Most CPAs are seasoned pros who can handle the "normal" workload that busy season generates. But some tax seasons are worse than others, whether due to new regulations, problems with clients, or even natural disasters.
We asked CPAs nationwide to describe their most challenging busy seasons, how they handled them, and what they learned from these experiences.
Helping clients following natural disasters. Nick Myers, CPA, CGMA, founder of Nick Myers, CPA, PC, in southwest Missouri, remembers May 22, 2011, all too well. On that fateful Sunday, a catastrophic tornado ripped through Joplin, killing many and destroying Myers's office in the city. For months, his staff worked out of a nearby location while Myers searched for another property to buy in Joplin.
He notified clients of his whereabouts, and during the ensuing busy seasons handled their casualty losses. Lesson learned: It's important to back up data, particularly in the cloud, something his firm addressed just six months before the tornado. Myers was also grateful for having a committed staff, and the tragedy gave him perspective. "I learned to stop worrying about every little thing," he said.
Northern California freelance accountant Sara Pedri, CPA, also learned the importance of having documents preserved in the cloud when, in October 2017, she and her husband waited out the fatal Tubbs fire. Pedri's home was spared, as were her clients' files, but the 2018 busy season was difficult. Throughout that year, she helped clients deal with the fallout from the fire, which destroyed or damaged over 5,000 structures in the area. according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Her advice to other CPAs: Remain calm when disaster strikes for the sake of your clients, and "deal with people gently and with empathy for what they've been through," she said. "Some of our clients lost everything, and those were the toughest phone calls and returns."
Handling excessive workloads. Mark Wille, CPA, owner and president of Mark F. Wille CPA, in Newport Beach, Calif., tackled a busy season problem in 2018 that many CPAs face: not enough time to handle everything that needed to be done. "We had a terrible season because we had too many clients," he said.
So last fall his firm raised its rates significantly and "fired" about 12% of its clients, including some that took up too much time or were disrespectful to staff. His tip: "Don't take on more clients than you can service. When you have a bad feeling about a client, get rid of them sooner rather than later." (The AICPA has a tool to help with that process here.)
Finding time to recharge. Maria Berntson, CPA, a partner at Lindsay and Company LLP in Ventura, Calif., labeled 2015 as her firm's worst busy season for several reasons: Preseason tax seminars offered incomplete information; clients were unfamiliar or disgruntled with new requirements; forms and checklists were available late, making e-filing impossible until the end of February. "We already had many tax returns in process, but they could not be completed because of the delay," she said.
Her team buckled down to make it through the season, and firm leaders helped staff recharge. Lindsay and Company held Saturday lunches during that busy tax season and paid for staff to have 30-minute massages. "We know that our mental and physical health is more important than any tax return," she said.
Dealing with client delays. In 2017, clients brought in documents later than usual and returns were "backing up faster than I was able to handle them," said Mark Robertson, CPA, owner of Mark Robertson, CPA in Reno, Nev. This almost unmanageable deluge of work caused him to reevaluate his practices. Robertson created a better system to control the workflow, and now regularly communicates with clients once busy season begins. "Last season it seemed to help," he noted.
Planning for change. The months of January through April are always demanding for tax-focused CPAs, but the 2018 fall busy season was the worst yet for Vincent Porter, CPA, CEO of Porter and Company, in Irving, Texas.
Earlier that year, his firm lost a few employees and then, in July, moved to a new location where his staff dealt with nonworking phone lines and computer glitches. The result was a difficult late summer and fall. Porter's employees drank lots of coffee, and his firm outsourced work, paying higher salaries than usual, he said. His tip to fellow CPAs: Plan carefully when big changes are in the works, and time these events so they won't impact busy season. "Try to move as far away from your deadline as possible," he suggested. "I don't know if there's a perfect time because anything can bleed into busy season."
Handling law changes. After the law known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in December 2017, client concerns about the law, which would affect later years' returns, made the following busy season challenging for Esther Phahla, CPA, president and CEO of Esther N. Phahla, CPA, P.C., in Temecula, Calif. Clients were bewildered, and Phahla had to deliver bad news about the estimated impact of the tax changes. To help eliminate confusion, her firm prepared a newsletter and summary for clients to explain the new tax law and held one-on-one meetings with many. Her advice: Stay on top of regulatory modifications with continuing education and by tapping resources at professional societies on the local, state, and national levels.
"When you hear of new information, be the one to communicate it first to your clients," she said. "That reinforces the partnership and trust."
While 2018 was grueling for Phahla, 2019 has been the most challenging for Karen Drescher, CPA, CGMA, a former IRS agent and the head of Karen C. Drescher CPA PC in McDonough, Ga. She and her staff logged 80 hours of continuing education to learn the new tax rules and are immersed in back-to-back appointments with clients to explain the changes. Her tip: Plan ahead for upcoming law and regulatory changes.
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.