Editor: Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA
It is summer — time to sit back and unwind. Summer is also the best time to reflect, reboot, and reengage with your two most valuable professional assets — your clients and your staff.
CPAs spend most, if not all, of their time during busy season checking tasks off a to-do list to meet client obligations and government deadlines. It can feel like a three-month fire drill. From one tax return or tax issue to the next, CPAs are in "get it done" mode, not reflection mode. Summer is the perfect time to take a breath and reflect on things that went well and not so well during busy season.
Summer is a perfect time to sit down with staff (or by yourself if you are a sole practitioner) and list all of the positives and negatives from busy season. There should be a long list of issues on both sides. Those issues can be classified into four buckets: workflow and processes, client-related experiences, technology, and staffing. For each bucket, narrow down the positives and negatives to a handful of issues. Having a few items to deal with will help focus the group on those that are most important and will have the most meaningful impact.
It is human nature to focus on the negatives or the things that went terribly wrong. In some instances, these are the things that keep practitioners up at night long after busy season; for example, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering if an extension was filed for a particular client. The negatives often linger longer than the positives. CPAs must resist the urge to focus on the negatives. The list will contain some negatives that need to be addressed, but the team's energy and time should not be wasted by dwelling on everything that went poorly.
Instead, they should spend time identifying the positive experiences and working on further improving them, while mitigating the effects of the negative experiences. During this period of reflection, it is important to understand that this is about learning from the past and choosing to be better in the future and not about pointing fingers or assigning blame.
The goal from the reflection period is to come up with a plan of action for the remainder of the year. You may decide to take a closer look at something at the end of the year instead of now. Whenever in the calendar year this exercise is performed, it is important to spend the time reflecting while the memories of busy season are fresh. The results of this reflection will help focus the firm's efforts for the rest of the year. Practitioners should start the process by reflecting on the following areas:
Processes and procedures
- Do we have a workflow management system that is meeting our current needs? Are there features within our workflow system that can improve the process?
- How did the engagement letter process work this year? Should we continue to mail engagement letters, or would an electronic delivery system be more efficient?
- Do we have the proper quality-control process in place to ensure that the tax returns that were filed complied with the AICPA Statements on Standards for Tax Services (available at www.aicpa.org?
- Did we timely bill for our services upon completion? Is there a way to improve billing?
- Were we appropriately staffed for busy season? How many hours were worked during busy season? Is this more or less than in prior years?
- Did we have the right mix of staffing to meet clients' needs?
- Can we improve our staff's engagement during busy season?
- What worked and what did not work during busy season to encourage and cultivate a team environment?
- How did the tax preparation software handle the changes of tax reform (contained in the law known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), P.L. 115-97)?
- Are there ways we can be more efficient with increased or smarter use of technology?
- What technology worked and did not work?
- Did we deliver five-star service to all our clients?
- Can we improve the client experience with improved use of technology?
- What tax planning opportunities were discovered during busy season? Are there opportunities that other clients can use? Are there potential areas for additional training?
- Did we conduct a client survey? If so, now is the time to review the results. If not, should we implement surveys to measure client satisfaction?
- How did we do this year on timeliness of client deliverables? Did we improve from prior years? What can be done to improve or continue to improve?
Now that you have reflected on busy season, it is time to "reset" yourself and the team and prepare for the next phase. Whenever an issue arises with one of the various electronic devices professionals use today, the usual go-to solution is to "reboot" the device by turning it off and back on. In terms of rebooting yourself and your team, the advice is similar. You have to turn it off and turn it back on.
Turn it off — disconnect. Summer is a time to take a break and disconnect from work for some period. Everyone works with someone who takes a vacation but continues sending emails to co-workers while he or she is out of the office. Technology has made it very easy to work while away from the office, but you will not effectively reboot if you check email every five minutes on your phone instead of lounging in a beach chair with your favorite drink and listening to Jimmy Buffett.
To truly reboot, you must disconnect. You might be thinking: "That is all well and good, but what happens when my largest and most important client has a financial emergency that requires my assistance? If I am disconnected, I will not receive that message; and if I don't receive that message, this client will fire me, and I will lose my best client." First, this is likely an irrational thought. But assuming this is a rational concern, consider what can be done to mitigate the damage to either the client relationship or to your reboot time. The solution is effective communication.
Communicate with your clients via a detailed out-of-office message on both your email and office phone. Let clients know that you are out of the office and what your plans are about checking messages while away. Also let clients know when you plan to return. This may seem like obvious advice, but many out-of-office messages consist of something like: "I am out of the office today and not checking emails or phone messages." If you are one of those who leave such a message, you may want to reconsider this approach.
If a week or two weeks seems like an excessive amount of time to be away from the office, consider shorter periods. Many firms reboot by closing the office on Fridays between Memorial Day and Aug. 15. Other firms close the office each day an hour earlier than normal during the summer. This is another way for you and the team to reboot before the second busy season of the year gets going. The reboot process will go a long way toward keeping the firm motivated to excel when it is time to reengage.
Now that you have reflected on tax season and rebooted yourself and your team, the time comes to reengage. This is when you solidify relationships with clients and prove yourself as their trusted adviser.
When asked how the past busy season went, practitioners' response is often something to the effect that "it was like drinking from a fire hose." The tax reforms in the TCJA are like the Jelly of the Month Club — the gift that keeps on giving the whole year. This giving has come in many forms. For tax practitioners during tax season, it has mostly come in the form of heartburn or stress when they realize the software is not working exactly as it should. Or that recent guidance from Treasury and the IRS says something that they never considered and, as a result, an estimate they provided to the client is all wrong. Some taxpayers received the gift of lower taxes or higher refunds than normal, while other taxpayers received the exact opposite. Regardless of the results clients saw for 2018, it is clear that the TCJA continues to give tax practitioners something to talk about with clients.
With your notes from the firm's period of reflection, identify needs and opportunities for clients. Take what you learned during this past busy season and leverage that into what you can do for other clients. For example, maybe a business client converted to a C corporation last year to take advantage of the reduced corporate income tax rates. After the first year, you may be amazed at the tax savings. Review your client list and determine if other clients may be able to benefit from a similar conversion. Use the summer to get a jump on tax planning.
One of the tried-and-true ways of increasing work for the summer months is to file an extension. Of course, this is the client's decision, not the tax practitioner's. Learn how to talk to clients about the benefits of an extension. Take a look at the AICPA's Tax Extension FAQs for Clients (available at www.aicpa.org; member login required). In today's uncertain tax environment, filing an extension is often necessary to give the tax practitioner more time to digest the new rules and regulations and to allow software companies time to provide relevant updates.
Gaining from the pain
The first busy season affected by the TCJA has come and gone. Now, it is time to reflect, reboot, and reengage with clients and staff. CPAs have an opportunity over the next few months and years to emphasize to clients why they work with a tax professional. Working with the TCJA's tax reforms has caused CPAs trials and tribulations that only a tax professional could appreciate. But there can be no gain without a little pain. This is certainly true in the current tax environment. Tax reform, while arduous to adopt and implement, has provided tax practitioners with opportunities to assist clients throughout the year.
Contributors Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M., is a director in the tax services group of Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA, is a tax manager with Walsh, Kelliher & Sharp in Fairbanks, Alaska. Ms. Oppe is the chair and Mr. Lagarde is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information on this article, contact email@example.com.
Brandon Lagarde, CPA, J.D., LL.M., is a director in the tax services group of Postlethwaite & Netterville in Baton Rouge, La. Ami Oppe, CPA, CGMA, is a tax manager with Walsh, Kelliher & Sharp in Fairbanks, Alaska. Ms. Oppe is the chair and Mr. Lagarde is a member of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee. For more information on this article, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.