This is a question I always ask accountants when I talk with them in February. “How was January for you this year?”
The answers are always pretty similar. They range from “Not as bad as previously” through to the absolute defeatist “Same as always. I just accept that’s the way it is.” This tends to be a more common response from older accountants who have lived with the 31 January deadline for 20 years now, since the first one in 1998.
I recall one accountant who admitted to me: “January was hell – and it was my own fault.”
I was astonished by this admission as it evidenced both honesty and self awareness.
Most accountants blame their clients for ignoring requests to produce their papers in good time to avoid a last minute rush before the 31 January filing deadline for personal tax returns. My friend acknowledged that with him it’s as much a question of priorities. Even if clients do supply their papers in good time he focuses his attention on meeting earlier deadlines such as 31 December for 31 March company accounts and, before that, 30 September for 31 December company accounts. I’ll bet his personal tax return clients wouldn’t want to hear this.
He told me that he incentivises clients to provide all their papers before the end of October each year. However doesn’t always have time to check that the papers are complete and sometimes has to ask for missing details when completing their returns in December and January. So he was right. The pressure he was under in January was his own fault. He wasn’t planning and prioritising his work effectively.
A friend of mine has an accountant like this. She says this is the third year that he has taken months to produce her tax return and she’s not giving him any more chances. I’m amazed that she’s stayed with him this long – especially as, without the tax return he wasn’t able to give her advance warning of her forthcoming tax bills. To my mind this is a key part of the annual compliance service.
The other response I frequently hear is that “We’ve tried everything and nothing works. Clients just don’t respond to anything other than the filing deadline”. Again, this seems somewhat defeatist to me. It would be true if no accountants were able to ‘train’ their clients to avoid last minute deadlines. But plenty of accountants do just that. And their client bases are typically very typical 😉
If you have an established practice and your client base hasn’t changed much for a while, then clearly it is going to be more difficult to motivate your clients to start doing things differently. But it is not impossible. And you need to be committed to following through too.
Recently an accountant told me that he had tried charging a £100 penalty when clients sent him their records received after 1 December. He said it had only a limited impact. I wonder though when he first communicated this to clients, whether he reminded them with as much effort in November as he does in January and when he required payment of the additional £100? All of these could have an impact. As could the way in which the penalty fee was communicated.
One key tip here is to to keep everything focused on the value to your client. Thus it’s more important to encourage them to do things differently because of the impact on them – rather than because it will make your life easier!
My favourite response to the question though is: “Never again” when it comes from accountants who are prepared to put in the necessary time and effort to change things. They may do this alone, they may seek my input. But either way they know that it is down to them to make plans and to take action.
What’s your approach? Have you given up? Or have you succeeded to ‘training’ your clients to allow you to give them a better service?