A new year, a better firm

By Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA

Editor: April Walker, CPA, CGMA

Now that a new year is approaching, you may have already started thinking about personal resolutions. Here are a few resolutions to consider for your firm in the upcoming year as well.

Develop/improve your firm's information security plan

How to best secure client data is likely top of mind. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) Safeguards Rule, available at www.ftc.gov, tax practitioners must have a security plan that addresses how client data is protected. But just having a plan that meets the criteria of the rule is not enough. Although this can seem overwhelming, here are a few resources.

  • The IRS launched an awareness campaign titled "Protect Your Clients; Protect Yourself: Tax Security 101." As part of this campaign, the Service has outlined six basic safeguards for tax professionals' computers and emails:
    • Anti-virus software;
    • Firewalls;
    • Two-factor authentication;
    • Backup software/services;
    • Drive encryption; and
    • Data security plan.
  • As mentioned above, to comply with the FTC's Safeguards Rule, a written security plan must be implemented. Members of the AICPA Tax Section can use a template available at www.aicpa.org to help create a plan.
  • IRS Publications 4557, Safeguarding Taxpayer Data: A Guide for Your Business, and 5293, Protect Your Clients; Protect Yourself, can help develop and/or improve the current information security policies of your firm.

Once your information security plan is complete, it is crucial to educate all staff on the current policies and incorporate this information into the training of new employees.

Implement information security training for staff

Many times, a breach of information is a people problem. Employees may be the weakest point in an information security plan. To mitigate this issue, consider implementing information security training for staff. It may be a good idea to outsource this training. As part of some training services, it is possible to "phish" your staff with sham emails and provide feedback on whether anyone "took the bait." The upcoming busy season could be a good time to "test" staff, as their guard is more likely to be down when they are busy and tired.

Establish a social media presence/refresh your company website

We are in the age when digital presence is a fact of life. Does your company have Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn presences? Is the firm website updated and user-friendly? Your potential customers and future employees are likely making judgments based on the firm's online presence. This is another area in which knowing where to start may seem overwhelming. Here are a few pointers in the right direction:

  • A Social Media Toolkit is available to members of the AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section at www.aicpa.org. It provides an action plan and specific information about the different social media platforms.
  • The AICPA Tax Practitioner Marketing Toolkit has a guide on "How to Keep the Client Conversation Going," available at www.aicpa.org, that will help you get started.
  • Consider hiring a professional to implement a new website design.

Adopt new technology

Testing new technology during the firm's busiest time may seem like a bad idea. Consider, however, that using the new technology during this time will provide a chance to test it in real time and in a variety of situations that will help in the evaluation process. Or you may want to use a test group (of clients or staff) to experiment with new technology for a set amount of time. Here are some ideas on technologies to consider:

  • Appointment text reminder system: The medical profession seems to be embracing this technology. As a frequent user of medical services, the author appreciates the text reminders and considers them a value-added service from the provider. You may also find that clients would consider this a value-added service. Many companies offer this service at reasonable prices.
  • Virtual meeting: Some clients may find it difficult to meet with you face to face. Or clients may be outside your immediate geographic area. Phone calls are always an option, but a virtual meeting is much more personal. Now that nearly everyone has a smartphone, it is much easier for the client to be able to participate in a virtual meeting. A link directly on your website can allow clients to schedule and join a virtual meeting.
  • Online payment system: After implementing an online payment system, many companies find they receive their customer payments much more quickly than before. There are even online payment systems that work only with CPA firms and, as a result, tend to charge lower fees than some of the national credit card payment systems.
  • Client portals: Offering a secure portal on your website for clients to send and receive documents provides a valuable service to clients who are computer-savvy. It is more secure than using email to transmit documents (so it would help with your information security plan). Many tax software companies offer this service as part of their overall tax software package. If your tax software does not have this option, reputable third-party software is also available.

All of the above technologies could be featured on your website to show current and potential clients that the firm is forward-thinking and is all about improving the customer experience.

Refresh your client tax organizer

The tax organizer is generally your first communication with tax clients each year. If it looks the same as it has for many years, clients may choose to ignore it.

An organizer has the potential to be a great tool to gather the necessary information for preparing a complete and accurate tax return. But if clients find it overwhelming or unintuitive, they will likely not complete it.

Here are a few ideas that might help streamline the process:

  • Provide information about important office policies related to tax preparation as the first page of the organizer. Some examples of these policies might be a deadline for receiving information from the client to complete the return without an extension, a mandatory requirement to sign the engagement letter each year, or requirements to complete certain sections of the organizer.
  • Email the organizers to clients or post them to a client portal on your website rather than mailing them.
  • Separate the organizer into two pieces: a required portion (such as the engagement letter and questionnaire) and an optional portion. This may help clients focus on the critical information that must be completed and help them feel less overwhelmed by the entire organizer.
  • Change the format of the organizer. Consider the style of a medical checklist at the doctor's office. Then, a client who checks a box can provide more information in a subsequent section. To combine this with technology implementation, as noted above, software solutions (and even mobile apps) allow clients to add data to an online organizer as they receive it.
  • Expand your services by starting a conversation about planning ideas. Adding questions such as "Do you have an estate plan?" or "Do you have enough saved for retirement?" will help clients see you as more than just a preparer of tax returns but also as someone who can help with all types of financial questions.
  • Incorporate an organizer for business returns. Many software services do not have a business organizer. As with individual organizers, providing a client with an intuitive and easy way to provide the data necessary to complete the tax return will lead to improved efficiency. Take a look at the business tax organizers in the Tax Section's Annual Tax Compliance Kit, available at www.aicpa.org, for a place to start.

Spring cleaning

Get a jump on "spring cleaning" before crunch time hits. Now may be a good time to consider terminating client relationships that are not making the best use of firm resources. To help with this process, review the client termination checklist (www.aicpa.org and letter (www.aicpa.org available to Tax Section members.

Many experts agree that having too many New Year's resolutions sets you up to fail. That is likely the same in this case. Focus on and commit to one or two of these. And just like that new exercise regimen in your personal resolutions, it will seem difficult, but before you know it, it will become a habit, and the firm will be in better shape.

 

Contributors

Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA, is a tax manager with Walsh, Kelliher & Sharp in Fairbanks, Alaska. April Walker, CPA, CGMA, is lead manager–Tax Practice & Ethics, Public Accounting for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Ms. Oppe is the chair and Ms. Walker is the staff liaison of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information on this article, contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

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