Intruder alert: What tax pros say to those who interrupt work

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The postponement and extension are on. Funny how some prospects and clients think that just gives them more time to interrupt preparers’ work. What to tell them that’s polite, professional and effective?

“‘I’m doing the best I can, and you want the best, don’t you?’” said Debra James, an Enrolled Agent at Genesis Accounting & Mgmt. Services in Lorain, Ohio “‘It would serve us both best if I worked on your account when I’m rested and it’s quiet, so please understand that I’m going to put you on extension so you get the highest quality service I can offer. I understand your frustration, so if you’ll give me the chance to work, without additional stress and pressure, I promise you, you’ll get the best results possible!’"

“If I’m honest and straightforward, they do understand and appreciate the position I’m in,” James said.

Experts point out several methods of handling interruptions, including ignoring the intrusion. Preparers have their own tools.

Morris Armstrong, an EA and registered investment advisor at Armstrong Financial Strategies in Cheshire, Connecticut, responds by starting the clock at his hourly rate. “That would either cause you to pause and ask, ‘What?’ or continue the conversation,” he said. “If you were a long-time client who understood me and appreciated all that I have done, you may get a ‘Have a call coming in from my wife that I have to take,’ or a simple, ‘I am really swamped.’"

“Caller ID does make screening so much easier,” he said.

“‘It’s been great catching up with you, but I’ve got another appointment coming in,’” said EA Terri Ryman of Southwest Tax & Accounting in Elkhart, Kansas. “‘I’d love to hear more about your family, but there’s another call coming in and I’m alone in the office.’ ‘Thanks so much for getting back with me. You will get me [certain documentation] by Friday and I will do that work by the end of the week. We can get together again then.’”

In a normal year, “My main one for anything not related to either the filing deadlines is, ‘Can we discuss this after April 15?’ and wouldn’t you know it, people actually take me up on it. I get a lot of phone calls from about April 20 into early May,” said Dennis Cole, managing partner at Beers, Hamerman, Cohen & Burger, in New Haven, Connecticut. “Most people are good about giving me a few days to recuperate.”

“I warn them up front that I will be very busy between March 1 and April 15, and my hourly fee during that time increases by X percent,” said Portia Rose, a CPA and senior manager at Top 100 Firm Mazars USA in New York. “‘Get your information to me in one package, not piecemeal. The best thing you want is a CPA who is happy and has time to focus on you … and oh, by the way, in the meantime a care package during busy season would be nice.’”

“The other popular one is, ‘You’ve got to be bleeping kidding me!’ but I only use that one with the voice in my head,” Cole said. “I don’t think that would help much with client relations.”

In the bud

Other good countermoves: Set parameters early on, and respond with probing questions. “As part of our method to be proactive with our clients and use a value pricing methodology, we use that as another tool to help control the questions,” said Garrett Wagner, a CPA and founder/CEO of the C3 Evolution Group, in Rochester, New York.

“In our basic package, we reply to our clients in 48-plus hours and may still bill for calls. This helps reduce calls from clients in this tier. In our top packages, we reply to our clients in under 24 hours and, more importantly, meet with them on a regular basis. By meeting with them regularly, it allows us to better control the schedule of contact, the agenda and any possible follow-up questions,” Wagner said.

Finally, just make it clear they must wait their turn. “I just keep repeating, ‘I can’t do that now because it’s my busy tax season now!’ Most people understand,” said Sallie Mullins Thompson, a CPA in New York. “If they don’t, I tend not to work much with them in the future. Life is too short and there are enough nice clients out there.”

Maybe the only thing worse than being interrupted by clients is not being interrupted by them. “This is the time of the year that I have the most communication between myself and my clients. As much as it seems like they are bothering me, all the communication is useful,” said Michelle Staeball, a CPA and owner of Townertaxes in Rochester, New York. “I welcome all client communication, especially during tax season.”

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