insight magazine

Surviving the Second Busy Season Scaries

Between late documentation and procrastinating clients, it’s no wonder the April tax deadline is ghastly. But why does a second busy season haunt CPAs in October? By JEFF STIMPSON | Fall 2019

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The six months between Tax Day and fall pass sweetly enough: slackening of the brutal hours, some time to clear the desk and the mind, evenings to spend with almost-forgotten family and friends, longed for summer vacations. But despite a whole year before the next April 15 tax deadline, the pressure soon begins to build again. Extended tax returns, a salve for CPAs stretched thin leading up to the April filing deadline, lurk in the shadows of spring and summertime fun.

Preparers attribute the scaries of a second busy season leading up to the October tax extension deadline to two keystones of human nature—procrastination and avoidance.

“The sense of urgency for all parties goes away after a tax return has been extended,” says Illinois CPA Society member Ben Ralston, CPA, director in the Chicago office of CBIZ MHM.

“It’s easy for staff, managers, and clients to deprioritize extended returns,” says Neil Keller, CPA, ABV, CVA, tax partner-in-charge in the Milwaukee office of Sikich LLP. “Things get put off until there’s a more looming deadline.”

“You have a few other things happen after the first tax season,” adds Illinois CPA Society member Mark Dalbey, tax principal in CLA’s Peoria, Ill. office. “A lot of younger staff have kids who get out of school around that time and you’ve got a lot of pent-up demand for vacations. You almost lose the whole month of June. Then you’ve got holidays like July 4, and we’re finding that any time you get a holiday in the middle of the week, people tend to take the whole week off. This all compresses the time frame.”

While burned out CPAs savoring spring break and summertime fun certainly contribute to a compressed fall busy season, they surely aren’t solely to blame.

“Generally, the extended tax returns are the complex ones, and tax reform added to that complexity. With several technical issues that need to be addressed, a lot of time and focus is put on coordinating client information,” says Matthew Denman, CPA, MST, a partner in the Schaumburg, Ill. office of Plante Moran.

In fact, the waiting game that’s played with clients and their third-party documentation delays are prime suspects in the case for a second busy season.

Illinois CPA Society member Jim Linehan, CPA, a sole practitioner in Peoria, Ill., says clients often file late because they receive K-1s or 1099s deep into the season. Clients used to get these documents by the end of January. Now, delivery is often toward the end of February. And yes, “some filers are procrastinators,” Linehan adds. “If they know there’s an extension deadline in October, they’re going to wait to get you stuff at the last minute. Staying on top of procrastinators is the only way to remedy that.”

BUSTING THE SECOND BUSY SEASON

A second busy season is a burden on CPA firms and their staffs that doesn’t come without risks. “A rushed return prepared in a compressed time frame is a risk for the firm,” Dalbey says matter-of-factly. From burnout to botched returns and client conflict, there’s much to fear and be on watch for. But there are ways to put the second busy season scaries to bed.

Keller, who has been working on an initiative to smooth out workloads and better manage the second busy season, says the best solution for clients that are the root of work not getting completed is continuous communication.

Despite our high-tech age, Dalbey says “nothing’s better than picking up the phone—it strengthens your relationship and the contact becomes personal.”

Of course, direct, personal emails can also be very effective for communicating what you’ve done for your client and what you need from them. Dalbey recommends using progressive language when clients need prodding: “In the first email, say you’re just checking in. In the second, say you’re checking in again and ask if the client can get the information in soon. In the third, say you’ve received no response yet, and let the client know that if the information isn’t in by a set deadline, you can’t guarantee getting their return done by the filing deadline.”

CBIZ meets clients after the first due dates to “discuss the expectation regarding the timeline for filing returns on extension,” Ralston says. “One way to get a client’s buy-in for more timely filing is to agree to a timeline where the client provides the missing information well before getting deep into August or September. It is important to follow up to make sure everyone sticks to the timeline.”

Setting milestone dates and making clients stick to them isn’t always easy, so Denman offers a different tactic: “Create a fee-based approach, offering clients a different fee schedule depending on when they provide information. It’s important that clients understand that if milestone dates are missed, it could impact their fee.”

Another approach: “Over-communication can minimize the impact of client delays,” Denman says. “Have regular meetings with clients to make sure they’re aware and on top of the information they need to provide. If they’re struggling to get information, these meetings provide a great opportunity to guide them.”

“As accountants, we’re so scared we’re going to lose clients,” Dalbey says, “but if you have a difficult client, you have to be willing to have difficult conversations.”

“If a client continues to cause unnecessary delays, it may be worth evaluating if they’re a good long-term client,” Denman says.

On the other hand, the importance of evaluating the morale of your good long-term staff is easy to overlook when everyone in the firm is busy, but CPA firm leaders should be as worried about losing staff over poorly managed expectations as they are about losing clients—and sometimes that requires difficult conversations as well.

“We set the expectation with staff early in the year that there will be a second busy season in the fall so there are no surprises,” Ralston says, “but we also offer summer hours between May and July as a way to manage potential burnout.”

“In November and December, we ask staff to think about the coming year,” Dalbey shares, explaining that CLA’s schedules are built out by in-house, individual coaches who budget time for chargeable hours, vacations, training, and volunteering well in advance of crunch periods.

At Sikich, teams have weekly scheduling meetings to discuss which clients they can work on and what can be done to move returns along. “We’ve found that if you’re proactive from both the staff and client perspective, you can, to an extent, smooth out some of the work,” Keller says. “While you might not be able to completely avoid a second busy season, you can make it much less daunting.”