Plan Now for a More Efficient Busy Season


Every year I look forward to the chance to get together with CPAs around the country for busy season debriefings, where practitioners talk about their experiences at a time when they will be fresh in their minds. When I had my six-person firm, we also got together each year to discuss what went wrong during the season, what we’d like to do better and what best practices we’d like to repeat next year. There are a number of good reasons why every firm should consider doing the same.

Stop Bottlenecks Before They Begin
In my firm, we found that some of the worst crunch time came when the data for individual returns came flooding in during the last two weeks of the season. In our post-season planning meetings, we came up with a couple of good solutions to the problem.
  • Target the extenders early. You could always predict which clients were going to need extensions, so we decided to do something about it. We contacted those clients before the season began and let them know that we were planning to extend their returns if we received their data after a certain date. As a result, we weren’t faced with sorting through their information in early April and making decisions about whether to extend. If they were motivated to give us their data earlier in the season, that was a win, too, because we had successfully removed their returns from the last-minute crunch.
  • Set your own early deadline. April 15 is the usual tax deadline, but in our office we aimed to be done by the 13th. In fact, I believe it’s possible to finish as much as two weeks early if you target the habitual extenders in advance and decide that work will be done later. No matter when you set your own internal deadline, you’ll have a more relaxed time just before April 15 so that your team can attend to last-minute details and wind down the work without the usual stress.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

In my office, we scanned all the clients’ original data and then returned it to them. We had far shorter and more efficient follow-up calls with clients, as a result, since we both had the same documents at hand. Their data was always at our fingertips, so that we didn’t have to dig through piles of paperwork to find it.

Client portals are another great way to make contact with clients more efficient. Once a return is done, the firm loads it to the portal and sends the client an email with standard language asking him or her to take a look. We also loaded their Form 8879 so that they could easily sign it for e-filing authorization. We found that sharing information this way—with easy access to all firm members and the client—saved a great deal of time throughout the season.

Delegate the Details
No one can access a portal without a password, and some clients will inevitably lose them. They may also occasionally need help navigating the portal, especially during the first year that it’s in use. As a result, everyone in the firm might have to spend time dealing with client emails or phone calls asking for help. To avoid that problem, we designated one person to be the clients’ technology contact, someone who could help them reset a password or locate a newly uploaded document.

Creating your own buddy system is another smart step. As the season draws to a close, there are inevitably many details to be addressed before someone can sign off on a return. I know of one firm that assigns each partner or senior manager a buddy, usually a younger staff member or intern. That person follows up with clients to get missing documents or information, prepare for filing an extension or do whatever else is necessary to finalize the return before a more senior person sees it. It brings firm members together as a team and has benefits for everyone. The buddies take great pride in getting their partner’s work done and they get a hands-on view of how the process works. Partners and senior managers, in the meantime, are able to concentrate on higher level work without getting bogged down in logistics.

A Winning Season
What would you change or keep about the recent busy season? If you ask yourself that question now, you’ll have plenty of time to plan for needed changes. You’ll be in good shape to look back next year and think, “This tax season went pretty well!”
Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA, is the AICPA’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at or 651-252-4618.