ANITA DENNIS is a Journal contributing editor.
If a firm aims to deliver high-quality service, it must be able to hire top- notch staff. That can present a challenge for tax practitioners in small firms, however, given the seasonal nature of the work. While its difficult to justify paying high salaries during the slow season, it can be hard to recruit professionals to work only part of the year. Many practitioners turn to retired accountants or to CPAs with young children at home for help. Maryland sole practitioner Patti Bissell has chosen another route; she employs three part-time CPAs who all have their own practices but who relish the chance to gain reliable income during tax season.
A Way To Keep Current
Bissell opened her firm in 1990, after leaving a larger local firm. She knew she would need help with the heavy tax load, so she recruited Diane Futrowsky, who had worked for the old firm during tax season. Futrowsky, a CPA with young children, also had a nascent accounting practice. Today, even though that practice has grown into a thriving business, both Futrowsky and her partner, CPA Pat Biscoe, continue to work for Bissell in tax season.
Problem: Obtaining good-quality part-time staff during tax season; sustaining a practice devoted to tax.
Solution: Employ other small practitioners whose practices are focused mainly on accounting clients; devote the practice to professionals, high-income individuals and dual-income couples.
Futrowsky says that working part-time during tax season is "a wonderful way to keep up with tax laws and the technology. Her own practice consists mainly of monthly write-up work and compilations, which allows her to take on extra work in the busy season. During that season, Futrowsky spends half her time on Bissells clients and devotes the balance to her own. She believes her schedule is workable because it is only temporary. Its such a short period of time, she says of tax season. The real crunch starts in mid-February and you know its going to end on April 15. Its certainly worth it for that short period of time. Once the April deadline has passed, Futrowsky works for Bissell two to four times a month through October 15 to finish up extensions.
Futrowsky reports that the main challenge is spending half her time in each location during tax season, but the cooperation between Futrowsky and her partner Biscoe helps bridge any gaps. Their firm has a part-time secretary and bookkeeper, too. Bissells flexibility with her staff is another key factor. Patti allows me to be independent because she knows I get the work done, according to Futrowsky. Bissell also allows Futrowsky to take client calls at Bissells office. Although Futrowsky tried to avoid doing this at first, its the only way I can keep up my practice and let my clients know Im there for them.
Bissell believes she has maintained her part-time staffs loyalty because she treats them fairly. I pay them well and on the first of every month, Bissell says. They know that money is coming in. The quality of her staff is reflected in the hourly rates she charges clients. The people who work for me have 12 to 15 years of experience. Our rates are fairly high because of that experience.
Bissells firm concentrates almost exclusively on individual returns and estates and trusts. When a return is prepared, one person prepares it and two people review it. Besides Futrowsky and Biscoe, her other professional part-time staff person, Susan Reinsch, also has her own practice. The staff involved discuss the review notes and the person who did the preparation defends choices made on the return. The final return is assembled and signed by Bissell.
Bissell has been able to sustain a traditional tax practice by serving mainly professionals, high-income individuals and dual-income couples. She aims for clients who have more complicated tax situations and for more lucrative engagements. We dont hesitate to tell what our rates are and to charge our full rates, she says. We estimate in advance what the cost of a return will be. She says she doesnt press for payment when bills arent paid, which happens once or twice a year, but she will not take back clients who dont pay.
While she reports that some people do leave after the first year to find a cheaper alternative, the bulk of her clients have been with her for many years. For example, some prominent Washington, D.C., doctors have continued to engage Bissell even after they were transferred to other parts of the country. The former chief of surgery at Childrens Hospital remains a client even though he is now head of pediatric surgery at Washington University Hospital in St. Louis. He said, Its as easy for me to call you as it is for me to find a new CPA in St. Louis. Bissell sends these long-distance clients organizers that have been personalized with data from the previous year and then follows up with phone calls.
In addition, the firm does a great deal of multistate returns because of the large number of people who move in and out of the Washington area. We have a number of lawyers whose firms have offices in other states, so their personal returns may involve four or five states. Those are not inexpensive returns, but our computer handles them very well, Bissell reports.
Bissell definitely has found that less is more when it comes to clients. We arent an H & R Block and we dont expect to do that volume, she says. I dont want those real easy returns. Instead, she finds it more profitable to build on her existing base. I may gain a client and then the following year Ill take on his four children. If you give good service, you get a lot of referrals.
Name: Patricia B. Bissell, CPA.
The firm does not find that the availability of inexpensive tax software poses any threat to the practice. In fact, she has impressed some clients who had attempted to do complicated returns on consumer tax programs that werent up to the task. In one case, the client was so pleased with her work ironing out problems in an estate return that had been done the first time on a software program that she won the engagement to prepare the surviving spouses individual return.
To keep clients informed, Bissell puts together a newsletter each year to update them on tax law changes. We encourage people to call us before they make any financial decisions so we can maybe stop a disaster. Her mailing also brings news of her family and dates when she will be away during tax season. She doesnt hesitate to schedule trips during the season, relying on her staff to keep work flowing at the office.
Bissells personal approach to clients extends to her work space, which is located in the lower level of her home. It consists of a large office with her desk, conference table and file cabinets. There is also another office with two desks and two computers. Clients generally come to her, but she regularly travels to elderly clients and to others in special cases. I have a lawyer client who has broken two appointments because hes so busy, so now Im going to meet him at his home.
A New Era
Bissell began her career in the 1950s, when there were few women professionals. In her first firm, she was excluded from the holiday lunch for the professionals each year because it was held in a club that did not allow women guests. I always got that afternoon off, she remembers. Many years later, Bissells community was involved in a lawsuit and she approached the lawyer involved to volunteer to perform the necessary calculations for the suit because that way I knew theyd be right. The attorney was so grateful that he began referring friends to her, enabling her ultimately to launch her own practice. Today, she has gained an extensive introduction to the CPA Vision Project and is excited about the professions future. The immediate past chairwoman of the AICPA joint trial board, Bissell advises other small practitioners to get involved in professional organizations in order to gain greater exposure to important issues and developments. Her bustling business demonstrates the value of making and sustaining connections with other professionals in a solo practice.
- KEEPING TOP-NOTCH part-time tax season staff can be a challenge for small firms. Maryland sole practitioner Patti Bissell employs three part-time CPAs who all have their own practices but who relish the chance to gain reliable income during tax season.
- DIANE FUTROWSKY, one of her part-timers, says that working during tax season is a wonderful way to keep up with tax laws and the technology. She is willing to juggle the added tax work because it is only temporary. By being flexible and treating them fairly, Bissell encourages the part-time staff to return each year.
- BISSELL HAS BEEN ABLE TO SUSTAIN a traditional tax practice by serving mainly professionals, high-income individuals and dual-income couples. She aims for clients who have more complicated tax situations and for more lucrative engagements.
- INEXPENSIVE TAX SOFTWARE has not posed any threat to the practice. In fact, Bissell has impressed some clients who have attempted to do complicated returns on consumer tax programs that werent up to the task.