CEO That People Thing Ltd
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Self assessment: Stop fighting a losing battle


How do you deal with those tricky clients who refuse to get their self assessments done? Blaire Palmer explains how to switch up your approach to SA season.

7th Dec 2020
CEO That People Thing Ltd
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I’m your worst nightmare.

I have been in business for 20 years and I have never done my tax return early. My Financial Controller and my Accountant have to badger me constantly until, eventually, when we are really up against the deadline, I rifle through my paperwork and find the last little bits of information they need.

I’ve thought long and hard about why this is. When the first email arrives asking me for my bank account interest and whether I’ve done any Gift Aid this year I think, “maybe I will just sort this out now”. But I don’t.

So when AccountingWEB asked me to write a piece about how to get your clients to get their self-assessments done early I had to admit that I didn’t have the answer.

Why don’t people do their tax early?

I suspect you have a number of strategies in place to encourage clients to get their information to you early. Maybe you offer a financial incentive. Maybe you badger them. Maybe you paint a vivid picture of your life in January and try to guilt them into it.

Some clients will always be early, their paperwork tidy and the responses to your emails timely.

But others, like me, don’t seem to respond to any of your tactics. Why?

  • Priorities: Most of your clients are juggling multiple deadlines. If something can wait, it will have to.
  • Low value reward: What you’re asking for is time consuming to provide for a low value reward. Busy business people are constantly making judgement calls about how to invest their limited time in ways that add the most value to their business. Given the choice of following up on a piece of business and sitting on the floor looking through the filing cabinet for that letter from the bank, the business follow up wins. Your financial inducement is unlikely to be worth more than a piece of prospective work or the perceived value of some other activity on the to do list.
  • Big picture people: Many entrepreneurs are big picture people. The detailed information you are asking for gives them a headache.
  • People aren’t logical: And while your entreaties make logical sense, most of us don’t make decisions based on logic. We are driven largely by emotions and while it makes logical sense to reply to the questions your accountant asks as soon as you get the email, emotionally it’s an unattractive way to spend time and that emotion wins.

Should you give up?

It still makes sense to encourage clients to get their paperwork in early. Some will respond. But what about those who don’t?

  1. Do the right thing for the wrong reason: If people won’t do the right thing for the right reason, maybe they will do the right thing for the wrong reason. Rory Sutherland, vice-chair of ad agency Ogilvy, says that while we may claim to brush our teeth to prevent tooth decay, the actual reason we brush our teeth is so our breath smells good. We treat the causes of tooth decay, but not intentionally. If early submission of my tax information meant I would be invited to an exclusive networking event, fancy dinner or be entitled to promote my business to my accountant’s network, I might do it early. Even if it didn’t work for me, it might tip others over the edge. What is a good wrong reason (something of value to your clients) to submit their paperwork early?
  2. Make it easy to do the right thing: Reminders during the year (eg at the time when my bank sends me a summary of my interest for the last 12 months) to set that paperwork aside or pop it in a pre-paid envelope might help. Talk to your clients about what requires effort and then think of ways to minimize or cancel out all effort on their part.
  3. You can lead a horse to water…: Some clients (*ahem*) will never comply no matter how easy you make it. In these cases you may have to embrace their latensss and turn a problem in to a celebration.

Turning a problem in to a celebration

Most industries have crazy busy periods and periods of relative calm. When I was a producer on the Today programme for BBC Radio 4, the four hours between 5am and 9am (coming at the end of a 13 hour night shift) were manic. Our feet didn’t touch the ground from the moment we briefed the presenters about that day’s show until we went off air. The shot of adrenaline and the rather macho feeling I had at the end of a shift was like a legal high. 

Rather than fighting the inevitable find ways to turn tax season in to an event:

  • Live stream it from your offices (or home offices if people are working from home) like an election results show.
  • Tweet updates as you complete someone’s tax return.
  • Get the pizzas in or get your people to bring in homemade dishes for everyone to share.
  • Get whole families involved by turning partners and kids in to cheerleaders, cake bakers, coffee top-uppers and envelope stuffers.
  • Get the whole company involved, not just the accountants.
  • Have a theme (which may require dressing up, celebrating with a particular ritual or relate to the food and drink you provide).
  • If working from home, can you use a virtual office space (check out to give a sense of togetherness?
  • Build in breakouts to revitalize people – a funny keynote speaker, massage, a silent room in the office with calming aromas and cucumber water.
  • Change the layout of the office from the typical day to day to something special which works better for your needs at this time and creates a sense of ‘event’.
  • And don’t forget to celebrate at the end!

In addition, you may want to mark that calmer time during the summer. Recognising the ‘seasons’ of your business cycle and treating the summer differently will also help your accountants understand the ebb and flow of the year. Can August be a time for self-development and personal growth? Can working hours or norms of attire be relaxed? Can the office have more of a summer feel? Can work stations be setup outside? Can there be more big thinking, creative ideas generated and reconnection to purpose and mission during this time?

Resisting human nature is a futile exercise. Embracing the rush of tax season and setting yourself and your team up to almost look forward to it (like you would if you had trained for a marathon or had university finals) means you can stop telling clients off and start celebrating the role even the most disorganized ones play in your annual cycle.


Replies (6)

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By Duggimon
08th Dec 2020 09:47

I usually just tell them they can get it to me by XXXXXX date and if not they will likely get a fine, then let them get fined.

The fine won't happen until at least eight months after I first asked them for their records so I see no reason to feel any guilt.

Thanks (1)
By raybackler
08th Dec 2020 10:02

What about the "glance at the email and delete from phone" clients or the ones who are useless at all paperwork, not just to do with their finances. It is always the same people who respond late. Take VAT Returns and say I have ten in a given month. Six will give me the information straight away and the usual four will wait until just before the deadline. So what I do is send those four the same reminder email as the first six and then leave them alone until just before the deadline. It is the thought of a fine that motivates and nothing that I say or do.

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
08th Dec 2020 10:45

The January tax return rush has been part of our life for over 30 years now (since the SA tax return system was introduced). There seem to be three types of accountants - in this context:

1 - Those who have trained or motivated the majority of their clients to supply tax return info in good time. (Many in this category sack clients who will not comply)
2 - Those who haven't sorted enough of their clients but also haven't given up on the rest
3 - Those who think there is no point in trying to persuade any more of their clients to 'behave'

Sadly, most of those in category 3 seem to have given up and even believe that there is nothing (left) that they can do that will get their clients to do things differently.

When accountants tell me this I will often ask if they are sure NONE of their clients would do things differently, regardless of what the accountant says and does?

Given the number of accountants who are in categories 1 and 2, those in category 3 must have a very different type of client base. OR is it possible that they haven't REALLY tried everything?

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Replying to bookmarklee:
By norstar
08th Dec 2020 13:43

Interesting Mark. We have 500 clients and we have a three reminder + phone call policy. We apply 15% surcharges to fees where the info comes in within two months of the deadline. December/Jan is usually quite manageable for the reasons above and we only have a handful of repeat offenders who pay accordingly.

This year is particularly bad however. I don't know why but we've got approx 100 tax returns that still haven't come in and are over two months overdue compared to last year. Odd when you think the clients have had more time to get the info together.

Clearly there's no question of "training" clients to behave when they aren't habitually late but are this year.

As a result, we're facing an uphill battle this year.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
09th Dec 2020 11:09

I have a much easier solution.

I don't deal with people who cant be bothered with their tax returns.

I fill my books with those of them that can.

Saves a huge amount of grief.

Thanks (0)
By Mark9842540
09th Mar 2021 12:16

Thanks for the information

Thanks (0)