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Finding Workplace Order in Increasingly Chaotic Times

Aug. 13, 2020, 8:45 AM

There is no doubt that a longer-than-normal tax season took its toll on tax professionals. But those that thought that the work would slow after July quickly learned different.

Ever-changing Paycheck Protection Program guidance, new executive orders, and near-daily FAQs and proposed regulations from the Internal Revenue Service means that there hasn’t been a break in months.

That grind prompted a tweet from Logan Graf, CPA, from the Texas firm, Scott & Aderholt, PLLC.

“A question that the tax pro industry needs to answer: Are we accelerating the decline of supply of skilled tax preparers in our profession by continuing 60-70 hour work weeks during busy season? I can speak on behalf of Millennials but not of Gen Z.”

I quickly responded, saying, “This is something I talked about in a speech I gave. Managing expectations is key. We’re teaching our clients that we’re always available and always working. And once rolling, that train is really difficult to stop.”

The original tweet garnered dozens of likes and inspired several conversations. The question that popped up over and over: What is the best way to work effectively while still maintaining professional and personal boundaries?

It’s clear that setting expectations is critical, but how can we do that without putting our business and reputations at risk?

It’s a challenge.

Ellen Freedman, law practice management coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association, noted that “Many times clients wait until the last minute and expect their lawyer or accountant to jump through hoops to bail them out.”

Think Ahead

Freedman suggests that we take a hint from physicians in terms of making patients think in advance.

For cyclical work, like tax returns, you can benefit from sending notice several months before the deadline, warning clients to get in their materials early to ensure timely filing. A second notice closer to the deadline can more clearly explain that time is running out, and failure to submit by a specific date will likely result in an extension (rather than a return) being filed.

Keeping clients informed on less-predictable matters, like pandemic-induced changes, can lessen some of the pressure. Some tax professionals have posted notifications on the web or social media, noting that offices are busy and advising when the client might reasonably expect to receive a response. Those notifications are also helpful for posting blanket statements about slowdowns at the IRS or systemic problems affecting taxpayers all over the country.

That can be a huge timesaver: You can potentially stop—or at least mitigate—the barrage of calls about late refund checks or overdue notices by proactively advising clients about problems. If a problem requires more direct notice, consider an email or newsletter blast.

However, if you want to get attention, the “open” rate for email can be an issue: Freeman said that a postcard will receive more attention—and be worth the postage.

For new clients, you can begin setting expectations from the beginning with your engagement letter.

“Engagement agreements for relevant services can include submission deadlines under client responsibilities, along with a disclaimer about being unable to guarantee filing by deadline if the client does not submit on time,” Freeman said.

And if those clients submit the information late? The firm should let them know that they will have an extension request filed.

Manage Expectations

That may work for new clients. But what if you are already in the thick of it, and you haven’t yet set those expectations? All is not lost.

Barbara Nelson, a business coach who helps solo and small-firm attorneys, said that the “work hours some clients have learned to expect is not a lifestyle you choose.”

It’s a process, she admits.

“You have to teach your clients at the same time you are re-learning how to manage your practice,” Nelson said.

She suggested digging in with client selection, since the key to building a great practice is a great clientele.

This is something that I have seen more tax professionals refocusing on this year: You don’t have to take on every client that walks through the door.

She also suggested that tax pros ask prospective clients about their preparation process and their experiences working with tax professionals. Listen for warning signs, she said.

And then look at your current clients, the ones you’d like to clone, and ask, “What is it that makes them great clients?”

A good screen, consistently applied, will save you a lot of time. As for those that don’t fit? Let those go. Nelson advised firing “every client whose calls you dread.” And follow-up every year by putting it on your calendar.

Enforce Standards

After you’ve set expectations and screened clients, you must enforce your standards. Of course, that can be difficult. It can be hard to walk away from business and, if you’re like me, you may take it personally that you can’t be all things to every client.

But Nelson said that’s the wrong approach: You didn’t agree to be on call 24/7. Reinforcing your client commitments doesn’t make you a bad person.

If you find that a client is drifting—perhaps they’re not responsive or are missing deadlines—you don’t necessarily have to cut them off immediately. But you should have a conversation with the client. Be direct, and offer concrete reasons why following the rules is beneficial for both of you.

Nelson recommended stressing the importance of following directions with an “if-then” statement like, “If we ...... then we can avoid issues and potentially save money at the same time.”

And if you start wasting time on clients that don’t seem to appreciate you, Nelson said that you shouldn’t feel bad about letting them go. While it’s true that you may want to go the extra mile for clients who deserve it, the opposite is also true.

“You cannot let problem clients take up valuable time that you could spend with clients who do deserve you,” Nelson said.

It’s simple math. There are only so many hours in a week. To be at your best for clients, you have to give yourself some breathing room.

Remember those flying instructions that you need to secure your own mask before helping others in an emergency? That’s because you can’t be useful to others if you’re not OK, too. The same rules apply to your work life.

This is a weekly column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the TaxGirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kelly Phillips Erb at kelly.erb@taxgirl.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Ambrosio at pambrosio@bloombergtax.com; Colleen Murphy at cmurphy@bloombergtax.com