“Next year will be different.”
It’s a mantra that I’ve heard over and over since the end of a long and stressful tax season—with apologies to those still working on extensions. After months of long hours, ever-changing rules and regulations, and shifting deadlines, many tax professionals are rethinking how they do business—and that includes a second look at who their customers might be.
Tax services can feel relatively simple when you’re just handing over a stack of papers or uploading files to a portal. But how you regard the process can be critical to understanding whether your tax professional is a good fit.
Do you view your taxes each year as one in a series of transactions? Or are you looking for an ongoing professional relationship?
The answers to those questions are equally important to your tax professional. And if your tax professional doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about providing services for you, there’s likely a reason.
So, what could make a tax professional want to dump a client?
When I posed this question to tax professionals on social media, I received 216 comments just on Facebook. I received more than 100 additional responses on Twitter, LinkedIn, and email.
The answers were fairly consistent from tax professionals from all over the country, and firms of all sizes. Here are some reasons that your tax pro may not be that into you anymore:
You don’t pay your bills. This should be an easy one. You pay your hairdresser. You pay your doctor. So pay your tax professional—and pay on time. If you’re having financial difficulties, your tax professional likely already knows—they know how much you make and often, how much you spend—and may be willing to work out a payment plan. But that’s a conversation you should have before you ask to have your taxes prepared or your tax controversy resolved, not after.
You complain about costs. When you hired your tax professional, you likely signed a retainer letter or reached an agreement about the fee—and you agreed. So don’t complain about it after the fact. Don’t suggest that you could have gotten the same work done for less somewhere else. And, of course, don’t try to bargain the bill down after the fact. You wouldn’t walk into your favorite restaurant, down a $10 martini, and ask to pay $6 instead, would you?
You expect miracles. Paying taxes can be painful—but you already knew that. And your tax professional is there to help you pay the correct amount: not too much, not too little. That’s why they ask you questions and stay on top of the latest deductions and credits. But they aren’t magicians. Nobody can (honestly) turn a $25,000 tax liability into a refund—not even with the wave of the tax code. Instead of complaining about an unfortunate tax bill, work with your tax professional to avoid the same result next year.
You lie. Repeatedly. Trust is key to any professional relationship. I don’t care what you told your neighbor or brother about how much you made or where you spent your money: You need to tell your tax professional the truth.
You’re too predictable. There can be a level of comfort with sameness, especially when it comes to taxes. But, as many tax professionals pointed out, you can’t possibly have the exact same deductions every year for your business, from utilities to employee compensation. And that Schedule A? Eventually, those real estate tax and mortgage interest numbers are going to change—the IRS knows that and your tax professional knows that. Don’t hand over last year’s tax forms or statements and expect that your tax professional won’t notice.
You don’t call or show up like you said you would. Deadlines are hugely important in tax. When you take days or weeks to return calls or emails, you’re making life hard for your tax professional. They don’t have the time and energy to chase you for documents or signatures, especially during a busy tax season. If you promise to make yourself available, stick to it.
You call too often. If you have your tax professional on speed dial, you might want to rethink things. It’s good to check in once in a while. But you don’t need to call in the middle of the night because you’re worried about your PPP forgiveness application. If your tax professional said they would have something for you on Friday, don’t call on Tuesday to see how it’s going (it’s fine). If the IRS hasn’t called about an examination, that’s a good sign. And no, your tax professional can’t make your refund show up any faster.
You don’t respect boundaries. During the course of preparing your taxes, you may find that you need additional help outside of the scope of your representation. Depending on the circumstances, your tax professional may not be in the position to offer more than tax advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help but keep an open mind: If you need an attorney, financial adviser, or other assistance, your tax professional may be able to make a referral.
You’re always on social media. It’s great to be educated on the latest tax developments—knowledge is power. And there are some excellent resources on social media. But trust your tax professional. Just because you’ve heard about a potential tax deduction on TikTok or Facebook doesn’t make it legitimate. Definitely ask questions, but be sure to put the phone down and listen.
You’re sloppy. There comes a time when your financial records should not resemble the contents of a high school locker. No one expects perfection but there has to be a line. And that line is somewhere between a neat Excel spreadsheet and, as more than one tax professional noted, “receipts and records in a garbage bag.” If you’re naturally scattered or very busy, seek out a tax professional willing to help you get organized. But don’t assume all tax professionals are okay with digging through your old Samsonite full of expense records without first having a discussion.
You sneak around. I appreciate that you may want to resolve some tax and payment issues on your own, but make sure your tax professional understands what you’re doing. It can complicate things very quickly when you’re running interference on the side, like reaching out to the IRS at the same time or setting up installment arrangements while your tax professional is attempting to negotiate an alternative. It’s more than just awkward: It can be harmful. Communication is key, so be upfront with your tax professional about your plans.
You’re rude to everyone. This was the top complaint across the board. And in almost every case, tax professionals were concerned about the treatment of their staff. I’ve worked in companies of all sizes, including running my own business, and I can confirm: Staff is our lifeline. They’re spending long hours at the office, too. And no matter how frustrated you might be, there’s no reason to take it out on the person who answers the phone, mails your return, or fields your email complaint. Being abusive to staff will get you bounced. And rightfully so.
Relationships of all kinds—including professional ones—are a two-way street. If you, as the client, realize that things aren’t working out, it’s time to walk away. But remember that the converse may also be true. Take the time to find and develop a working relationship with a tax professional that fits your lifestyle. You’ll be glad you did.
**This is the first in a series on taxpayers and tax professionals.
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.
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