Art of Accounting: Keeping track of interruptions

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I get a ton of interruptions; I figure it comes with the job. The issue is how I deal with them and which ones I have learned to ignore or pass over. I think I am pretty good at it. Recently, I met with an accounting firm where dealing with interruptions became a contentious issue. Here is what happened and some solutions I offered:

Two of the eight partners in the firm decided they would not add time spent on interruptions to their time sheets. Both receive about 20 calls a day and each call lasts about five minutes. I am not sure who decided this first, but to them, the situations were the same. I disagreed. One of the partners was about 25 years younger than the other. He was the partner in charge of the review and audit work, while the other was a founding partner whose work was limited to new business leads and meetings with clients. The audit partner’s calls were from supervisors and managers. The founding partner’s calls were from longtime clients or referral sources who just wanted to say hello or check in.

The audit partner complained about the interruptions. He felt his day was too unsettled and hectic because of the interruptions and that the calls stopped him from getting his work done. He also complained that filling out his time sheets took too much extra time and, since most of the fees were fixed, it was not necessary.

The founding partner liked the calls and looked forward to them. He felt the calls enabled him to keep in touch with clients, friends and referral sources. He also said none of his calls could be considered chargeable and that if they were inadvertently billed, it could result in an embarrassing situation. He said that by not putting them on his time sheets, there could be no “mistakes” with the bills.

The audit partner said all his calls were answering “stupid” questions and that the clients should not be charged for them. I felt these calls were significant and should be entered on the time sheets. If the managers felt the need to call, then they needed help or a question answered. If a manager made excessive calls throughout the day, then he or she needed to be told to save their questions so there would be no more than two calls a day — one at the end of the morning and another in mid-afternoon.

The reasons for the calls needed to be explored. For instance, were they because of a lack of technical knowledge, or practical knowledge about the client or situation, or for help in scope of the work? Or were the calls for managerial assistance? Whatever the reason, they were related to client service and should be billed.

I suggested that finding the reasons for the calls could help identify areas for improvement or extra training. Perhaps the partner was not providing clear instructions or wasn’t making what was needed from clients evident enough. Perhaps certain managers were making the most of the calls. Perhaps one or all of the managers weren’t trained properly in managing staff, the audit planning was cut short, or the staff were improperly trained for what they were expected to do.

It would seem the firm would not be richer if the founding partner’s time were recorded but would be richer if the audit partner’s time were entered.

If you do not use time sheets, then the recording details are not applicable; however, you still need to be aware of interruptions and the reasons for them, so try to find a way to keep track of them.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management questions.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.comalong with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. 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) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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