After last year’s compressed busy season, most practitioners are hoping for a somewhat less stressful experience this time around. As you begin your pre-season planning, there are a number of focus areas to consider putting on your agenda. Each one provides real value for clients and establishes you as an expert who really cares about client needs.
Taxes and deductions. As several sweeping provisions of landmark legislation become effective, now is a great time to sit down with clients to help them work through their confusion and concerns. It’s safe to say that virtually all clients will have some questions about health care reform and how it will affect them or their businesses, so be sure to raise the issue and be prepared to address concerns about what it means to them. In addition, the provisions of the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) of 2012 hiked income taxes and limited deductions for many high-income taxpayers. At the same time, the 3.8% net investment income tax may be news to many who will be affected by it. Clients hate surprises, so show that you’re attuned to their needs by letting them know what to expect and that you’re watching out for their interests. Identify those most likely to be affected by these new laws and meet for coffee or try Skyping if an in person visit isn’t practical. Share the highlights of the new law’s potential impact, sketch out planning options that could mitigate the consequences and discuss your next steps. In general, you may want to adjust your tax planning for these high-income clients to lower their tax bite, especially those clients who are selling stocks or other investment assets, given the higher dividend income and long-term capital gains tax rate. Middle-income taxpayers should be reminded of the reinstatement or extension of some popular credits and deductions, including many credits and benefits for families. For small businesses, the good news is that the ATRA extended the Section 179 deduction and first-year bonus depreciation. All of these provisions offer CPAs the chance to start a conversation about tax planning opportunities and to demonstrate the value they add.
Tax planning for same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act opened up a long list of financial questions and opportunities for same-sex couples. Many couples may choose to amend past-year returns if filing jointly would have qualified them for more deductions and credits. There may also be state tax implications, depending on where they live, as well as estate and health care considerations. The bottom line: this is an entirely new niche with clients who will be actively seeking financial advice on a wide range of topics. CPAs have the perfect opportunity to help them address their concerns and make the best financial choices.
FRF for SMEs. Speaking of new markets and adding value, the new Financial Reporting Framework for Small- and Medium-Sized Entities presents a tremendous market opportunity. There is a steady expansion of interest in this new framework, which is designed to provide cost-effective financial information for clients that don’t need GAAP financial statements. Those who get a jump on the competition by positioning themselves now as experts on this new framework have the chance to own the market as demand expands. This busy season is a good time to talk to small business clients about the framework and how it can minimize their costs or insulate them against future fee increases due to upcoming standard changes. It’s a great way to show that you are looking out for their best interests and tuned into their unique needs. Once you’ve opened that conversation, it’s also possible to discuss added services and the benefits they can offer. Use the tools provided by the AICPA to present information sessions for local bankers and other related groups and position yourself as a small firm expert in your market.
Staffing. The 2013 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey found that, after dropping off firms’ radar screens in the wake of the recession, staffing has once again risen to the top of CPA firms’ agendas. And that’s true for small firms as well as large ones. Finding qualified staff was second on the top issues list for firms with six to 10 professionals, third for those with two to five and sixth for sole practitioners. Given this renewed demand, it may be a bit more challenging to attract and retain top staff going into this busy season. Since we already know that the season will be compressed, begin considering now the best ways to offer flexibility and stress relief whenever possible. Your efforts will set you apart in the hiring marketplace and pay off in higher morale and improved retention. To ensure you have the high-quality staff you need, turn to resources in the PCPS Human Capital Center that are specially designed to meet the needs of firms of different sizes.
Succession. Not sure what this issue has to do with busy season? While you have the chance, stop now and consider who will run your firm in the future. Busy season shows a firm at its peak performance and provides a great chance to consider how the practice will maintain that performance once current leaders begin to reduce their time commitment. If you haven’t given realistic thought to the future, it’s time to take formal steps to protect the most important asset on your balance sheet: your firm. The PCPS Succession Planning Resource Center includes tools created specifically for sole practitioners and smaller firms, so be sure to make the most of them.
Strategic planning. The months before busy season are also a good time to think about the nearer term. It’s hard to focus on strategic planning in the midst of the busy season crush, which is why it’s a great idea to do some smart planning now. Begin by considering where you’d like to be when busy season ends. For example, maybe you’d like to be in a better position to even out your workload and generate more off-season opportunities. If so, now is the perfect time to review your client list to look for further service options. Make a point of continuing to do this during the season, keeping notes so that you can follow up later in the spring or early summer. By doing some pre-season brainstorming on critical topics, you can help to ensure greater success in the coming months and beyond.
James C. Metzler, CPA.CITP, CGMA, is AICPA vice president, small firm interests. Have questions for Jim? Contact him at email@example.com or 212/596-6039.