Manage Client Expectations and Workflow to Minimize Workload Compression 

by Stephen J. Brownell, CPA 

Lindsay and Brownell, LLP is a firm that has been built on entrepreneurial spirit. After leaving a Big 5 firm in 1992, we set out to serve entrepreneurial and high net worth clients, and provide closely held business, estate and trust and nonprofit expertise to those clients. Although starting as a tax only firm, we have expanded our service offerings to include assurance and accounting.  We focus our audit practice in the niches of nonprofit, pension plans and professional service organizations. Our firm has grown to a staff of over 40, and we plan to add an additional eight professionals in 2017. 

Workload compression is an issue that has always been present in the profession, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage on the tax side. The deadline for filing tax returns remains static, but the availability of the data needed to complete these returns is received later and later. In the areas of individual and trust taxation, where you have complex investment portfolios, you are always competing with a hard stop on April 15, and often crucial data isn’t available until at least the end of February—sometimes much later.  It seems that what previously was a 10 week busy season has been compressed to a five or six week busy season, and that is simply not sustainable. It’s imperative that we, as a profession, take steps to break down the compression and create a year-round workflow.

Focus on the Timeline, Not the Deadline
The primary ways our firm works to mitigate the effect of workload compression boil down to client education and training and internal management of workflow. We start by educating our clients about reasonable expectations for engagement timelines and completions. We don’t necessarily talk about the deadline—instead we focus on discussing the timeline of the project. For example, if the data is available in February, we will work on the project in March and it will be completed in April. We have to work with our business clients who have internal accounting departments to set expectations for when their work is going to be completed and then hold them accountable for those expectations.

Educating clients and setting clear expectations helps manage workload compression on the project side, however it’s also important to make sure you are managing your internal processes to support that workflow. With tax projects, work may not always be continuous with timing of information availability, transitions from preparers to reviewers and client reaction times. You have to be sure you are evenly distributing work throughout the office while also maintaining the highest level of client service. You don’t want to move work around between professionals too much, but you also need the ability to adjust to unexpected changes. This requires a very active and nimble management of workflow and internal. One challenge that we have faced is finding a software solution that allows us the visibility we need to optimize our distribution and tracking of thousands of projects. We are working with our current software provider and seeking solutions from independent data base consultants for this issue, but in the meantime we must be diligent about our internal workflow and managing work allocations without overloading any of our people. Capacity management is a crucial factor here. You need to be sure you have enough people to complete the work you’ve committed to do within a reasonable timeframe.

Commit to Your People
As our profession progresses, we have new generations entering the workforce who have certain expectations for work/life balance. In order to attract and retain those employees, and keep our firms relevant into the future, firms have to be sensitive to those expectations. The issue of workload compression has to not only be mitigated, but obliterated completely. Setting client expectations is critical, but you have to be sure you are holding your client accountable for those timelines. Typically we will give clients some latitude, but if we have a client who is consistently behind in providing their data then we are inclined to disengage. When clients aren’t meeting those set timelines, it puts additional pressure on your people to make up for lost time. You cannot simply add on to an employee’s workload because a client brings you data later than promised. You have to put your employees first in that situation, and losing an employee for one client is not worth the cost.

Setting client expectations is the critical first step in beginning to address workload compression. You must clearly define how you work with your clients and stick to that timeline. While client service is a priority, you must also ensure you are respecting your employees. Beyond that, internal management and workflow processes should be diligently monitored. Create a workflow that is easily adaptable and ensure you have the capacity needed to fulfill your commitments. External factors will always be present, such as due dates or paper extension requirements, but focusing on the things you are able to control is a great first step in counteracting the impact of workload compression.

Lindsay & Brownell, LLP is a large firm based in La Jolla, CA. Stephen J. Brownell, CPA is a founding partner.


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