Late expectations: Managing procrastinating clients

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There may be a select few practitioners who manage their client schedules so well that April is no busier than February or March. But for the majority, an avalanche of last-minute filers has become an expectation.

And while having one procrastinating client is bad enough, most practitioners likely face at least a dozen really bad procrastinators, according to Chuck McCabe, president of Peoples Income Tax and The Income Tax School. “But when 80 percent or more of your clients turn in their shoe boxes of receipts to you on April 1 — or later — you’re going to have problems,” he said. “Because procrastinating clients can actually cost you money. Although you can charge them for filing an extension, will that really cover the cost of your extra time or having to keep seasonal employees later? And then there are the demanding clients, the million-questions clients, and even the ‘expect miracles in 24 hours’ clients. Fortunately, there are techniques you can use for managing clients and client expectations during a busy tax season.”

“For most taxpayers, taxes are no fun — that’s why they come to you in the first place,” he said. “The documentation you have to gather for them isn’t fun. In fact, finding all the documentation is one of the worst parts. That’s frequently the part that’s holding up clients from coming to see you sooner."

On top of that, taxes are personal, McCabe noted. “Some people who are perfectly polite and respectful otherwise can get a little anxious, demanding, or even downright rude when it comes to preparing their taxes,” he said. “So, the questions become: What are your clients expecting when they come through your door — and what do they need in order to get through the unpleasant task of filing their tax returns? What are the main things holding up your clients — and how can you, with empathy and understanding, help them better manage these things?”

“There are many ways to help your clients and to encourage them to develop better tax prep habits,” he observed. “If you take the time to help them and make the process seem easier, you’ll likely win over a client for life.”

“Once you’ve talked to your client about their tax situation and have an idea of what it will take to compile their tax documents, be very upfront about how much time it will take and what you will need from them to complete their tax return,” he said. “Transparency with your clients is really best for everyone.”

For example, a bone of contention that comes up frequently between tax preparers and clients is receipts and papers, he observed. “If you expect the receipts and bills to come to you already organized and prepared, make that clear from the outset. If you or someone in your office will do it, make sure your client knows what the hourly rate is for an associate to do what they could do at home themselves.”

And under no circumstances should you allow clients to become abusive with you or your staff, McCabe cautioned. “If a client gets irate with someone in your office, stay calm. Talk to them to find out what the problem is as they perceive it.” After you have figured out the problem and everyone is calm again, let the client know that you’re happy to help fix anything that isn’t right, but you insist on civil behavior and a respectful attitude.

“If you have any clients who are truly problems for you and your staff, don’t be afraid to fire them,” he advised. “It’s OK to say no to clients and refer them to someone else if you need to.”

And instead of simply being available all the time, “Adjust your hours so you can divide your days into head-down working time and client-facing time. Then, publicize these hours clearly, but be sure to provide ways prospective clients can reach your office so you don’t lose them to competitors.”

He suggests blocking off quiet hours when clients aren’t as likely to come in, perhaps morning. “That way, working a few nights and weekends doesn’t push you excessively past a normal amount of hours each week. Managing your workload like this will help you and your associates find more balanced schedules while still getting the work done.”

McCabe recommends preparers develop specialties as one way of managing their workload as well as their clients.

“If some preparers like working on individual tax returns but don’t want to work with small businesses, that’s fine. Or perhaps they like helping people who are self-employed, but estate taxes are something they prefer not to get into. Assigning the right returns within an office, or swapping referrals with other offices can improve efficiency. That way, clients will always get the best service for what they need and preparers can be clear about what your best areas are.”

Managing your clients and their expectations during tax season will make things easier for everyone — but it also has to start before the season even begins.

For starters, McCabe suggests each client be provided with a tax organizer ahead of time, with one for individuals and one for businesses; in most cases these are provided with tax software packages. Even if clients don’t complete them, it gives them an idea of what the preparer will need and how much work the preparer will need to do.

Given that many clients don’t fill out organizers, they should at least respond to a tax appointment checklist, McCabe suggested. “And for returning clients, you might also hand out flex folders with the tax year written on the front where clients can store papers they’ll need each year. These tools make the process much easier.”

McCabe is a fan of preparers having an online client portal for their website. “The tax software provider or a tax industry vendor can provide this,” he said. “It helps that clients can log in and upload important documents, so everything is in one convenient place for everyone to access.”

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