Hear that rumbling sound in the distance? It’s an avalanche of work heading in your direction. Crunch time. Busy season. Three and a half months of looming deadlines and long days.
The good news? It’s an avalanche that comes and goes on a set schedule. Tax practitioners still have plenty of time to get ready between now and Jan. 1, so we asked members of the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) team to share best practices on preparing for busy season.
Their recommendations fall into three broad categories: external (i.e., clients), internal (firm processes and technology), and personal (taking care of yourself).
Let’s start with advice for external actions:
- Evaluate your client list before busy season starts. “Let your staff pick one client a year to fire—one who may cause headaches or lower the morale,” said Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, technical manager for the PCPS. “I think that’s really empowering for staff.”
Professional courtesy dictates that you tell clients before the end of the year if they will need to find a new accountant. You can use resources from the PCPS (section membership required for access), such as this sample Client Disengagement Letter, to determine whether you’ve got the right mix of clients and to properly manage the termination of a client.
“Make sure all your clients are a good fit for the practice, and if they’re not, let them know in this time period that there may be another practice that will better suit their needs,” Curley said.
- Get up to date with clients. Touch base with clients you plan to retain, and discover if there are any new developments that will affect their taxes. This applies “particularly to your larger, more complex clients,” said Patrick Tokarski, CPA, a manager on the PCPS firm service team.
You won’t necessarily need to speak to your clients from a technical perspective, “but just to understand what they did with their business and learn about any changes that might have occurred during the year so you can start planning for them now,” he said. “If you’re in the middle of busy season and the client comes in and says, ‘Oh, by the way, we did this,’ and it’s the first you’ve heard of it, it can add that much more stress.”
- Make sure clients know exactly what you need and when you need it. “Set expectations upfront,” Curley said. “Let your clients know that any information submitted after a certain date—i.e., March 30—will cause their return to be extended.”
Next, let’s look at internal processes: preparing your firm for crunch time.
- Review this year’s busy season to prepare for the upcoming one. “Take a hard look at your processes and figure out how you can streamline them,” said Lisa Simpson, CPA, CGMA, technical manager for the PCPS. “If you didn’t do a postmortem after last busy season, go ahead and get a group together now from all staffing levels. Talk to your administrative staff about what you could be doing as a team to process returns more effectively. I think it’s important that you’re asking everyone in the firm, ‘How can we be more efficient?’"
- Make sure team members are aware of new tax regulations and audit or accounting issues that may affect 2015 returns. Schedule training sessions or meetings, if necessary. (The AICPA also offers year-end CPE courses to get CPAs up to speed on tax changes. For more details, visit the AICPA Store and search for “tax update.”)
- Get all technology in good working order. Think about your hardware and software. Do you need more storage space? Do any new procedures need testing? Do you need new software or updates to your existing software? Is it time to replace that temperamental old scanner?
“If you’ve got a piece of equipment that you’ve been rubber-banding together, or if you’ve got a laptop that’s been crashing regularly, go ahead and bite the bullet and get rid of it now,” Simpson said.
- Resolve potential trouble spots in your processes. Are certain staff members slowing everyone else down? “If [employee] X has continuously been the clog point in the process, then have that conversation with X and say, ‘This is a team effort, and we’ve really got to work on getting this point in the team process running more smoothly. How can we do that?’” Simpson said.
Finally, make a plan for taking care of yourselves while taking care of other people’s taxes. Tokarski recommended giving yourself a break ahead of busy season: “Take some time away from the office and refresh a little bit.” Other ideas:
- Brighten your surroundings. Clean your office and freshen it up with new decorations. Prepare a comfortable work space at home and, if necessary, prepare your family and friends by reminding them about your limited availability during the first quarter of the year.
- Exercise. Curley suggested scheduling regular gym time and sticking to it regardless of how busy things get. “You can’t really take care of your clients if you don’t first take care of yourself,” she said.
- Pencil in breaks. Schedule some play time in the office, as well. “We encourage firms not just to keep your head down all the time and drudge through it, but try to take a break occasionally,” Simpson said.
PCPS distributes a Busy Season Calendar every year that makes it easy to plan ahead for such breaks, before the workload makes everyone’s brain fuzzy. The 2015 calendar included such activities as Super Bowl Friday, Out to Lunch day, and Wear Slippers to Work day.
“If it’s a grueling week, bring in cupcakes,” Simpson said. “Have a friendly competition, whether it’s Wii bowling or Wii tennis or Wii golf. Figure out some ways to break the tension and get everyone to laugh.” Pass out pedometers and see who can get the most steps in each week.
And don’t forget: 2016 is a leap year. When planning for busy season, keep in mind that you’ll get a whole extra day to work on tax returns.
Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer.