Are you managing your clients or are they managing you?

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A friend asked me how my Sept. 15 deadline went. And while it was certainly a busy week, I found myself mostly re-organizing my desk on Friday and cleaning out my inbox to feel refreshed for Monday.

After years in practice, I have learned to set my expectations and boundaries very clearly around tax deadlines to manage my profit, my clients and my burnout in a manner that is right for me.

Here are five things you can start doing right now to help better manage client expectations and stress around tax deadlines:

1. Set better expectations in your engagement letters

Even if you’re not changing your prices for tax season (although if you read our recent TPN article on pricing changes, you probably should) you still can have clients re-sign engagement letters to address changes to your terms and conditions. Require documents to be sent in sooner and require them to be electronic (see more below on this).

Consider charging for extensions when clients don’t provide documents to you within the specified window ahead of a deadline. All these changes are meant to help drive your efficiency, which means better service for them.

2. Utilize technology

Everything needs to be electronic. If your practice is still taking paper, this is the year that you address that in your engagement letter too. If clients prefer to mail or drop off paper documents, sign up for a scanning service with a specified mailing address. All paper must be mailed to the scanning service and a fee will apply.

I highly recommend offering them an alternative like a client portal with an easy-to-use app that allows them to take pictures and upload them. In either case, you need to take scanning off your list of things to do leading up to a tax deadline and since your records will be kept electronically, this is an easy way to set expectations for your clients ahead of time of how your practice operates.

3. Pull clients in on tax law changes

Law changes are always many and it’s incredibly hard to keep up with, especially for generalist practitioners. You can pull your clients in to help you while adding value for them at the same time. Start now sending out newsletters and snippets before the end of the year letting them know the headlines of what changes are coming.

You do not need to be an expert in every tax law change to find a short list of major changes coming in 2024. Put the list with basic descriptions in front of your clients and give them the responsibility of being proactive in coming to you with questions. You also can create quick checklists and surveys that ask them to check off if they think any of these changes apply to them and they’d like to be contacted further to discuss.

This will not help you catch everyone that might be impacted by a change, but it will help get your clients better prepared ahead of time, and it will help you start to identify now which clients may need to address tax planning. It will also help you identify which changes impact more of your clients so you can keep your team focused on becoming experts in what actually impacts your client base.

4. Change your billing structure

Again, you don’t need to raise prices to adjust your billing in a way that sets you up for better success. If your practice is used to charging clients after a return is prepared, or even worse, after it is filed, STOP. You should be charging at a minimum, a 50% retainer before work begins on any return.

If clients don’t have to pay until a return is filed, think about how much work you and your team could be putting in to just calculate extension payments only to not be fully paid for six more months. I really recommend charging full price for returns before any work begins, but if that’s vastly different from how you have billed in the past, start with a retainer and work from there.

Not only will it improve your cash flow, but it will deter anyone who is going to be slow to pay. You don’t need to chase receivables the week before a tax deadline.

5. Reassess your communication structure

In my experience, clients leave their current preparers 9 times out of 10 because of lack of communication. I know you’re busy, but you must respond if you don’t want client attrition. This is a relationship, remember, and if you don’t communicate with your chosen partner, they’re going to find someone else to talk to.

If communication is getting overwhelming and time consuming during a busy season (duh) you need to change how your clients communicate with you.

CRM and client portal softwares like TaxDome and Karbon that overlay email systems can help to automatically sort client communications into their respective client files. This can make it easier to funnel communications to the team member(s) actually working on their returns and it helps to efficiently move pertinent information into the client files.

You also can consider a general email box like tax@firmemailaddress and have an admin team member responsible for sorting through that inbox. If a client is simply asking for a tax organizer, or what a deadline is, or questions about their bill, most likely the admin person can handle this and save your preparers time to actually prepare returns. If clients send documents to this address they can get sorted into files ahead of time.

Our clients are our bread and butter and we no doubt love and respect them. I appreciate everyone who paid a dollar to our firm because those dollars have made my livelihood. But just because we’re paid for a service does not beholden us to terrible work-life balance just because we don’t set boundaries.

The sooner you frame your expectations for your clients the happier you will be. Your clients will be happier too, they will see improvements in communication and efficiency coming from their service provider in an industry traditionally known for not being great at either one.

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