[IMGCAP(1)]This is a response to a reader who sent me the following email about last week’s column:

All your articles are good, and so was this one about a surprise staff leader.

Question: Why was it important in your firm, for you personally, to ‘know’ about Elliot and the tax manager?

Meaning because you personally “found out,” what was already what—what changed? You personally told the busy tax manager that he had picked up a bad habit? Or that you were told by the tax manager that he was working as smart as he could, by prioritizing.

Why is it that Elliot had the time to do work for so many people? Did his own work suffer?

Working with focus, with sincerity, you can still only get 4 hours billable in an honest 8 hour day. And that's if you are indeed focused.

Thanks.

My Response:

I addressed his comments in the order they were written. Also, some others’ comments are about some of the same things.

It is always important to understand and know who the outstanding performers are in your firm. However, a lot of times the partners are involved with things that do not put them in direct contact with many of the staff, especially lower-level staff. We know them, chat with them, form opinions about them (that are usually superficial), might review some of their work, but do not directly work with them. Also appearances sometimes deceive, and we form opinions based on the way a staff person might look, dress or talk, none of which are substantive.

In this case, I had an incorrect negative opinion about Elliot. The time sheet data and my questioning changed that opinion.

I likewise had a more favorable opinion about the tax manager than maybe I should have. He was very responsive to me and my partners and the larger clients that we have more direct contact with.

However, his job was to run the tax department on a daily basis and with regard to the audit clients, be support for the staff on those. He was neglecting this part of it on many of the smaller clients or based on the “importance” of the person directing the questions to him. This was a serious breach of his responsibilities, and it was corrected forthwith.

Any firm is only as good as the staff, systems and culture. We got that back on track. It also provided the recognition by us that managers and supervisors need to be trained in those skills, and if we were not able to do this, we had to arrange for it to come from other sources. We were certainly capable of this and made it our jobs—and it still is to this day—mentoring first-time supervisors and managers at all levels in those so-called "soft skills." We’ve also sent them to specific training programs and I’ve even given speeches on this to our staff and at other firms.

I place the blame for these types of deficiencies or underperformance on myself and my partners, not on the staff people. They do not necessarily know what they do not know, and it is my job to notice or recognize this and provide the necessary training.

By my way of thinking, every client is important and needs to be serviced properly and in a world-class manner. I don’t know how you define small clients, but no client feels they are small. To themselves they are important, and if we lose sight of that, we lessen the standards of our firm and the quality of what we do—for every client. If a client doesn’t belong with us, we should tell them and let them go where it is a better match. As long as someone is our client, they are entitled to the best we can do.

Elliot had the time because he made the time. No matter how rushed or busy we are, the work gets done. If that is so, why not do it on time, or right away, or in a continuous period, or in a scheduled manner where it is worked on so much time a day or week so the work is done efficiently and effectively with a minimum or reduced number of touches? Further, many tax questions can be answered by an experienced, knowledgeable person pretty quickly (in about 15 or 20 minutes). So why not take a break from what you are doing and get it disposed of so it gets off your desk and you allow a colleague to not be delayed? If it is a longer project, then proper scheduling would come into play. Also, there are never more than one or two such questions a day, if that.

The manager did not fully understand his role and the negative effects of his delaying to get to the question. He did not intend to ignore it, but pushed it forward and in these cases someone else stepped up to get it done.

Everyone is rushed, has a full plate and is certainly busy. Otherwise, we would not need them. However, work has to flow smoothly. Avoiding bottlenecks, maintaining focus, and working as an effective team, even when it is an impromptu team, is necessary to maintain client satisfaction, staff contentment and firm profitability. Everyone needs to recognize this, and that is management’s job to see that they do.

The writer had very good comments and questions, and I took considerable time to address them.

However, I note a tone of cynicism in his last remark. Our staff members work the full seven or eight hours they are supposed to. If they did not, nothing would get done. For those that use time sheets, time is meticulously and honestly recorded and this is necessary whether you bill on such a basis or just use the time as a way of monitoring performance or profitability. I could have deleted addressing the last comment from my response since it really isn’t directly related to the rest of his email, but I wanted to address it in case there are others who share his distrust.

Thanks for reading this far and thank you for reading my columns and the comments.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner emeritus at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz (published by CPATrendlines) and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition” (published by the AICPA). Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.