All accountants have self assessment horror stories involving clients who turn up towards the end of January with a bag full of receipts. Unwelcome surprises are part and parcel of the practitioner’s working life, but there are things you can do to make tax season less painful, writes Valme Claro.
There’s no escaping the administrative burden that can take its toll on any practitioner who is responsible for looking after significant numbers of personal tax returns.
But the scale of the workload and the amount of time it should take is known – or at least the elements that don’t depend on interactions with clients and HMRC. If you are facing the prospect of non-stop 10hr-plus days between now and the end of January, the workload stress you are going to endure is something that you should be able to manage and mitigate.
Planning beats stress
Whether or not tax season becomes a nightmare or a demanding, but bearable experience depends on the attitude you adopt ahead of time and the level of planning you undertake. In our Self Assessment survival guide series this year, Philip Fisher advises planning your tax season campaign with the precision of a military operation.
Stress is what happens when you don’t plan adequately, for example by ensuring you have enough people to carry out the work when you need them. When it comes to coping the stress, chartered accountants charity CABA recommends being realistic about the amount of work that can be done every day while still allowing some personal time for rest and recovery.
You should know how many returns will need to be completed, so if resourcing is a persistent problem, you may need to prune your client list. This has the added benefit of taking the most troublesome/least profitable clients out of your in-tray and can be a cathartic bonding experience in mid-January by asking colleauges, “Who shall we sack this year?”
BTCSoftware recently released a self assessment guide that recommends organising the all relevant information you will need before you start and checking the data that clients send as soon as they send it so that you can immediately chase for any missing items.
Organising your time efficiently, making lists of things you need to do, alternating different activities and trying not to do much at once and taking regular breaks can all help.
As well as planning, there is a personal awareness and assertiveness element to the annual tax ritual. Accountants are there to provide a professional service and not to act as personal servants at their clients’ beck and call. If “clients never listen” to information requests, there needs to be a communication reset, possibly built around the threat of a £100 late filing fee or an end to the professional relationship.
Over several years, AccountingWEB members have shared practical tips on how to incentivise and motivate clients to get their data and documentation ready in good time. After all, they do have 10 months to do it. Early bird discounts, penalty fees, automated email reminders and guilt-inducing phone calls all have a part to play. Spend a few minutes reviewing their ideas and see if you can join the crew that compares their tax return rates during the summer months.
If it’s too late for those options to apply for your practice, then make sure to allow time to relax do something you enjoy during tax season to reduce your stress levels. It will help you be more productive the next day. Plan your tax work for specific time blocks when you’re at your most effective, and don’t switch on your laptop or check during quiet “off duty” hours. Small changes, such as listening to soothing music and laying in healthy snacks can have a beneficial effect.
The role of technology
Some die-hard practitioners still resist the hype surrounding cloud accounting. Yes, keying in data can take longer – but bank feeds and transaction capture tools can do that faster and better than humans. And being able to dip into the client’s business accounts and capture trial balances or alerting them to a set of accounts or tax return awaiting approval to file in a document portal are faster than the old ways.
Remember that time as a student when you accidentally deleted an essay that was almost finished? Human error is always a possibility when teams are snowed under at the office. A technology issue at the time of the year can be the final straw. So don’t cut corners. Do the filing, tick the checklists and even if the work pile is building, take a moment to celebrate each little completion and track your progress.
To prevent technology from letting you down when you least expect it, BTCSotware recommends checking that the systems are all working properly and keeping offsite backups of all the relevant data. Other tips from BTCSoftware’s self assessment guide include:
- If you run or plan to run a network it is best to keep all PCs on the same operating system (eg Windows 10 or 7) and ensure printer drivers are correctly installed on all the machines
- If you are running a proxy server on your network make sure to add an exception to the proxy server so you can file to HMRC
- Make sure your internet connection is up to speed, and test it
- Run regular maintenance on your computers, removing unused files and defragmenting disks (search in the System folder for “clean-up tools”). Keep files/icons on the desktop to a minimum as these can also slow your machine down
- To avoid missing crucial messages, check that all clients’ email addresses are up to date and accurate and whitelisted on your system
- If you have telephone diverts in place make sure they are working properly.
How to meet 8,000 SA return deadlines
As head of accounting at Crunch Accountants, Bobby Grant and his team of online accountants handle more than 8,000 self assessment returns on behalf of their clients every year. That volume of work is made possible by relentless automation and efficient communication with clients up to and during the tax season.
“Our Crunch software holds all of the information most of our clients will need to complete their self assessment return - so it’s easy for us to pull data about salary and dividends taken from their limited companies,” said Grant. “Clients with multiple sources of income and entitlements to relief complete a questionnaire with the relevant Information and we do the rest.”
It’s all about communication
Clients might know all about HMRC requirements and still lack the motivation to submit their self assessment until the 31 January deadline is looming, which is why reminding them of the benefits of filing their self assessment early is so important.
The team at Crunch Accountants also follows a proactive approach when it comes to regular communication and reminding clients and prospects about the filing process.
From August, an automated message reminds clients about the need to prepare for the self assessment deadline when they access their personal dashboard in their Crunch online account.
The team is also very active on their Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as sending information in personalised emails and monthly newsletters about what clients need to do if they want Crunch to complete their self assessment for them.
“We use the human touch as well. When our clients contact us by telephone, we mention the need to prepare early for HMRC’s deadline,” said Grant. “We start our messaging in April when our clients have their P60s available to provide most of the information they need to prepare their self assessment. We increase our messaging in July when P11Ds are ready and the 31st July deadline for making any payment on account due is looming.”
The firm’s website is a platform to share helpful content about the basics of the self assessment process, and it never hurts to remind clients about the escalating penalties HMRC can apply for late returns.
“That said, last year we had one very satisfied customer who contacted us in a state of panic at midday on 31 January,” Grant admitted. “Our team went the extra mile for file the return before midnight. So it’s not entirely stress-free, we’re afraid.”