What are the top hurdles you are expecting to face during this busy season? Unfortunately, in addition to typical challenges such as staffing, office efficiency and just getting the work out the door, many CPAs have learned from past experiences that communicating with the Internal Revenue Service and accessing the information they need also ranks high on the list of expected roadblocks. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, the level of service - or the percentage of callers receiving live assistance - on the IRS telephone line for paid preparers tumbled to 73% in 2012 from 91% in 2007. Practitioners are experiencing significantly longer average wait times, being on hold for an average of 22 minutes in recent years compared with about three minutes in 2007, the GAO reports. “Officials said that paid preparers are willing to wait longer than taxpayers because paid preparers are attempting to get answers for their clients,” the report says. On the taxpayer side, the volume of calls answered by customer service representatives (as opposed to an automated response) has fallen 14% since 2007 and the number of calls abandoned due to long wait times has jumped 20%. The GAO also revealed that the amount of taxpayer correspondence that took 45 days or more to answer had risen by 14% in one year. The report concludes, “Without a more dramatic revision in strategy, the recent declines in access and correspondence services seem likely to continue.”
If you’re on the front lines, you’re already well aware of these developments, which only add to the usual stress of busy season. What can you do now to maintain profitability, quality service—and your sanity—as you travel down the sometimes rocky road to April 15? The best answer is to be sure that you’re in top form before the season kicks off and that you make the most of your firm’s many advantages.
Streamline your processes. Spend a day now considering how work moves through your office and making necessary adjustments to improve your productivity. One stumbling block for many two or three partner offices is the tendency to operate as a group of one-person shops all sharing space and staff. This can be a costly approach because it may require duplication of effort or staff members may have to spend their already limited time learning and implementing different operating procedures for each practitioner. You will enhance your productivity and profitability if you pull together under one umbrella of standard operating procedures instead of each running your own show. That would involve using firm wide guidelines or procedures rather than allowing each partner to set his or her own approach.
Look at your staff in a new light. Recognize the many different kinds of value your people bring to your firm. While all firms need great technical people, they can also use other types of talent. The staff who spend time catching up on the client’s family or business may seem to be wasting precious time, but they are actually reinforcing client relationships—and possibly finding out useful information that will lead to new service opportunities. Succession planning is also critical in every small firm. Keep in mind that the people with a good mix of social and technical skills are also best suited to take over your firm and ensure it remains a thriving practice. With all that in mind, be prepared to nurture and encourage a variety of talents and skills as the season progresses so that your staff can develop into well-rounded professionals who can meet your clients’ broad mix of needs. Here’s one tip that can help develop your talent and free up your schedule: Assign staff members to take over some of the routine tasks of running your business, such as meeting with vendors or managing some aspect of busy season workflow. They will learn from the added responsibility and you can devote more time for face-to-face meetings with clients or high-level reviews.
Mine for gold. Your current clients likely represent prospects for numerous new engagements; you just have to recognize them. This may be a tough time to go into full marketing mode, but you can make notes of the ideas you generate from reviewing tax returns or financial statements and follow up on them later. During your client meetings, tell them, for example, “I can see that your kids are now in middle school and you don’t have a college savings plan. You could also be setting aside more for retirement since you’re self-employed. I’d like to get back to you in a couple of months to discuss some personal finance ideas, including tax-advantaged ways to fund college and retirement.” Then make an appointment on your calendar to call them in late April or May.
Be prepared for challenges in reaching the IRS. If case you encounter long wait and response times again this year, organize ahead of time to minimize the consequences.
- Before you call the IRS for help, try to pull together as many client questions as possible so that you can make the most of live assistance when you get it. Offer your staff the same advice so that the can work at peak efficiency.
- Warn clients about what to expect so that they aren’t surprised by lengthy response times. Consider alerting them to the potential backups in your annual tax letter and be prepared to talk about the possibility of extending if some issues can’t be resolved in time.
- Spend time now identifying clients who may be most affected by slow IRS turnaround and anticipate what steps you can take to alleviate possible related problems.
Have fun! It’s tempting to keep your head down and stay at your desk until that last return is finished, but don’t do it! Order pizza or cupcakes for the team after a particularly grueling week. Organize weekly games or competitions to lighten everyone’s mood and bring your team together. Even if you’re a solo practitioner, take time out once a week to socialize with friends or long-time business colleagues. You’ll return to your desk with new vitality and be better able to devote your full energies to your work. Turn to the PCPS busy season fun calendar for more ideas on how to inject some enjoyment into the season.
As for communicating with the IRS, the AICPA has urged Congress to provide the IRS with sufficient funding to carry out its duties and will continue to advocate on that front. But it’s fair to assume that busy season will always present a range of challenges. The IRS has already rolled back the official start date for the 2014 filing season ten days to January 31, once again compressing the time practitioners will have to finalize returns. Following these tips can help as you face these hurdles and keep in mind that this is the most profitable time of year for most practices, so there are certainly financial rewards for all the hard work that you do for your clients.
Have a great season!
James C. Metzler, CPA.CITP, CGMA, is AICPA vice president, small firm interests. Have questions for Jim? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212/596-6039