It’s that time of year – despite accountants’ best efforts to encourage clients to file their tax returns early, many still leave it until the last minute.
With the scramble to get returns sorted and filed for the end of January, it can mean that the first few weeks of the new year are extremely busy.
So how can accountants manage the January workflow as everyone sends in their tax forms at the last minute? How can you maintain relationships with late-filing clients? Do incentives to file early work? We look at the issues and suggest some ideas to help you get through this busy month.
Keep the communication going
When it comes to managing your workflow, Joanne Harris, Senior Commercial Manager for Nixon Williams, says setting clients’ expectations at an early stage is crucial.
“Minimising last-minute returns is key to success,” she says. “You should remind clients of their obligations early on and provide them with access to online declarations so they can send the necessary information as quickly and easily.” It is also helpful to set a specific deadline for the submission of this information.
Timescales should be agreed
While ongoing communication throughout the year is key, it becomes even more essential in January. For this reason, you should confirm the receipt of the accounting information and take time to review it and advise if anything is missing. Timescales should also be discussed early on and repeated throughout the process.
“A lack of communication can be very frustrating, and nobody likes to be told that crucial information is missing at the last minute,” she says. “Early preparation with clients will help to minimise these situations.”
Unfortunately, incentives to file early only have limited success.
Mike Parkes, Technical Director at GoSimpleTax, a self-assessment tax software, says: “From experience it is the prospect of the account charging a higher fee to clients that send them their records after an agreed deadline that is a better incentive.”
Put some boundaries in place
Dan Stopp, the UK Accounting Manager the Swedish AI-based accounting tool, Bokio studied at BPP University and has an AAT qualification. Bokio provides support for a wide range of administrative tasks including invoicing, employee expenses, reporting and VAT returns.
He says there is no harm in setting an earlier deadline to ensure the paperwork is in order.
“Accountants can set their clients a separate and earlier deadline and inform them that if they do not send their records by a certain date, such as 1st December, there is no guarantee of the deadline being met,” he says.
“People have almost ten months to provide their accountants with their records for Self Assessment, which is a long time, so I think they should be encouraged to provide records as soon as the fiscal year ends.”
He also recommends you book a meeting with late-filing clients to explain why the return was filed late.
Use the power of automation
Steve Cox, chief evangelist at IRIS Software Group, says Christmas used to be a time for accountants to be in the office frantically filing tax returns.
“The gift of automation can give accountants a break over the festive time,” he says. “Rather than constant email and telephone reminders to clients, accountants can reach their whole client base with a click of a button and send automated alerts and advice well in advance of the tax deadline.”
You can also track who has or hasn’t responded, making it simple to assess the best way to reach and engage with clients.
Dan Stopp of Bokio says going paperless is a great way for accountants to ease the workload in the run up to the January deadline rush.
“Something accountants dread is receiving lots of records in no order just before a deadline,” he says. “There are now great ways of storing records within accounting software where you can attach documents to each transaction. There are also tools that use AI to recognise the amount and date on receipts to speed up the process and increase accuracy.”
Finding ways to cope with the extra stress and long hours
Joanne Harris says she incorporates “lots of coffee, listening to music and regular breaks” to keep her stamina going.
“I’d recommend keeping team spirits up with the promise of a social event and having a countdown calendar to February – it helps!”
Mike Parkes says you don’t have to accommodate clients who repeatedly file late, and it is OK to give yourself a break.
“By planning your tax return submission program from April you can help minimise the extra demands in January,” he says. “Some clients want to file early, some do not realise they can file early. Even if deadlines are imposed, there will always be a client with exceptional circumstances where you want to submit the return on time. Make sure that you leave space in your diary for this special case.
Whilst it can be difficult, don’t be afraid to lose a client or ask them to find an alternative accountant if they repeatedly miss deadlines, push the boundaries or have unrealistic expectations from you as their accountant.
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Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.