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Self assessment season: What worked and what didn't work

Lucy Cohen reviews the successes and failures of the most taxing month of the year and what can be improved for the next January season.

3rd Feb 2020
Co-founder Mazuma
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Dear diary. It felt like it’s been January for an entire year. I cannot remember what the sunlight on my face feels like, and I’d been dreaming of the cool February breeze in my hair…

Can anyone else relate?

January always seems like the longest month. Christmas and it’s excesses are over. Your clothes are a little bit tighter than they were at the start of December and if you’re an accountant in practice, the tax return deadline is creeping ever closer.

So how did January go for me at my practice? Did our strategies to improve on last year work? Let’s take a look.

What worked?

I’m incredibly pleased with how the tax returns have gone. Throughout 2019 we employed a much more assertive reminder system for clients - which resulted in 99% of current client’s tax returns having been completed before Christmas. 

In January, we had the usual suspects who always send their work in at the last minute, but we only had them. This meant that we were able to “hold” space for them to get their work done when it came in, whilst still being able to point out to them that they do really need to get their work to us sooner next time. Last year we had feared that clients had become “communication blind” and were ignoring our reminders. This year we’re happy that mixing up the frequency and tone of the reminders seems to have done the trick.

We also increased the frequency of the reminders within our electronic signature software. This year, once a client had received their tax return to review and sign off, they got a daily reminder until they did so, rather than every other day. We had one or two clients give feedback that they felt it was annoying to be reminded every day that they hadn’t signed their tax return, but on balance, we think that’s less annoying for them than a late filing fine. And the stats don’t lie - tax returns came back signed on average seven days sooner than without those additional reminders.

Being able to get current client’s tax returns completed much sooner and with less administrative burden has meant that we also freed up space and time to take on extra new clients during January. So overall, the revised chasing and pestering strategy was a win.

What did not work as well as we’d hoped?

The additional reminders to clients jogged the memories of clients who didn’t have deadlines but hadn’t submitted their usual bookkeeping to us for a while. As we run a subscription-based service, things run smoothly when people submit documents regularly. Occasionally we get clients who submit less regularly which means their work can cause a bit of a bottleneck in the processing times. 

The additional reminders that went out to clients about tax returns and Christmas opening hours seemed to have prompted all of our more sporadic service users to send their backdated work to us before Christmas. This created a bottleneck of work which has proved hard to clear for the teams who service that part of the business. We wanted to avoid resorting to overtime in January this year but unfortunately, we’ve had to do just that.

Next year we’ll look at implementing a slightly different reminder system. Maybe we’ll be able to segregate the data further based on the results of the last few years and run a far more bespoke reminder system. It may take a little time to implement at the start, but that front-loaded effort may well pay dividends later in the year. Check back in 2021 for the results!

What didn’t work at all?

Once again we have been blighted by periods of staff absence through illness. Most days throughout January we had at least 2 people off sick. Over the course of a whole month that’s a lot of hours for other staff to have to cover or absorb. As I mentioned earlier, we offer overtime to staff to try and keep on top of the bottlenecks, but many staff don’t take it up. This has led to January once again feeling a little more stressful than we’d hoped, and it’s tough for the morale of the staff who show up. 

Of course, we’re all human and we get ill sometimes – especially in the winter months. But it doesn’t stop those staff who come in every day feeling let down by their colleagues when they call in sick. So if sickness is inevitable during one of the busiest months in the year, how do we keep morale high? 

What are we improving?

We’ve made the decision to delay the 2020 Christmas party until after January. I guess we’ll have to call it an annual staff party rather than a Christmas party!

In the run-up to Christmas, people already have plenty of things to look forward to – time off with family and friends, extra calories and festive cheer. By comparison, January back in the office can seem a bit bleak. This isn’t something we can specifically measure (which as a data-driven person drives me mad), but more a feeling or atmosphere in the office. 

So next year we’re delaying the celebrations until we have January under our belt. This may not be the first time in my life I’ve been accused of being a bit of a Scrooge, and maybe it won’t be the last – but if we can do something to keep motivation high and spirits up during the troublesome season that is January, then it’s a cross I’m willing to bear.

You've survived another self assessment season. But what would you do differently next year? We want to hear your thoughts! Share your experiences in this five minute survey.

Replies (15)

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By AWeb72
03rd Feb 2020 16:43

If I still worked for somebody, I wouldn't feel let down by colleagues being off sick. I'd be thankful they're keeping their germs at home.
It's all well and good being a hero and coming in, but that just spreads germs and not everybody has a healthy immune system. You end up with even more people being off.

Thanks (4)
Replying to AWeb72:
By K81
03rd Feb 2020 16:57

absolutely, I am an employee & I am very happy that colleagues full of cold do not come in to the office.

Also as an employee, I don't want overtime either.

Thanks (3)
Replying to AWeb72:
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By emanresu
04th Feb 2020 11:25

Quite! One of the problem with contractors is that they come in even when they are at their most infective - and their least productive.!

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By Roland195
03rd Feb 2020 18:08

I would have thought daily reminders would prove counter productive as while some might just sign it to get you off their backs, normal people would just get annoyed and tune them out. Interesting to hear otherwise.

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By [email protected]
04th Feb 2020 10:03

When does the deadline kick in. Last year I filed 3 minutes after the midnight deadline for a client and no fine was issued by HMRC.
This year I had a client who had not responded to my e-mails, finally replying after 11pm on deadline day. I did get her return in on time.

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By mbee1
04th Feb 2020 10:05

It also depends how sick you are. All our technical staff have the ability to work from home so, whilst they might not feel like a trek into the office and coughing and spluttering everywhere, rather than take a day or two off sick, they carry on working. Obviously, if it's a more serious condition then it's off sick but for a cough or cold we can offer that flexibility.

Thanks (1)
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By PERMON
04th Feb 2020 10:10

Interesting. Do you use an automated chasing system or an ad hoc system ?

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By NH
04th Feb 2020 10:23

On the subject on e-signing, we use Adobe sign I noticed this year for some reason we had an unusual amount of unsigned returns, it turns out many of them had been sitting in the clients Spam, now we make sure we tell the client - check the spam
The other useful addition this year was the Adobe Sign App - even signatures in person can now be done electronically, looks very professional too as we use a phone with a stylus

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Replying to NH:
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By NewACA
04th Feb 2020 13:50

I'm fed up of AdobeSign now, I'll look around (eg: DocuSign) next time renewal comes up. I've been using them since 2012, and the price has gone up a huge amount, at the same time as the level of features have deteriorated.

I used to be able to buy it fully featured for a single user, perhaps about £30 (now over £100 for their basic package). Most of the good features (eg: remembering email addresses from over a year ago) have been removed and put on on the version that costs £500+

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By wyoming
04th Feb 2020 10:25

I can only look on with disbelieving envy at TR completion rate of 99% by Christmas. On 2 January 2020, my office had completed 61%. I think we are victims of our own past success in meeting deadlines - almost regardless of client behaviour. Despite all the usual prompts and reminders, too many clients, despite their apologies, just assume that we will be able to meet the deadline almost whenever they come up with the goods. Will it take a massive failure one year due to the sheer January numbers to change this? I should say that the 39% "to do" in January is a little misleading, in that we have a lot of large partnerships and, in many cases, we had most of the individual partners' info but couldn't complete and file their personal returns until the partnership TR was finalised. Even so, I reckon 25% of returns had to be done "from scratch" in January. I love February!

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By Peteralco
04th Feb 2020 10:39

Dont understand the overtime "wont work/cant work" argument - its one month of the year. We live in a changing world that requires us to adapt - like Darwin said - if we dont, we die!

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Replying to Peteralco:
By K81
04th Feb 2020 13:09

I do understand your point & when I was younger I worked all the overtime offered, however I now work the hours I do because of caring for elderly relative & disabled son, I can't work outside these hours because of this & I know I am not alone.

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By coolmanwithbeard
04th Feb 2020 11:30

I moved to Taxcalc this year and gained a signing service for the first time - it proved very effective for me with a quick turnaround and also very positive feedback so it is good particularly as once they sign the system tells me and I just file no need for the client to do anything else.

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By DAW
04th Feb 2020 13:42

Alternatively just use the word no! I had been chasing a client for some time to get information in, with just over a week to go still hadn't received anything so duly phoned client and told him sorry but we wouldn't be able to file his tax return and he can expect a £100 filing penalty. He accepted it was his fault and also didn't turn up on 30th or 31st expecting us to drop everything for him. Our staff all left at their normal times on 31st January. Sorry but I don't understand the mentality of staying after hours on this day; everyone knows 31st is the deadline so why should they expect us to be in the office or on call till late at night.

Thanks (4)
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By mkowl
04th Feb 2020 16:41

Well I can only envy the 99% success rate - I filed 86% of ours in January ! Do I win a prize.

To be serious this arose due to exceptional circumstances, eg long term staff illness, family bereavements within my small number of staff, that just kept pushing this work back until I had no option to concentrate totally on that.

So best laid plans to avoid repeating the last 21 years of SA January's ended up with being the worst ever.

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