Make a note to improve your practice’s workflow during filing season

Everyone’s working hard to manage their clients’ tax affairs in the run-up to the self-assessment filing deadline – but will you make time to consider how you manage your practice during this busy period?

With under three weeks to the deadline there’s not really anything you can do to smooth your processes and workflow this time around. However, gathering your thoughts to make things better for next year requires some effort and thinking – so what can you do?

Stepping away to take a calm, considered and pilot’s-eye view of how things are going in a small practice is difficult – for me it’s easier to look at how the team is working. So you have to use your team really effectively to track what is going on.

Make post-it notes of things you see that could be improved as you go along. Or the more modern method is to have notes open on your mobile phone or laptop. Capturing your thoughts as things happen – good or bad – is so important.  Then take the time as soon as possible in February to review those issues, and consider remedies.

There is rightly a big focus on technology as the ‘cure-all’ to practice management problems. This is right to an extent – with document management and automation improving the flow of information between client and practice. But the human element is really the first step.

Who are you clients, and how do they interact with you?

Understanding who your clients are and how they interact with you is vital. How many send you a box of receipts and expenses in a shoebox a day or two before the filing deadline? How do you change their behaviour?  How do you ensure that you have the time to deal with clients in January who genuinely have more complex affairs, and so can’t be ready until then?

And then, what impact does your clients’ interactions with your practice have on your team? What does it mean for capacity and workflow?

Our firm had people working very long hours in January – But if someone was ill it would have become a problem; and doing too much increases the likelihood of mistakes.

We segmented our clients based on their tax situation. We understood which ones could effectively file straight after the end of the tax year, and those that would be later. Our first efforts at encouraging earlier filing, such as financial incentives, or hard deadlines without discussion as to why we were putting these in place didn’t stick as well as we hoped. 

However, once we more clearly expressed to clients the core benefits for filing in a timely manner: de-risking the return process; and why planning tax liabilities in advance is so advantageous, things changed. And, of course, having conversations with a client is very often positive in other ways. We don’t exactly have a ‘quiet January’, but it’s more balanced and better for us and our clients.

Chris Riley is head of tax at PKF Littlejohn, and the firm is a member of PKF International

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