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Horror stories: Accountants recall self assessment nightmares

15th Jan 2019
Editor AccountingWEB
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Coalesco’s Linda Frier, Mazuma’s Lucy Cohen, AccountingWEB member Watson Associates and Accountancy Office’s Sarah Sallis reflect on their worst self assessment seasons.

Any accountant who has endured the onslaught of self assessment season has that one year that stands out in their personal hall of infamy. Yes, the stress of a mountain of tax returns is not enough; sometimes the self assessment gods just want to inflict more pain.  

Just by its very nature January 31st -- self assessment deadline day-- is fraught with tension. Many accountants can recall memories of burning the midnight candle, feverously looking at the office clock, with each ‘tick-tock’ spelling one less second to file a tax return.

But when that knock on the office door comes midway through deadline day, or you hear the stomach-churning rustle of a plastic bag, you know something is likely to go awry.

For some, these memories are better left unsaid. It’s been consigned to a hidden corner of their mind and never to be spoken of again. But the four accountants featured in this article are bravely reliving their self assessment nightmares so others can learn from them (or just feel a little bit better at this stressful time of year).

* * *

Linda FrierLinda Frier, founder and owner of Coalesco accountants

"She just promptly burst into tears with this newborn baby and said: 'That's more than our house cost.'"

The worst self assessment season I ever had was a heart-rending moment.

The SA tax deadline was Thursday and the Saturday before we had an enquiry from a new client. It came through as a really simple email: a lady said her husband was a subcontractor and he needed to complete his self assessment tax return. 

She had all his papers in order but had a problem with a previous accountant and he wasn't able to complete a tax return. I quoted on the basis of him being a subcontractor and got quite a cold email back. She replied: "Oh yes, we'd like to go ahead with that". Maybe it was because it was my third year but I was quite naive. 

She arrived with her paperwork all duly intact. What transpired was that his business had increased its sales eightfold from the previous year. He came in on Monday and on Tuesday their first daughter was born. And on Thursday (SA deadline day) the lady, the newborn and the taxpayer walked back through the office door and I was sitting there talking about how wonderful this business had been. He explained that he'd won this significant contract and had travelled the UK undertaking this work; it all had been all very fantastic.

I then presented him with a £32,000 tax bill. He had no comprehension of how much money he had earned, and therefore had no idea of how much he should have saved. He'd become a significant taxpayer. He had no CIS because of the type of working he was doing. He was used to receiving refunds.

She just promptly burst into tears with this newborn baby and said: "That's more than our house cost." I'll never forget those words as I passed the tissues and tried not to sob myself. That was the worst horror story of taking on somebody at the very last minute and it's stuck with me forever.

It's something in practice you get used to: passing out tissues, divorce, bereavement, all sorts. I am often told I should start charging for my counselling hours and am very wary about last-minute clients now.

You can read more from Linda Frier in this Practice Talk interview.

Lucy CohenLucy Cohen, co-founder and commercial director of Mazuma Accountants

"...surge pricing means we’re covering the cost of any overtime or relief staff who have to come in if people get ill again."

Last year we learnt some hard lessons. Last January was one of the toughest we had in the last 12 years. By a complete fluke series of events, we had a lot of regular clients who decided for some reason to send all their work in much later than they usually do. We had an unprecedented amount of staff sickness. In a team of 26 people, we had nine people off one day.

I asked a Pharmacist friend if "this sickness is a thing this year?" And he said: “Yeah, everyone is just really ill this year.” Whilst that made me feel that it wasn’t just us, it didn’t help the matter.

So this year we looked at how we deal with this, and we’ve decided to introduce surge pricing for any client that gets their work into us after 31 October. Hopefully, we’ll get 95% of current clients filed by the end of October, which gives us that leeway. The surge pricing also means we’re covering the cost of any overtime or relief staff who have to come in if people get ill again.

Instead of having two targets and two points like July and October, we're setting more incremental targets for our teams. This year we’ve broken the tax return percentage targets we'd like to hit down into months. The opportunity there is from the month of October through to January, we’ve got the capacity to take on more new clients which in marketing terms, January is a good time for self assessment products.

This extract is from a podcast Lucy recorded with AccountingWEB last year. You can listen to the full podcast on risk management by clicking the play button above.

Watson Associates, AccountingWEB member

"...as a result, our telephone and internet disappeared!”

You know your self assessment deadline day isn’t getting off to the best of starts when the paint fumes coming from the decorating in the downstairs office are causing headaches. But this Any Answers post from last year goes to show that sometimes when you think things couldn’t get any worse, invariably they do.

“Picture the scene: our landlord (council) brought in painters downstairs to refurbish the previous tenant's kitchen and reception area. The fumes from the paint have been giving us headaches for a week - bad enough,” wrote the member.  

But at 2.05pm on January 31, with three members of staff frantically working on the remaining outstanding accounts and tax returns, something happened that made the member almost forget about the paint fumes.

(Picture courtesy of iStock_i000pixels)

“The painter and his mate decide to remove (meaning cut any visible cables) the equipment in the previous tenant's server room and as a result, our telephone and internet disappeared!” revealed the member.

What had transpired was the telephone lines had been cut. The AccountingWEB member managed to get BT to divert calls to his mobile, but frantic conversations with their landlord were not as fruitful.

“We politely (that may be slightly inaccurate) pointed out that there were £3,100 of penalties at risk (yes, we actually totalled them) for which we will hold them responsible,” continued the member.

“After two hours of getting nowhere and plans afoot for taking computers home, a bright spark from the council IT department obtained a dongle for us and therefore the internet became available.”  

All's well that ends well. But by the point that everything came back online and the tax return filing resumed, the time had gone 8pm. The AccountingWEB member appropriately signed off: “And I thought I knew what stress was!”

The AccountingWEB posted this nightmare shortly after the end of last year's self assessment deadline here.

Sarah SallisSarah Sallis, founder and owner of The Accountancy Office

"He literally wheeled in a suitcase full of paper receipts"

When I first started nine or eight years ago I was in the early stages of the firm. Naturally, you need the business, you'll happily onboard anyone who comes your way.

If somebody came to us 25 Jan just realising they need to submit their SA tax return, you help.

Early on, there was one particular client I remember above all others. He literally wheeled in a suitcase full of paper receipts, documents, invoices, HMRC correspondence etc. which hadn't been opened. That was a bit of a horror show, but we stayed late and pulled it off.

Even now, if a new client came to me 25 January saying "can you help" we'd do our best. If we can provide the service they're looking for and they're a good fit, we'd do our utmost to make sure we get that tax return done for them.

You can read more from Sarah Sallis in this Practice Talk interview.


We’re sure AccountingWEB members can rival these self assessment horror stories. Perhaps your office had a break-in on January 31st? Or maybe you were struck with a severe bout of winter flu, which incapacitated the whole team.  

Replies (13)

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By TaxTeddy
15th Jan 2019 10:11

Getting older helps. No, really.

In days gone bye the stress of the January deadline made me bad tempered and generally unhappy. Now I find that I have learned not to care if the clients are idiots.

Thanks (6)
By meadowsaw227
15th Jan 2019 10:48

Two left to file.
All the really bad ones have had a "Dear John" letter from us and departed.
Would never take on a tax return only client in January (or November/December for that matter)
Actually twiddling my thumbs since returning from the Christmas break.
Time to clear out all the old paperwork.

Thanks (0)
By youngloch
15th Jan 2019 10:49

I must be getting older as well then!

Being an unorganised clients hero in the last week of January doesn't help them to get better for the next year! Give them a £100 fine and they learn and you'll see them a few weeks later at the start of April (well for this year anyway but probably the year after that it'll be back to January again!)

Any clients instructing from mid-December are told that we are accepting instructions on the basis that they accept they are likely to suffer a £100 fine. Often focusing them on the existence of the 5% late payment penalty at the end of February makes the £100 fine seem like peanuts and then, if we choose to burn some midnight oil to clear the decks, it's on our terms not theirs.

Trying to find ways to manage stress are a must when you're operating a small practice. We can't be expected to carry the burden of each client's stress as they walk in hand over their bag/envelope and walk out feeling light as a daisy whilst we feel despair at the thought of not seeing our children until February!

A good dose of client resignation letters for those we can do without, or threats of resignation with clear requirements if we are to retain them, around February/March is a good spring clean task too!

Thanks (0)
By johnjenkins
15th Jan 2019 10:52

I suppose if we have nightmares we must also have some great stuff.
This is a true story. Every last working day of January for the last 12 years an IFA client of mine rings me about lunchtime with Income and expenses (and anything else we need to put on his return), stays on the line while I do his tax return. I tell him what the bill is and he says OK put it through. While still on the line he pays me what I want and the tax bill at the same time, thanks me for my services and puts the phone down. I time the phone call and the most it's ever been is 11 minutes.

Thanks (2)
Replying to johnjenkins:
Richard Sergeant
By Richard Sergeant
18th Jan 2019 10:19

Love it.
Service at it's most personal

Thanks (0)
By raybackler
15th Jan 2019 11:01

I once visited a kitchen showroom in late January. Resting on the counter was a carrier bag full of receipts ready to go off to their accountant. The carrier bag was branded for the firm of accountants! Talk about making a rod for your own back. I know it is advertising but come on.

Thanks (0)
Image PN
By Mr Hankey
15th Jan 2019 11:21

Completely agree it gets better with age.

The more time goes on I realise that health, free time, family and friends are what matters to me in life. A last minute carry-a-bag job for a z-list client isn't worth worrying about.

Thanks (0)
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
15th Jan 2019 14:39

There is a reason why these paper bag jobs end up on the desks of new accountants a week before Jan.

The clients have been told to get stuffed for the past week by established firms, and they have worked their way down the list!

This year my website very clearly states that we are not taking on any new work for the 31t January deadlines, and we are down to about 1 enquiry a day from the 'always late' brigade. Last year we had 4 or 5 a day and you just didn't want to answer the phone just to tell them to go bother someone else.

Thanks (1)
By rmunday
15th Jan 2019 14:58

A few years ago I adopted the Pareto principle ( if you don't know what that is, look it up) and as a result we don't do tax returns any more! However for what it's worth I guess in the past we went through all of the various scenarios above :-( We found the 'surge' pricing strategy not totally helpful since clients didn't like what they saw as a fine or penalty for their tardy behaviour. Instead we turned it round and gave them a fixed price early in the year when sending out the TR questionnaires and offered a 20% discount if all info was received by a given date. Obviously the fixed quote included the additional 20% !

Thanks (0)
Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
15th Jan 2019 15:58

Taking a break from the returns i still have to do. I've just received an email from a client who sent me their stuff on 8th Jan.
"We are off on our travels tomorrow and are away for approximately 3.5 weeks and are wondering if you have managed to complete our tax returns?
We will have the Internet for the first week but for the rest of the trip we won't have access to Internet therefore will be unable to set up payments to HMRC.
Is it possible for you to forward the information on payments due before 23rd January please.'
Every year Accweb members are asked how they deal with 31 Jan latecomers (actually this year 31 Dec was hell) and we come up with varying ideas. I've done them all, nagged, chased, cried, pleaded... and it still the same old same old. Problem I have is that they have been with my firm over 20 years so I cant really say.. 'get in by Oct or you leave'. So every year I do miracles.
But I'm getting too old for this. I've a cold at the moment no doubt brought on by the stress.
I never take on new clients in Jan unless their returns have already been submitted
Lucy's idea of surge pricing needs investigating but I'm going to be clear this year (do I sound like a politician?) - its 6 months year end submission deadline for all otherwise it will cost more. clients choice - pay me or HMRC.
God help us if MTD for all actually comes to being

Thanks (1)
By jford
15th Jan 2019 20:53

My most frustrating question of the week...

“Hi, I was just flicking through my 2017 tax return and have a few questions on it...”

Arrrrggghhhhhh!!! You approved it a year ago!!!!

Thanks (1)
Chris M
By mr. mischief
16th Jan 2019 08:16

A brutal clear out this year.

For starters anyone coming after 30 November gets a minimum 20% (£100 minimum) extra to pay, and after 31 December this rises to 40% and £200.

This time around I am also mindful of MTD and the implications if this gets rolled out, which I doubt but anyway I am using it to my advantage.

5 clients have had disengagement letters. And another 10 who have brought patchy records through in December have had very specific instructions as to what is required for them to remain clients.

So I am down to 141 clients in total from a start of 148 on 1 December - 2 unrelated to self-assessment are ceasing trade - which gives me a great opportunity to get up to 9 high quality clients.

The prospect pipeline is strong so having ditched some of these folks who really should not be in business if they can't be arzzed with record keeping, I can focus on proper business people instead.

Thanks (0)
By seitler
16th Jan 2019 22:04

Worst year has to be when the Companies House deadline was shortened from 10 months to 9 months, so 31 Jan was the deadline for 31 March year ends AND 30 April year ends ! So twice the amount of Corporate accounts to file juxtaposed with all the usual SA work

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