What it takes to stay ahead in tax software

22nd Dec 2017
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As tax practitioners dig in over the holiday period to tackle their Self Assessment workload, TaxCalc director Steve Checkley takes us behind the scenes to show how it caters for this workload peak, and explains how the company focuses on what customers need.

At TaxCalc we know that most firms of accountants are at their busiest during January. We recognise they are under pressure and if they have queries we want to turn them around as quickly as possible.

To ensure this happens we expand our support teams and keep our helplines open until 8.00pm during the week. We are also open on Saturdays and the last couple of Sundays in January, which means we are available for a straight two-week period leading up to the Self Assessment deadline.

Our culture is to always try and do our best for our customers and company directors and product managers have been known to join the support team at peak times. It’s a great way to help us keep our feet on the ground and to understand what our customers really need.

It’s been a busy year. For example, we’ve had extra updates to tackle issues with HMRC’s calculations and “exclusions” from its technical specifications and have just released an update for the new Corporation Tax Losses rules. We’ve always designed our software to help customers get to the right answer and will do what it takes to accommodate the various matters HMRC creates. This goes for both our software and training in our support team ahead of January to deal with them.

Connection to customers

Everybody at TaxCalc feels that connection to our customers. Because we place such importance on that commitment, we are especially honoured and grateful to them for endorsing what we do with victories in three categories in the recent Software Excellence Awards.

This philosophy extends beyond our customer support to the software itself. We design our products not just to be easy to use, but also easy to own, right down to the way it is licensed, installs, and is updated – which took less than a minute for our most recent update.

How customer experiences feed into products

Making things simple and consistent across a product suite can be a major challenge for developers, and that’s where an awful lot of our thinking goes.

To keep us pointing in the right direction, our product development is directed by our customers. We collaborate with them throughout the design process, starting with their day-to-day feedback. We have system to capture every comment from our support team and social media and filter these through a voting process and focus groups to prioritise new features and development work.

Often on the compliance side we just have to get on with it to meet the rules and technical specifications. Then we’ll take our ideas and prototype products to a group of pre-release testers who tell us how we’ve done and flag up any issues.

During the past year, development has been dominated by Making Tax Digital. Like me, many of my colleagues on the product teams have experience working in practice. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we worked with and the kinds of clients those firms supported.

So for something like MTD, we’ll ask, “What would be the ideal way of working with those clients?”

We also get a lot of face-to-face feedback from customers at talks and tradeshows where they tell us how they’d like to tackle MTD.

We also have to take account of what HMRC wants to get out of the new system and its concept of digital records. The HMRC view is based on capturing smartphone images, which feeds into a basic cashbook but we know that, for many firms, spreadsheets are a key tool for digital record-keeping. How can we make them work within MTD and fit into the entire workflow of the practitioner and client? We know what HMRC wants, but we’ve worked hard to fit MTD into the way our customers would like to work, rather than the other way around.

Digital filing is not everything that accountants do. It’s part of a wider compliance process. We formed our own opinion on the way MTD should work. So our MTD Business Tax program can take data from spreadsheets and cloud accounting systems and forward this to HMRC.

We’re also working on a Cashbook program with MTD at its core that will able to record income and expenses from both trade and property. HMRC has altered its timetable for Income Tax and is now working towards implementing VAT for MTD in April 2019. Changing goals and back-end processes creates challenges for software developers, but we continue to work collaboratively with HMRC too, testing their scenarios and playing them back to show them how we see things working. We know we’ve got them thinking quite acutely in some areas and have sent some matters back to the policy unit.

We have been working for nearly two years on the Self Assessment Fetch APIs prior to HMRC turning them on during 2017. Once again, the way we went about this was to consult our customers about the information they wanted to see on screen and how they would use it. We put a lot of effort into that project, and I’m pleased to say the feedback has been really positive.

TaxCalc will be there alongside our customers throughout January. But you can be assured that we are already thinking ahead to what’s going to happen with tax preparation beyond 31 January.