For decades, anyone could hang a shingle as a tax preparer with little IRS oversight. But the agency's new mandatory registration requirement - including new testing, education and background requirements -- mean that not just anyone can prepare returns for money.
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The next two years will see the full implementation of the IRS-mandated program designed to sharpen qualifications and limit the preparation of individual income tax returns for compensation to CPAs, attorneys, enrolled agents -- and Registered Tax Return Preparers.
The latter then, have entered a special group. How can they market this to clients?
Marketing the designation may come down to explaining succinctly to a public perhaps more familiar with the meaning of letters like "CPA" what RTRPs are and the differences between them and other professionals.
The IRS plans to help new promote public awareness of the importance of the new designation and the qualifications needed to acquire it. "It's important to us how the public gets to know what's involved in becoming an RTRP," said David R. Williams, director of the IRS Return Preparer Office. "We believe the IRS has an obligation to help practitioners educate the public in distinctions between an RTRP, an EA and a CPA."
Matt Mcbride, president of Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based education provider Fast Forward Academy, believes the IRS will eventually come out with more guidance on marketing the designation, perhaps even a logo that registered preparers can use in marketing. "I think it's going to be similar to our experience as an education provider. The IRS has some marketing guidelines on how we can promote that we're an approved provider. It will be a little different, in that the RTRP is 'registered' with the IRS and not 'approved,'" McBride said.
McBride said that he can envision more clients asking preparers for their PTINs when they learn that RTRPs are registered with the IRS. He added that the proposed IRS database of RTRPs will likely attract growing number of tax prep clients who want to see their preparer's registration and designation "in black and white." He also said that he can envision some preparers getting clients asking who the preparer is registered with and even requesting their PTIN for research.
RTRPs will not share certain privileges of CPAs and EAs. From a marketing perspective, then, RTRPs perhaps shouldn't "go the extra mile to announce that you have restricted rights of representation," noted David Bybee, president of the Association of Registered Tax Return Preparers.
He does stress that RTRPs should emphasize to clients the regulations regarding background checks, continuing education requirements and the competency testing process -- new and perhaps impressive requirements that the public may not yet understand or even know about.
Williams said that the IRS is still educating preparers themselves about the need to take the test, and that public education is yet to come. "Our big message right now is that we want people to take the test so we have RTRPs to market," said Williams, who added that the eventual awareness campaign won't be just about RTRPs, but about all preparers. The IRS is also preparing to soon launch a database for consumers to research the qualifications of their tax preparers.
For now, cut-and-paste can help a lot when assembling cards, brochures and even verbal answers when face to face with clients who are wondering what RTRP implies. The RTRP Association site offers useful wording on the definition of RTRPs and the tests they have to pass, their practice rights and distinctions from other designations. The IRS also offers wording that RTRPs might find useful.
Look for our follow-up article on marketing RTRPs next week on Tax Pro Today.