Tips to help ease the rush of your next busy season

Examine your clients, work schedules, delegation, and more.
By Cheryl Meyer

The next busy season will hit public accounting firms like a thunderstorm, and CPAs and their colleagues are bracing for the flood of work to be done by April 18, 2017. "Tax season can be brutal for everyone," said Kari Hipsak, CPA, CGMA, manager for the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) team. 

But many firms and CPAs, still wrapping up the previous year's obligations or relishing the holidays, don't start planning early enough to help ease the work overload that occurs between early February and mid-April. And they don't create cushions just in case crises strike during that period. Lack of planning before Dec. 31 can mean possible chaos, a backlog of work, insufficient staff, and inevitably long hours for the team.

"You just set yourself up for some failure if you don't plan things in advance," said Michael Shost, CPA, CGMA, president and director of Shost & Co., P.C.

So how do CPAs get ready for the busy season tornado? Shost, Hipsak, and others in the profession offered the following crunch time preparation tips:

  • Start planning in the fall. Try to hit the ground running after Oct. 15 filings. Shost said his firm starts pre-scheduling appointments for clients in early November by determining when each client traditionally has preferred to come in, typically in February or March. His firm also meets with many business clients during the last few weeks of December to gather information and discuss any changes that may have occurred over the year. "Our December is actually busier than April," he said. Make sure your staff is up-to-date on any changes to tax laws, financial statements, and new auditing standards, either by reviewing the changes in-house or attending training in advance.
  • Hire early and be prepared. It's all too easy to sink into the holiday lulls of November and December, but don't wait too long to ensure you have sufficient staff come February. Make sure your roster is large enough to handle the heavy workload, and begin the hiring process months in advance. "The worst thing that could happen is you go into tax season short of personnel. That has to be attacked sooner rather than later," Shost said. One way to bulk up your staff is to hire interns prior to tax season. This not only makes your full-time staff members' lives easier, but gives partners and others in the firm an idea of which college students would make good hires down the road. "More firms could take advantage of that than do," said Gary Adamson, CPA, president of Adamson Advisory, a CPA practice management consulting firm.
  • Engage clients early. Gather as much information as possible from clients before the end of the year. Begin a client's year-end work—such as audit planning and testing, and updating depreciation records—before the end of the year, Adamson said. "It's not like anybody wants to make their December another busy month, but if you can pull some things out of March and February, you make your life easier," he noted. Shost's firm also sends emails and letters to clients, advising them of the upcoming schedule and key dates when information is needed, he said.
  • Reevaluate your client list. Some clients can be difficult and drain CPAs' time, which can be especially detrimental during busy season. "A lot of firms need to take a serious look at their D clients and help them find someplace else to go," Adamson said. Firm owners and partners should consider raising rates and only accepting those clients that are a good fit for the firm, he added.
  • Delegate. Lighten your firm's workload by delegating work to other personnel. About "95% of the firms out there have work being done at higher levels than it really needs to be," Adamson said. "The newer hires aren't getting challenged, and the more experienced are clogged up with work." Farming out work early will make things easier during tax season.
  • Update your tax season processes. Sometimes, tax return preparation practices don't change. But if inefficiencies exist, consider new ideas and processes and make necessary modifications. "Many firms are now using Six Sigma techniques and tools to streamline processes and reduce the touches and time it takes to prepare a tax return," Adamson said. "Review of each process, discussing with all staff, and updating as necessary makes for a smoother, more efficient tax season," Shost said.
  • Keep hours in check. Tax season often requires long hours, but times are changing, especially with Millennials redefining work/life balance and CPAs continually in demand. Firms may want to consider flexible and virtual work arrangements to minimize overtime and allow practitioners to better balance family and busy season demands, said Lindsey Curley, CPA, CGMA, senior technical manager for the AICPA PCPS team. "Maintaining a positive workplace culture is incredibly important, so it's vital to have a proper plan in place before busy season even begins aimed to keep employees happy and productive during your busiest time," she said. Individual CPAs also need to be flexible and should prepare in advance by figuring out ways to recharge and stay motivated—whether it be yoga, dinner with friends, or walking their dogs. "You have to have something to look forward to," Hipsak said. "It is easy to get bogged down with work, work, work."
  • Prepare for a crisis. Many things can go wrong during tax season, most of them unpredictable, so don't be overconfident about your ability to get everything done. Fellow CPAs could get the flu. Your office could have a leaky roof. Or clients may have had large undertakings during the year, complicating the processes. "Keep as much work as possible out of tax season and do it before the end of the year," Hipsak said. That way, you'll have more flexibility if unexpected surprises pop up.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this story, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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