The tax return season should be mapped out with all of the precision of a battle plan, writes Philip Fisher.
Most people seem happy to let life drift along, accepting the ups and downs without trying to influence outcomes.
While that can reduce the pressure in standard day-to-day activities when it comes to the tax return season a little positivity is a necessity, while a high degree of control freakery is almost certainly going to be even more helpful.
Self assessment season is the perfect opportunity for any accountant with a suppressed desire to become a field marshal. In an ideal world, the tax return project should be mapped out with all of the precision of a battle plan.
In principle, there are only a small number of variables that need to be controlled:
In all likelihood, the technology will be embedded long before the start of the busy season. In addition, you will know about the availability and other commitments of those who will be reviewing returns and troubleshooting technical and procedural issues.
To the extent that you know problems will arise. For example, if a client has sold one business and set up a couple more, then clearly it would make sense to address these as early as possible.
On the basis that all other problems are problems and generally cannot be anticipated in advance, that leaves the returns and the junior staff as the main controllable variables.
Staffing will be considered in greater detail in the next piece in this series, but the planning process should include determining the optimum number of employees at each level, ensuring that they are properly trained in advance and, ideally, having some kind of emergency arrangements in place should someone hand in their notice or fall sick at a critical moment.
As a general rule, most firms have a pretty good idea of how many tax returns they will have to deal with and can quickly split these between the complex and the simple, possibly with a few more gradations in between.
It is then wise to create a detailed database, which will ensure that nothing gets missed. This might include basic information such as the dates on which information requests were sent out, return information was received from the client, further queries sent out, the return completed, signed off and submitted to HMRC.
Any claims in elections that need to be made formally should also be included. In many cases, this might be incorporated within tax return software. Otherwise, you should create your own.
Such a list also provides a kind of agenda and checklist to ensure that everything is running to plan. One quick suggestion that can do no harm is to send out the first information request a few weeks earlier than usual. While most clients might ignore tax return requests while the sun is shining, some might do you a favour by sending the details across when staff are quiet.
At an appropriate level, these checklists need to be monitored and acted upon as soon as anything appears to be going wrong. For example, if fewer returns have reached a certain stage than in the previous year, trouble is almost certainly brewing.
Some firms like to create a little competition between staff, as a means of trying to get them functioning more efficiently. That could be worth a try, although it may lead to more haste and less speed with mistakes creeping in.
In any event, a reminder of what the December/January period is going to be like can be an even positive motivator.