CPA INSIDER

6 steps to a better busy season

Work ahead to manage time and cut down on stress when deadlines loom.
By Anita Dennis

Busy season can be the most lucrative time of year for many firms, but it can also be a stressful period that threatens to leave your team burned out by April.

To avoid that, experienced CPAs share their thoughts on how implementing certain steps well in advance can minimize stress and make the most of the season.

Mobilize early. Eric Rigby, CPA/PFS/CFF, founder and principal of the seven-person Rigby Financial Group in New Orleans, recommended making return preparation the final step in a year of good planning. In the last four months of the calendar year, his team members reach out to clients for updates on their personal and business lives, then they use that information to create individualized plans.

 "We don't like surprises, and our clients don't either," he said.

Last year, one such discussion led to a $70,000 write-off due to a change in depreciation rules.

"We never would have known that it applied to his situation if we hadn't had a conversation with him." 

Early this year, Amber Goering, CPA, CGMA, was able to turn a challenging season — with a new tax law and the IRS slow to release guidance — into "our smoothest ever," she said.

Well before the season, the firm she co-owns, Goering and Granatino, P.A., in Overland Park, Kan., scheduled responsibilities for each month. The 13-person firm also documented its processes and kept the information in a central location so that new or seasonal employees could use it to hit the ground running.

Clients were categorized based on service levels, making it easier to monitor estimated tax payment schedules and other issues throughout the year.

Use smart planning to avoid overtime. If you want to shorten workdays, planning should begin well in advance. At Alabama-based Avizo Group, Inc., the firm has embarked on an ambitious goal called Project 40 to find ways for the firm's 50 employees to work 40-hour weeks during busy season.

The firm assembled a team that encompassed administrative personnel, newer and midlevel staff members, and firm leaders to identify inefficiencies and redundancies, said managing shareholder Dennis Sherrin, CPA/CFF, CGMA. They also worked to identify and remove nonstandard processes, a move that has helped cut down on the hours firm staff are on the clock. Four years later, the firm lowered tax season overtime by 70%.

"Our people averaged 45-hour weeks last tax season, so we're pretty close. We're getting the same or more work done in fewer hours," Sherrin said.

Whatever steps your firm takes to lower stress or boost efficiency, planning should begin well in advance to ensure they succeed, he said. Don't assume you'll be able to make effective changes if you wait until a month before the season begins.

Clarify client expectations. Melody Feniks, CPA, CGMA, owner of the five-person Feniks & Company, LLC, in Fairbanks, Alaska, underscores the value of communicating the client's responsibilities in the firm's expectations for timeliness, especially for meeting deadlines.

"If we've told a client we want their information by a certain date based on our scheduling, it removes the guilt when we explain they lost their place if they don't satisfy their responsibility," she said.

Difficult or uncooperative clients can be major contributors to busy season stress, but spelling out ground rules helps her staff explain to her why a client may no longer be a good fit for the firm.

"You're not just saying that you don't like them or that their materials are messy," she said. "You're identifying ways they didn't meet our stated expectations."  

Harness technology. Sherrin's firm eagerly embraces new technologies. It was an early adopter of the paperless office and other opportunities to digitize information, making data easier to find and manage. It uses SurePrep tax automation software to populate individual tax forms and Firm Flow to manage its lean process workflow, for example.

"We love anything that will free up our people to do things that have greater value for clients," he said. Rigby's firm will also use SurePrep this season to scan and read tax documents.

"In the future, we'll be using more gray matter and doing less input and manual work," he said. "We'll be using our critical thinking skills to look for opportunities."

Stop stress before it starts. At Feniks's firm, preseason planning includes a discussion of team members' ideas for reducing stress, such as working out, meditating, eating well, and taking lunch every day. All team members who have worked at least six hours must take a half-hour break, including Feniks.

"The staff scolds me if I don't do it too," she said. If they need a quick break, firm members can work on a jigsaw puzzle that's left out in the break room or color in some detailed designs in a mandala coloring book.

Goering's firm modified a Busy Season Fun Calendar from the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section to meet the firm's own style, runs contests, and brings in massage therapists to help reduce stress.

Adapt and evolve. Feniks encourages a cooperative approach when it comes to scheduling; she and her staff work together to determine the best working hours during the busy season. She understands that some staff will have time conflicts or boundaries, but she asks them to take care that other team members are not adversely affected and that the firm does not suffer for a lack of coverage.

For example, one of her staff CPAs never works weekends but is willing to work late on weekdays.

"She doesn't burn out because she communicates her boundaries, and we support that," Feniks said.

Each firm can develop its own best practices, but, regardless of the approach, it helps to establish an environment that can respond well to whatever the season brings.

"It's important to be fluent and fluid in creating a culture that will bring out the best in each of us," Goering said. "You can't be rigid and stick to what you've always done. You have to keep evolving and growing." 

Anita Dennis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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