There can be little doubt that everyone reading this article will have been through the horrors of trying to tease out information from clients in order to complete tax returns on a timely basis.
The process should be simple. Sometime in late summer, a letter should go to clients who will need us to complete their tax return requesting specific information.
The letter will typically be accompanied by a checklist. Preferably this should be specifically geared towards the individual client using information that was included in the previous year's tax return as a starting point. At the same time, it is obviously necessary to seek out new sources of income.
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The immediate problem is that most clients will ignore the letter together with succeeding reminders. However, it is still necessary to write regularly and maintain an audit trail hoping that you eventually catch the critical moment when the rain is falling and your client can find nothing better to do than bring together all of the necessary bits of paper or electronic data that will facilitate the finalisation of their return.
It is a good move to include a final date after which you cannot guarantee to get the tax return completed by 31 January. This should be stated in every single letter/email and reminder so that clients cannot claim ignorance.
Never forget that clients are people and therefore will respond to different triggers. Some appreciate a simple reminder, while others will do nothing until they receive threats.
Most will take no action until the deadline is imminent, and then send over half of what you have requested, the remainder appearing in a trickle as increasingly frustrated communications spell out the consequences of failing to meet the statutory commitment.
Persuade your staff to be innovative. Time will always be tight but sometimes a phone call or visit can elicit information that is not forthcoming.
Some information may be obtained via third parties rather than directly from the client. If this is easier, then ensure that you have letters of authority at an early stage so that these can be forwarded to banks, investment advisers or others. If nothing else, professionals may well feel an obligation to respond, where clients will happily ignore you.
While it is always easy to blame clients who failed to deliver, sometimes you may need to look into your own souls. Quite often, some of us may forget to send out reminders, concentrate on certain clients and completely neglect others or perhaps worst of all, receive information and fail to act upon it so that several months later we realise that there is a big gap and have to go back to the client looking sheepish and apologising profusely.
In many cases, though, the simple problem is clients' lassitude. There are a number of approaches that may get over this. Broadly, they can be divided into the carrots and sticks.
Most firms only use the sticks, threatening clients with the disaster of having a tax return going in late if they do not come up with the goods on time. Those firms then tend to complete the returns even if the data is provided right at the end of January when staff are working around the clock.
An alternative approach might be to offer rewards to clients that perform. Subject to any ethical limitations, which will probably not be in point in situations of this type, you could consider offering any clients that get their full tax return information to you by the end of October a choice of rewards.
For example you could buy a job-lot of upmarket pens, ties, purses or silk scarves, perhaps brand them very subtly and give good clients a choice of which they would like. This innovation will please clients and make the lives of you and your staff much easier.
You might even get some business as a result of the word-of-mouth when those clients tell their friends about the lovely accountant who gave them a Gucci tie or scarf.