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While payroll software and payroll services both assist in the process of managing payroll and related responsibilities, they do so in different ways. 

Here I’ll explain what each is and highlight some key differences.

What Is Payroll Software?

Payroll software is designed to help automate much of an organization’s payroll process. This software helps calculate employee wages, payroll deductions, and tax withholdings, and ensure employees are paid accurately and on time.

It can also handle the generation of pay slips, manage direct deposit arrangements, and keep track of employee work hours and attendance.

Key features of payroll software

  • Automated calculations: Automatically calculates gross pay based on hours worked and other earnings, and adjusts for necessary deductions such as taxes, insurance, and retirement contributions.
  • Tax management: Ensures payroll compliance with local, state, and federal tax regulations, automatically updating tax tables and forms as needed.
  • Reporting: Generates detailed reports on payroll expenditures, tax deductions, and other relevant financial information, helping businesses maintain accurate records.
  • Integration: Often integrates with other systems in the HR tech stack such as human resources management systems and accounting software, to ensure smooth data flow across various departments.
  • Self-service portal: Provides employees with access to a self-service portal where they can view their pay stubs, access tax forms, and update personal information.
  • Payroll analytics and reporting: Helps with payroll audits, analyzing payroll expenses, and tracking budget allocations.
  • Year-End tax forms and reporting: Automates the creation and distribution of year-end tax documents like W-2s and 1099 forms, making it easier for businesses to meet their end-of-year reporting obligations.

Related read: automated payroll system benefits.

What Are Payroll Services?

Payroll services refer to outsourced solutions provided by external companies that specialize in handling all aspects of payroll processing for other businesses.

These services take on the responsibility of managing employee payments, including calculating wages, deducting taxes, and ensuring compliance with legal and tax requirements.

The goal of payroll services is to streamline payroll operations, reduce the administrative burden on internal staff, and mitigate compliance risks associated with payroll management.

These services are particularly useful for managing global payroll.

What payroll services can assist with

  • Wage calculation: Payroll services compute employees' earnings based on their work hours, salary agreements, and other compensatory elements like bonuses and overtime.
  • Tax deductions and filings: These services handle all required tax withholdings from employee paychecks and ensure that these are correctly deposited with the appropriate government agencies. They also manage the filing of payroll-related tax documents, such as W-2s and 1099s.
  • Regulatory compliance: They stay updated on changes in employment law and tax regulations to ensure that the business complies with all applicable laws, thus reducing the risk of penalties and legal issues.
  • Direct deposits and payment management: Payroll services facilitate the direct deposit of salaries into employee bank accounts, and some also offer options for pay cards for employees who do not have bank accounts.
  • Employee self-service platforms: Many payroll services provide online portals through which employees can access their pay stubs, tax forms, and personal payroll history.
  • Reporting: They provide detailed reports on payroll expenses, tax withholdings, and other financial data, which are essential for financial planning and analysis.

Payroll Software Vs. Payroll Services: 5 Key Differences

1. Functionality and control

  • Payroll software: Provides tools that enable businesses to handle payroll processing internally. This includes calculating pay based on hours worked, generating pay slips, and managing tax withholdings. Users of payroll software have direct control over payroll tasks and data.
  • Payroll services: These are offered by external providers who take care of the entire payroll process. Services typically include handling all calculations, tax filings, and compliance issues, thus reducing the workload on the business's internal staff.

2. Cost and investment

  • Payroll software: Requires an upfront investment in the software license or a subscription fee, often making it a more cost-effective option for small to medium-sized businesses that have the capability to manage payroll in-house.
  • Payroll services: Usually charge a fee per employee or a flat monthly fee that can be higher than the cost of software alone, but they include the benefit of full-service handling, which can be more economical for companies without the expertise or resources to manage payroll internally.

3. Expertise and support

  • Payroll software: While some software providers offer customer support, the user must still understand how to use the software and be knowledgeable about payroll regulations. The level of expertise required can vary depending on the complexity of the payroll needs.
  • Payroll services: Provide expert handling of payroll, with professionals who are up-to-date on the latest tax laws and payroll compliance requirements. This can be particularly beneficial for businesses that do not have payroll expertise in-house or are operating across territories.

4. Compliance and risk management

  • Payroll software: The responsibility for compliance with tax laws and regulations remains with the business using the software. There is a risk of errors if the software is not used correctly or if updates are not applied in a timely manner.
  • Payroll services: Typically take on the responsibility for ensuring compliance with all applicable laws, reducing the risk of penalties associated with payroll errors or failures to comply with tax regulations.

5. Scalability and flexibility

  • Payroll software: Can be scalable depending on the software chosen, but might require additional licensing fees or upgrades to handle more employees or additional features.
  • Payroll services: Are generally very scalable, easily accommodating growth in employee numbers without significant changes in the business's operations. They also offer flexibility in terms of customizing services to the specific needs of the business.
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Payroll Software Vs. Payroll Services: Pros And Cons

Use this table to help you quickly compare the potential pros and cons of payroll software vs. payroll services.

FeaturePayroll Software ProsPayroll Software ConsPayroll Services ProsPayroll Services Cons
CostOften more cost-effective for smaller businesses.Upfront costs for software purchase or subscription.Cost-efficient for large businesses with complex payroll.Can be expensive, especially for small businesses.
ControlFull control over payroll processes and data.Requires internal management and oversight.Outsourced professionals handle everything.Less direct control over payroll processes.
Expertise RequiredRequires understanding of payroll systems and tax regulations.Risk of errors if not managed properly.No need for in-house payroll expertise.Dependent on provider's expertise and availability.
ComplianceUser responsible for updates and maintaining compliance.High risk of non-compliance if not managed properly.Providers ensure compliance with all tax laws and regulations.Reliance on service for compliance updates.
ScalabilityScalable to an extent; additional features may increase costs.May require new licenses or upgrades as business grows.Highly scalable without the need for additional resources.Cost may increase with number of employees.
IntegrationCan be integrated with existing business systems.Integration capabilities vary by software.Some services offer excellent integration options.Not all services integrate well with all systems.
Data SecurityControl over data security measures.Requires robust security measures to protect data.Service providers often have strong security measures.Potential security risks of third-party data handling.
Time and EffortAutomates payroll processes to save time.Initial setup and updates require time and effort.Saves time by handling all payroll tasks.Outsourcing can involve coordination challenges.
SupportDependent on software provider's customer service.Support quality can vary.Generally provides comprehensive support.Level of support can vary depending on the provider.
Pros and cons of payroll software vs payroll services.

Payroll Software Vs. Payroll Services: How To Choose Which Is Best For Your Org

Choosing between payroll software and a payroll service depends on several factors related to your business's needs, capabilities, and resources. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you decide which is better suited for your organization:

Assess business size and complexity

  • Small businesses with a straightforward payroll process might find payroll software more cost-effective and manageable.
  • Larger organizations or those with complex payroll needs (like multiple locations, diverse employee contracts, or frequent changes in staff) might benefit more from payroll services that can handle increased complexity without burdening internal resources.

Consider your budget

  • Payroll software typically requires an upfront investment in software purchase or a subscription fee, but overall may be less expensive than full-service options.
  • Payroll services charge a fee that can be per employee or a flat rate which often includes handling all payroll activities and compliance issues, possibly resulting in higher costs but fewer headaches.

Evaluate internal capabilities and expertise

  • If you have a capable HR or accounting team familiar with payroll regulations and willing to manage payroll in-house, software might be the better option.
  • If your team lacks payroll expertise or if you prefer not to allocate internal resources to payroll management, a full-service payroll provider can be advantageous.

Review compliance requirements

  • Evaluate the complexity of payroll regulations your business faces, including local, state, and federal laws. If these are extensive or if you operate in multiple jurisdictions, a payroll service might be better suited to ensure compliance.
  • Consider whether you can reliably update and maintain payroll software to adhere to the latest tax laws and regulations.

Analyze scalability needs

  • Consider how quickly your company is growing. Payroll software can be scaled to some extent, but additional features or user licenses might increase costs.
  • Payroll services are typically very scalable, adjusting easily to changes in your business size and structure.

Determine the importance of data control

  • Using payroll software allows you to maintain direct control over your data and processes.
  • Outsourcing to a payroll service means your data is managed by the provider, which can be a concern if data control or immediate access is critical for your business.

Look for integration needs

  • If you require integration with other systems like HR management or accounting software, ensure that your chosen payroll solution can integrate seamlessly.
  • Some payroll services offer excellent integration capabilities but they may not always match the specific workflows or systems you use.

Test customer support and service quality

  • Evaluate the level of support offered by the software vendor or the payroll service provider. Effective customer support can greatly influence your daily operations.

Request demos and trials

  • Before making a final decision, try out the payroll software or request a demo from the payroll service provider. This will give you a clearer picture of how well the product or service will meet your needs.

To help, you can check out our shortlists of the best payroll software and best payroll services.

Finn Bartram
By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.