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Surviving January: How to ease the busy season

Are you feeling snowed under with the impending January rush? Lucy Cohen explains how you can ease the burden of the busiest month of the year.

17th Dec 2019
Co-founder Mazuma
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Exhausted woman sitting in the office late at night

Well, don’t you know it; January has snuck up on us all again. Whilst most people are tucking into a Christmas dinner and enjoying a bit of time away from the office, practice accountants across the UK will barely have finished their last bite of Christmas pudding before the dread of tax return season kicks in.

January can be a challenging time for accountants in practice. The tax return deadline looms and clients can be demanding. Even though they’ve had since 6th April to get themselves ready to file a tax return, a large proportion of them seem to leave it to January. Every single year.

In fact, by January 2019, only 52% of the estimated 11m taxpayers who needed to complete a self-assessment tax return had done so – leaving about 5.5m taxpayers to file a tax return during January. No wonder accountants are stressed out.

So how do you deal with what can be the busiest month of the year? What would make things easier?

I’ve got a few suggestions that might help ease the burden. Hopefully, you’ll be able to implement at least some of them in time for this year, and if not, definitely in time for next year.

Client expectations 

First of all, let’s deal with clients and expectations. For a client who walks in on the 25th of January with a bag of receipts and stress-induced sweating, getting their tax return completed and filed before 31st January is a priority.

That doesn’t mean that it has to be a priority for you. There are a few things you could do here. If you have space in your diary to get their work done on time, then, of course, you can go ahead and do it!

But if you’re already snowed under until the end of January and beyond you can consider turning the work away in the first instance. Or offer to get it done, but that your diary is full and it won’t be filed on time. That puts the onus directly back onto the client to decide what they’d like to do – would they like to continue to shop around to try and find an accountant who can do it in time, or take the hit this year and chalk it up to lessons learned? Who knows… maybe they’ll get their paperwork sorted a little earlier next year!

We’ve all encountered clients who are very vocal with their feelings if things can’t be done on time, but this is the time to calmly do some client education. Before we hit the month of January, make sure that you contact all current clients giving them the latest possible date that you’d accept work.

Put an update on your website about deadlines and timescale expectations for both current clients and walk-ins. And if you’re not accepting any more work in January, then just say so. I’d recommend including these sorts of deadlines in letters of engagement with clients if you don’t already – I know, I know…they never read them! It will at least give you something to back up your position should you need to though.

Be honest with yourself

Now let’s look at your expectations of yourself. How much work do you want to do in January? Ultimately, this can all be controlled by you. Granted, it may not feel that way when a client is demanding a last minute tax return – sometimes it just feels easier to acquiesce. But if you go into January with set expectations of what you can realistically manage, then you should find it easier to choose the right amount of work to do.

Be honest with yourself. If you’re totally OK with working extra hours in January for the extra money, then you can go ahead and do that. You still need to set yourself some boundaries in terms of working hours and out-of-hours contact from clients, but ultimately if you’re up for it then you can work your little Christmas socks off.

However, lots of us got into running our own practices to achieve a level of work-life balance. That includes January!

Once you’ve decided how much work you’re realistically going to take on, make sure you schedule in some time for yourself. And I mean, you should literally put it in your diary and treat it like any other appointment that you have to keep. Get to the gym, go for a walk, have a nice bath – whatever floats your boat. Just make sure that you do it.

It’s far too easy to let time for yourself slip to the side when you have a lot of work to do, but ultimately you’ll find yourself more efficient if you’re taking some time for yourself – and less resentful of any increased workload if you’ve met your own needs each day.

Don’t back down

Finally, stick to your guns. It’s very easy to give in to other people’s demands on your time when you want to do your best for them. It’s never nice to encounter a client at their wits end who is terrified of a late filing. Sometimes we end up taking on work that we really shouldn’t because we feel sorry for the client when they’ve got themselves into a pickle.

Of course, it’s your choice how to approach these situations, but if you’ve stated your position that “I’m afraid my diary is full and I won’t be able to take this on”, and they still pester you, then they are not respecting the boundary that you have clearly communicated.

If you back down now, then they know you’ll do it again in the future. My advice would be to decide on your strategy and then stick to it. You have to look after yourself as well as your clients!

Replies (11)

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By andrew1211
17th Dec 2019 09:47

Its only £100!

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
17th Dec 2019 10:06

If you are only now setting deadlines to SA clients you are your own worst enemy and would explain why a large proportion of your clients are leaving it until Jan each year.

it sounds like you have very poor client management, and poor workload planning as a practice if you have a January problem.

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By mkowl
17th Dec 2019 11:26

That is a startling stat on % completed upto Jan and those in Jan

I just find its not lack of planning to do the tax returns more just that the rest of the workload subsumes it. The fact it can wait for another day means it invariably does - human nature. A lot are linked to 31st March year ends so those get completed first and actually that is looking ok in terms of the December deadline - one usual suspect aside.

Actually the main factor this year has been long term staff illness - do you get a temp in or not - but that would probably use up more of my time

I enjoy the 3 days in the middle as no one else is in usually and the emails stop. Amazing how much you can do

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Replying to mkowl:
By bendybod
17th Dec 2019 16:23

I'm facing the same issue with sickness - as well as a member of staff who got snaffled by an agency when they weren't even looking for a new job.

March year ends are causing me a headache but I tried the temp route last year and we're still coming across errors in VAT returns etc so it hasn't helped in the long run. This year my staff have asked me not to get a temp in and they've covered the work between them.

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By jon_griffey
17th Dec 2019 11:33

It's easier said than done. Every January I say it will be different, but every January it is the same old faces. The main problem as a profession (a nice problem to have) is that our fees are recurring and most of the latecomers are often not particularly small or PITA clients. So if you stick to your guns and say you are not going to do it and they go elsewhere, you have not lost say a one off £1,000 fee but a possible £1,000 x 10 years fee.

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Chris M
By mr. mischief
17th Dec 2019 11:59

See my earlier posts on this subject. If anyone who comes in January knows they are paying a minimum £250 plus VAT extra, you soon find out that you don't need to file ANY tax returns in January. (I might have one to do this time around, out of 180 or so in total, so 179 filed by Christmas.)

Why this matters:

1. One client is today completing on a £750k business purchase.
2. One is in the middle of a £1.5m disposal which should complete in January.
3. 4 or 5 are in mortgage applications which will now drag into January due to Christmas.

Can you do justice to these people who are in the middle of potentially life-changing transactions, whilst doing 10 or 12 hour days on tax return folk with incomplete records?

Which of these 2 groups is more deserving of your time this January?

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Replying to mr. mischief:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
17th Dec 2019 12:41

Sounds like my Jan.

We are just finish off our last few returns this week, with a couple half done that will be mopped up in Jan. Friday is last working day, then its a week and a half off with the family & friends.

Our main task for Jan is a client buying another business (only £200k but still needs doing right), a complex valuation for a messy divorce (I hope I don't have to go to court) and some quick results needed for several December year ends.

Then its focus on IR35 changes and transitioning those out and assisting with any appeals against status notifications, and hopefully some new clients coming in with those Jan business ideas to replace some of those out of the door by March.

I don't think doing long hours or working weekends to accommodate people who have been sitting on their hands for 9 months is worth the bother. Id rather work slowly and steadily all year myself than grab an extra £10k in Jan.

But that's the beauty of your own business, both approaches are right for different people.

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Replying to mr. mischief:
By mkowl
17th Dec 2019 13:07

As I say its not deliberate policy not to do them - in fact more the issue is that I have been dealing with all the other stuff that you mention. Todays slightly irritating mortgage broker for example. But throw in an employer compliance review that has taken time to get a decent result and then HMRC throw in the "well its time for a VAT inspection for them now" ! Mid Jan thanks HMRC

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By Ian McTernan CTA
17th Dec 2019 12:06

Here's why I don't get stressed about December and January. It's quite simple. I will work every day in January including weekends, and most likely be finished by the 28th or 29th (just in case a last minute job comes in).

I will then enjoy playing golf during the week in summer and generally having a very relaxed other 10 months.

So when I am working at midnight on a cold dark miserable wet windy January day all I need to remember is standing on the tee box in my shorts in summer whilst others sweat in their suits:-)

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By michaelbeaver
17th Dec 2019 17:45

We've gotten much better at it this year (after saying I would every year so far).

Out of the 280 or so that we file, we had around 150 not yet started on 2 January this year, including 30 from an acquisition that we had never touched before.

This year we'll have that down to no more than 80, and of those around 40 will be ready to go or already started on 2nd January, all of which to be shared amongst three staff, so less chasing and hopefully less stress for me.

We just started hounding in August, and again in September and again in November and it seemed to do the trick.

There will always be the 'oh, but I planned to get it ready over Christmas' brigade, but as long as those are what we are left with we're good. I mean we have to do *something* in January!

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
02nd Jan 2020 14:16

This is obviously a subject that comes up every year - how not to be stressed in Jan (actually my stress time is the 2 months of Dec/Jan to include the 31 March companies ... but I digress)

Previously comments under similar articles in the past have produced a variety of ideas as to how to get stuff in earlier. I've tried nearly all of them with limited success.

As Lucy says the problem is with those clients who have got away with it in the past because you have worked all hours to get the returns submitted in time previously and they assume that you will do it again. Which of course you do. I've lost count of those clients who say 'I'll pull everything together between Christmas and New Year - I will have time then... that should be enough time for you as my accounts are very straightforward' or somesuch.

Lucy's comment: ' If you back down now, then they know you’ll do it again in the future'.. sorry Lucy... they are going to do it anyway whatever you say/threaten etc. I know because I've been there, done it and worn the teeshirt as they say.

Lucy is absolutely correct when she says that you should turn away non clients as this will only mean more pressure. However, I have come across accountants websites that advertise such a late service at a price of course.

Today I am sending round a final email to all those clients who still have to submit. Deadline = 10th Jan. Even if they pay me extra or send flowers or chocs.

I dont have to think about content - I send the same email to the same people every year.

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