What we learned from the last self assessment season
It seems a little late to be talking about self assessment, but given that there’s been a gap from the end of what is generally a very busy filing period there’s an opportunity to reflect back on what went well and where things could be better next time.
Feedback from Senta clients is an important way for us to understand how both the product needs to develop, and what challenges and priorities can be addressed.
So, the information from our recent survey has given us some great insight and ideas.
What did firms feel that they got right this time?
A more organised approach
Stand out comments centre around the general approach taken. The sense of being organised and leaning on systems was unsurprisingly a key component, as was trying to ensure that the whole process of collecting the data was started as soon as possible.
“We started sending reminders straight after the tax year ended”, and “We had an early push to get client data in”, being typical examples.
Leaning on Senta to provide the platform for the approach was great to see: “We implemented Senta earlier in the year so that we could fully trust the workflow for each client without having to use our various spreadsheets”.
While around 35% of those surveyed use a custom self assessment workflow in Senta, it was obvious that it is important to allow each individual firm to work in a way that suited them: “I used Senta's payroll job feature to systemise tax return production. All very much under control”
While there’s much that firms feel they are doing well, these are not just to do with the systems and processes.
Unsurprisingly, communication features heavily, with a mixture of emphasis on starting early “We were well set up, the clients were nagged from April 2018”; and regular prompts “Communicating with clients throughout the year to encourage them to provide us with the required information”. And on the whole those that took this approach seemed to find this year’s busy season reasonably good.
Getting more done sooner
Completing more returns through the year has a distinct advantage, with some opting to try and kill two birds with one stone: “We managed to wrap up personal tax returns when finalising accounts and not leaving it to a later date”, while others put things to bed as soon as possible “We got most of the returns done in the summer and autumn”.
But life, and clients, don’t generally work to such a short order, “WE did extremely well given the lateness of clients bringing in paperwork”.
Dealing with ‘repeat offenders’ is a perennial issue: “We charge more as the year goes on to encourage clients to get docs in early” - this sliding scale being a recent development from the “Premium fees for any client who waits until January to file”, that some work to.
But as ever, our respondents were also happy to own up to what didn’t go so well.
What went wrong?
Some things are just out of our control
Clearly, having absent staff can pile on the pressure, “Nothing went wrong other than a key member of staff left in January leading to a very stressful period”, and where other respondents quote time off for sickness it quickly correlated into a negative view of how the period went.
And of course you can’t actually force those clients to respond, “Some will always leave it until the last minute”.
Systems aren’t nailed down yet
A common thread however, was a feeling that good systems were a work in progress.
Many cited basic tracking, “We couldn't remember who needed tax returns or not”, or “Not having the system up to date earlier so we knew were we stood”, with the result being that “We end up with too much work to do in January, and lacked a handle on deadline management”.
Although it was encouraging to see that using Senta would bring better management for the year ahead: “We left things too late, despite good intentions earlier in the year. We introduced Senta just before the SA season with the result that the team was not familiar enough with how it worked”.
And there are areas where we could have helped a bit more too, “We should have been more hands on introducing the Senta portal. In the end client resistance meant we still sent returns for filing using Adobe Echosign. The client portal video helped but by this time we were half way down the road”.
Not working efficiently
Even with good systems some of the internal behaviors added to the pressure: “We didn't ensure that clients sent all information in one go” is typical, as are “Need to chase stragglers for missing information earlier” and “Not filing at an earlier opportunity”.
Timing is everything
A part of this is also client management and getting information early enough: “We didn’t ask for client information early enough”, and “Left certain clients too long”, being good examples.
However, as we know this is often a perennial issue: “Going to the wire is always getting it wrong in my view, and we did it again”.
Pricing the job and disincentives
Are we charging enough? This was an unexpected find, with “Charged too little” and “Premium fees too low”, popping up. Again there was a correlation between those that thought they were undercharging and those that felt the season could have gone better.
Perhaps it also explains “Not charging a premium rate for those leaving it until the last week in January”.
So what will they be doing different in the year ahead?
What could your practice improve on?
Perhaps unsurprisingly a bit more planning will go a long way: “Plan ahead and ensure processing starts sooner in the year”, “Have client allocation sorted ASAP”, and “Be better organised, particularly with regards to limited company directors”
Get more done, and start sooner
Getting on with the job a bit quicker was popular, including trying to find even small refinements “Do more simple ones earlier” being a good example. And setting clear goals “Aim to get everyone's data in by summer”.
Communication with clients
Of course some of this comes down to tightening up communication: “Chase more”, “Request information from clients earlier”,and “Start even earlier: reminders pre April, pre May for pensions, P60s”.
Leaning on systems better
And there were some clear ideas on how to improve workflow and automation: “Set up a schedule, so if we do not hear back from the client we chase them”, and “We should have the Senta process sorted. Partly thanks to this, we should be much better organised and clearer about what needs to be done. I am hoping we will have a decent dashboard tracker set up to give us better visibility.”
And of course some things for us to think about, “Keep badgering Senta for a big red sign or even better an email to our inbox when clients sign anything or pop things in the portal”.
Dealing with tricky and late clients
And yes, taking a firmer approach with clients who insist on leaving things to the last minute: “Make it clear to clients that additional fees could be incurred if they are late in providing information”, and “Impose tighter deadlines, especially for non responders”, being typical.
As well as reserving the nuclear option to “Sack off any client that leaves things until January”.
So what does that mean for Senta? And how can we continue to improve and help?
What did we learn at Senta?
Improved client portal to make client interactions much easier
Clients and practitioners alike want smooth communication and easy access to data. The new client portal will facilitate rich interactions with the client, without introducing extra workload. It will still be worth setting aside a little time to develop new workflows to get the most out of it.
Better features to report on what work is finished / outstanding
Secondly, we could do more to improve the visibility of progress and so we will be introducing new charting, reporting & KPI tools to help here. This will really help to provide feedback on how well things are going.
Future AI features to identify problem clients in advance
Finally, we’re looking forward to adding high-tech helpers such as machine learning and AI technology that can help identify problems in advance and keep things moving.