you located?

Russell: I'm located in New York.

Oliver: Gotcha.

Russell: Yeah.

Oliver: So what kind of tech stack do you use in your firm?

Russell: Well, you know, the list is extensive but I'll name some of the top ones for sure. In terms of intake forms and my process I use Cognito Forms. It's pretty much allowed me to custom build forms and ask information upfront and collect documents securely to streamline the process. As a virtual firm, I found that very important. Also QuickBooks Online in terms of bookkeeping, we pretty much use that almost exclusively. And for banking, Relay Financial is something new that we have dived into and exploring how it works well with QuickBooks Online, and being in a virtual environment with banking. And then lastly having an all in one portal. I've been able to kind of cut my tech stack down a little bit because I have a portal that I was able to pretty much custom build and handle a lot of my workflow.

Oliver: So what are you using for that portal? You said it's custom.

Russell: Yes it's a white label product, and custom built by me for now. And so yes, enjoying that one a lot.

Oliver: You're not just a CPA, you're also a developer.

Russell: I have a little techy in me. I wouldn't say developer, but definitely with some learning curves, and I had help from other colleagues in the field. But it was important for me because it was custom. So a lot of the ready made portals out there they just didn't do everything I needed, or they were really like tax specific only. Whereas, we offer so many services for business owners that I needed something more well rounded.

Oliver: Well, as I mentioned at the beginning of this show it's about one challenge that you have faced in your firm. And I know that's probably a challenge to even narrow it down to just one, but I'd love to hear about a challenge that you had recently.

Russell: Sure, so over time, once I started developing a practice I noticed that, let's say taxes for example, you get basic information from a client and then you to keep going back and forth for more information or missing documents, so you didn't send this, so you did send this. So that's why I developed the intake forms through Cognito. So now every service we have is attached to an intake. So whether it be tax prep, bookkeeping, payroll set up, general business consulting setting up your entity all the questions that I found myself asking I put 'em in a form.

And so Cognito Forms is what I use for that. You know, it has encryption and security behind it, which is really important. And it allows me to ask all the questions on the front end, get all the documents. And then this way, there may be some back and forth, of course, but it minimizes the time spent on that, which is not efficient at all.

And so for me, that was the biggest challenge I had that I used that main tech stack to solve, and I continue to build on it. I must be up to like 30 forms by now. So that was really important. And even year to year information changes. So even if I have clients that I prepare taxes for last year, they fill out a new organizer every year. And the questions are a little less because there's a question saying, did we prepare your return last year? Okay so I don't need your full address again unless it changed, and I don't need your dependence information unless it changed. However things change. And so they fill our questionnaire out every year.

Oliver: So what were you doing before you put in Cognito?

Russell: Yeah, so I would have different organizers like through my website or AICPA, and they would be more in a PDF format. I've tried that. I've also tried, I don't really have many non virtual clients but I had one or two. So I had like a paper organizer. And then there was organizers that came with the tax programs. So I've used that in the past. So it was kinda a little bit of everything but nothing really solved the issue.

Oliver: Got it, so you would send out a PDF or you'd collect this information via email and then, I mean, anyone who's done this knows that getting that all back into your systems is really challenging.

Russell: Yeah a lot of data entry, and then I had to get away from email which thankfully I wasn't really using as much. I was using different things like Dropbox.

Oliver: With the portal?

Russell: Yes the portal I didn't have yet but I was using Dropbox previously which I still use internally, but not everyone had Dropbox and then they couldn't get access. And so then I had another program for file transmission only. That was simple, which I still have. But even though we're a virtual firm, because we're a virtual firm, there's some technology involved. So there's certain clients who just may have challenges with that. So I did this to really simplify it. So yes, the portal definitely made it easier to streamline and not have this program for that, and this program for that.

Oliver: So for those who aren't familiar with online forms or anything like that, can you describe for me what it's like for me as a client, when you need to reengage me or onboard me, or whatever example you'd like to use? Like how would it work for me? Let's say I'm a new SDR Consulting client.

Russell: Perfect, so all of my clients generally start out with my free intro call. So we have a 15 minute call just to talk a little bit about your issues, what's your concern, and what kind of services you may need. And from that, I will invite you to the client portal and let you know which intake forms would apply. So if let's say tax season is coming up, and you need your taxes done, then I'm gonna direct you to the organizer for taxes, one for personal, one for business if you're in business. And you're going to upload your prior returns, and all your current year documents and answer all the question. From that I then...

Oliver: And I can do that in Cognito. I can upload files in.

Russell: Yes, yes.

Oliver: Okay got it.

Russell: Yeah so like, okay, I have W2s, I have three W2s upload them right here, like really straightforward.

Oliver: Where does that go? Do the files go into your portal or do they go somewhere? Like do you have to organize them later? How does it work?

Russell: Yeah, some integration would be great but right now it's dated on, I have it set up with a Zapier, a Zap, I guess you can call it where it the documents go from Cognito into Dropbox. And so Dropbox is my internal file storage. And from there they're organized into one file my tax square paper file. Prior to that, I send a quote. So once I get the intake form, then a quote is sent out through the portal. If it's accepted an invoice generates, payment is made up front, then we set up the project and we start communicating.

Oliver: And you send them whatever forms they need to provide for that project, whatever it is. Like you said, I think you, you said you had 30 form. Can you give us some examples again of like what would be a unique form that you've made?

Russell: So generally, for example, with due diligence for claiming child tax credit and things of that nature. So I have an intake form for that. So once I see that they qualify for that with a tuition credit, then they get that link to fill that form and upload the documents for the due diligence.

Oliver: Well, that's great because I could see how the forms for say just general tax preparation could get enormous. And then that's not a good customer experience because then they're having to go through and answer 200 questions. You've broken it up. So if they qualify or you think they qualify for this deduction, then you send that form.

Russell: Correct and if they have like a foreign bank account there's a basic question on an organizer but if they answer, yes. Okay now here's the intake form for that? How much was it? You know, what country, et cetera.

Oliver: So what if they have a question when they're filling out the form, how do you deal with that?

Russell: In most cases, when they're filling out the form they are in my portal. So they can send a message right through the portal, or set up a call with me.

Oliver: Okay so the forms are embedded into the portal.

Russell: Yes.

Oliver: How do you achieve that? Is that something that was like built into Cognito or the portal or?

Russell: Yeah, interestingly enough, I'm in the process of reformatting some of that. So yes, it can be embedded in my portal, but currently because my tax organizer, for example, has so many questions, it's a little longer than the page. So right now I just have it where the link is in the tab. So I have tabs for different takes, and then the link for Cognito is there, and it just opens in a separate window.

Oliver: Got it and if they have a question, they just go back to the portal, they chat with you

Russell: Get the message.

Oliver: …in the portal.

Russell: Exactly.

Oliver: And it's all secure.

Russell: And you can save it along the way so they can answer as much as they can, save the link for where they left off, and then send me the message.

Oliver: Wow, that is really great. I mean, you've basically solved the problem of using email for all of these client questions and onboarding, and I'm sure you're saving yourself a ton of time to having to ask the same questions over and over again.

Russell: Absolutely, every time I think of a new question or I ask any question, I'm like, hmm, put a little note, is that in my form, my current forms, and then if not, do I need a new form? And I don't inundate clients. I mean, honestly someone needs multiple types of services, they're probably only filling out one or two forms a year. But all those different forms are just different services that have come about over time.

Oliver: So I know this may be difficult to quantify, but what's the impact for you if you had to look back and think how I did it before versus how I'm doing it now how much time is it you saved? Is it more than just peace of mind or the security? Like what's been the big change for you?

Russell:Wow, definitely I know it saved me time. The biggest impact I would say is just it helps me with my organization. In this industry, the deadlines are so compressed, and you're working overtime and you're not getting a lot of sleep it helped me have everything in place where I could revert back to it. So for example, client ABC, what are we doing for them again? Oh, I can just go back to the intake form. I go back to my intro call notes. I go back to the quote, and puts me right right back at where we need to be.

Oliver: Wow, well, Safi, I learned a lot today. I learned about a new app that I didn't know about. And I think your process is just fantastic. I hope our listeners and anyone watching this video can take something away from that. I'm sure they will.

Russell: Thank you.

Oliver: Well, do you have anything you'd like to share with our viewers or where can people contact you? What are you up to?

Russell: Sure yeah, absolutely. So being that we work with a lot of small business owners, if it's something new for them in terms of the tax and accounting space they just don't know where to start. So I'm working on creating more courses. But one of the free ones that we have right now is called common business deductions. Many business owners don't know what they can deduct, and how to deduct it. So that's a free course available right now. And you can click the link for more details on that. Also we have monthly newsletter that goes out which may have some helpful tax and accounting tips in there. And you can sign up for the newsletter by going to our website, And lastly, we always have 15 minute intro calls available for potential new clients just to see if it's a good fit, and get some basic information about each other. And you can call to schedule that. Or you can also go to the site. And the best number is 516-255-6603.

Oliver: Safi thanks so much for your time, and for joining me today.

Russell: Thanks for having me again, Blake. And it's been a pleasure.