Art of Accounting: Tax season crash training for beginners

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A few accountants recently called me to vent about being shorthanded and asked for suggestions on how they could get through tax season without turning down any business or dropping clients.

There are many reasons how they ended up in this situation, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is how they can get their work done now. I’ve been there and have dealt with this in two primary ways and have a friend who handles it a third way, so here they are. This is being directed at the people I spoke with, but I think there are techniques from which everyone who has or wants staff can benefit.

Preliminarily, new staff people need to be shown how to use our software and maneuver through our systems. Any staff person can teach this, and it is best assigned to a younger person. New staff members need to learn how to log on, call up a return, and start entering transactions. They also need to learn how to use the paperless system, and to scan and enter documents into our cloud filing system. The output from our smart scanning program and tax return tracking software shows up on their computer.

The first way illustrated was done by me 30 years ago, and it worked. There is a more recent iteration being used successfully by some firms I know, but I have a newer method that is shown in the third way below. What we did was prepare a sample tax return and use a classroom setup to have our staff prepare the return. We duplicated the type of data clients would bring us, even throwing in a 1099 for the previous year. We also distributed filled-in pages to the preparers based on their experience level.

Beginners received the forms for Schedules C and E. The more experienced received filled in Schedules A and B. The object was to train staff and to determine a sense of their ability. Peter and I walked around overseeing the work and providing some tips so that everyone completed the return with the federal tax calculated. While our returns were computer generated, the sample return was worked on manually. We allotted two hours for the preparation and then we had an hour for a critique. This was very successful and we only stopped it when our staff and other participants exceeded 30 people because the oversight became unwieldly. We also had a one-hour update on changes, tips and best practices for the upcoming tax season. This was the beginning of what became our Partners Network. We had a program earlier this month with 110 people in New Jersey and 40 in New York City—all free for Partners Network members.

Currently our office at Withum has the beginners prepare a sample return under similar circumstances, and this program works well, with the participants able to prepare reasonably complex returns within three weeks. We have a senior manager conduct the training with a dozen or so staff at one time. This works, but this method and the earlier way we did it is very time consuming to prepare the sample return and conduct the training sessions. However, following this regime one on one is not very efficient and uses too much of the trainer’s time.

The second method is a friend’s. He is very successful with it, but he needs to spend about two hours on the initial training. It needs to be done by him quickly after the person starts, but he sometimes finds it hard to allocate the time, so he puts off hiring a beginner. He does the tax preparation review and says he has no one else able to do the initial training. However, his method works very well.

He sits down with newbies and shows them the previous year’s return and the current year’s populated tax program with the carryforward information. He gives them the client’s documents and shows them how to enter each transaction, one at a time. Of course he has the preparer group the similar documents before starting, so all the similar forms will be entered at the same time. He watches what is done and makes corrections, suggestions or comments as necessary. When finished, he has a “preparer” ready to work. If all you had to do is spend a solid two hours to get someone ready to prepare returns, this is a great method.

The third is my 30:30 method and works very well with a minimum of time spent by the trainer. What I do is line up three simple returns and start with one of them. The input processes are broken down into small steps. The 30:30 method requires explaining what needs to be done in no more than 30 seconds, and giving something that won’t take more than 30 minutes to do. The downside is there are continuous interruptions, but the actual time for the trainer is less than five minutes for the day and the preparer learns how to prepare returns. A bonus is that preparers get a compliment after each “30 minutes,” making them feel good. When a single thing is assigned, it doesn’t take more than a couple of seconds to review it, which is done while the next step is assigned. The trainer needs to be available for the preparer but can do whatever other work needs to get done while doing the teaching.

There are other ways, but the above work, and if you are not happy with your methods, then give these a try. Anything done during tax season is done as a crash course, but the training is an investment that can pay great dividends, especially during tax season. You are welcome to contact me to discuss this and any other practice management issue. Email me at emendlowitz@withum.com with a brief description or question and include your phone number, and I will call you back.

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.com. 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) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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Tax practice Tax season Training Ed Mendlowitz WithumSmith+Brown