As of September 2, 2020, there were 658,267 actively licensed CPAs in the United States. It’s a safe assumption to say that not one of them would describe the busy season — roughly January through May — as easy by any stretch of the imagination. Add in a global pandemic and socially distancing yourself from your clients, and tax season becomes even more — pardon the pun — taxing.
But even in a COVID-19 world with new rules and regulations and restrictions, there are still things that every CPA and accountant can do — whether you work with a big firm or have your own practice — to prepare for the upcoming tax season.
1. Reassess Your Processes
First and foremost, review the past tax season and reassess what did and didn’t work, whether that’s how you deliver the tax return to your clients or as major as moving to a virtual-only return process.
Start by evaluating your digital solutions for sending and receiving client documents. About 168.7 million tax returns were filed in the 2020 tax filing season, and of those, 152.8 million were filed electronically — with tax professionals preparing 80.6 million of them. Reassess how you’re sending documents (engagement letters, organizers), as well as how you’re using electronic signature and providing secure portal solutions for clients who are looking for access to those documents.
Next, take a look at the overall client experience and ask yourself the following questions:
- How do you schedule appointments?
- How do you communicate and send documents?
- Where were bottlenecks during the last tax season?
- How can you better suit your clients and your staff?
Identifying key areas for improvement shows you adjustments that need to be made and gets everyone aligned and on the same page.
2. Revisit Your Client List
Just as you reassess your processes, it’s also important to take time to look at your client list to proactively head off any issues. While you would like to think every client is wonderful and just a dream to work with, the reality is that there are always “problem” clients. Did they come in on April 14 and demand immediate service? Were they disorganized in a way that caused you to waste time and resources?
Now is the time to weigh the pros and cons of “problem” clients and either cut ties with them before they take up more of your time or let them know of new (to them) policies that will hopefully head off any issues this time around. It might be hard to have that conversation, but removing the more problematic clients from your roster opens up time to work with high-value clients and results in less stress — which is something every accountant and CPA can appreciate.
3. Determine Your Capacity
While most CPAs and accountants accept that working crazy hours a few months of the year is the norm, it’s not healthy and leads to burnout. We know this going in, but yet every year we say that we can “take on one more client” when in reality, it’s not doing us any favors.
Instead of booking your team overcapacity, take some time to determine what additional staffing you need now and work to build your capacity so that you know if you need to hire, delegate, or outsource where appropriate and when possible.
Another idea is to consider hiring someone to only interact with clients, make appointments, and make sure tax returns are moving through the tax process in a timely way. This frees you up from the administrative process — which we know can be both time-consuming and tedious — and frees you up to actually do the returns in a more manageable fashion.
4. Plan Out Your Busy Season
As we’ve said over and over — you know you’re going to be busy, but it can still feel like things are out of control when you’re in the midst of it all. Get started early with certain processes when possible, such as testing out new technology, sending out engagement letters, and ensuring you have all you need for the 1099s and W-9s so you’re not scrambling at the deadline.
Proactively schedule when you plan to do certain tax returns based on what you know about the client. Not only does this mean you don’t overload yourself past capacity, but this allows you to better communicate with clients about when their tax return will be processed and finished.
If possible, pace out how many need to be done each day and ensure they’re all done at least a week prior to the deadline. While this is contingent on getting materials from clients on time — always a challenge — let them know the timeframe and that if they’re late with materials, their return will be bumped and completed as time allows.
5. Ensure Cybersecurity and Compliance
Working virtually requires even more stringent cybersecurity and compliance standards. Look at it this way — it’s not an inconvenience, but a service to your clients. Staying compliant helps prevent fraud and data breaches, two things that can spark a tsunami of problems for both you and your clients.
To make sure you’re doing all you can to work securely, follow the IRS “Security Six” to ensure client information is never compromised. This includes using:
- Antivirus software and setting it to automatically update so you’re always current.
- Firewalls that protect your computer or network from malicious or unnecessary network traffic and malware
- Two-factor authentication as an added line of defense
- Backup software/services so you have copies of all your files
- Encryption that turns data on the computer into unreadable files for unauthorized users
- A written data security plan, which is required by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s safeguards rule.
For more details on security best practices, check out this data sheet, which also includes Swizznet’s approach and thinking on the topic.
6. Focus on the Future
Yes, you’re busy, and probably don’t feel like a lot of chit-chat with each client. But take a few minutes to find out their needs for the future and if there are ways you can be of service. Add it to your calendar to touch base with them throughout the year to see if any (tax-saving) events have taken place, like a birth, a divorce, or a wedding.
Beyond that, consider including client accounting and advisory services (CAAS) that turn CPAs from “just a bookkeeper” to a strategic partner throughout the year. Building those relationships during — and after — tax season is what keeps clients loyal to your firm and helps keep a steady flow of revenue throughout the year.
What to Expect During the 2021 Tax Season
Will this tax season be a bit different than in years past? Sure, but if we made it through 2020 at the start of the pandemic, we are better prepared for whatever might come our way through the busy 2021 tax season.
One certainty is that remote work is more prevalent than ever for CPAs and accountants, which means there are many new opportunities enabled by cloud technology. When you’re ready to find out how your firm can successfully transform to a digital practice, Swizznet is here to make that a reality. Contact us today to learn more about cloud hosting for accountants.