Tax Season – A Different Kind of Boot Camp
by Kathleen Hoffelder, NJCPA Content Editor –
January 3, 2018
How one survives tax season at a public accounting firm is often personal and cannot be explained — or even shared — with people outside of the accounting profession who would not understand the demands on time.
Some tax professionals prep before their “call of duty” by resting up days before the busy season. Others make a point of going to more social events than usual in advance of tax time since they shut down from January to April, and for some, an additional extension to October, on everything remotely related to family and friends. With long hours and countless demands, senior management has come to offer innovative services to boost morale and keep clients coming back.
Accounting firms who are decidedly more traditional in their style of management often demand a certain amount of facetime in the office, which only increases at tax time, while others use a more modern approach to surviving the long hours at this time of year. Offering everything from work-at-home arrangements to free massages and laundry service can bring a sense of balance to busy lives — and keep employees trudging along.
Kelly Fantasia, PHR, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources at Untracht Early LLC, says her firm’s activities are often selected for their “silly quotient” this time of year. Perks, according to Fantasia, have included such innovative ideas as a contest to guess which Crayola crayon was removed from the traditional 64 count box. The “treats,” as she notes, have “the unique ability to generate buzz and conversation while contributing to the strong sense of community that is one of the firm’s most defining characteristics.”
The activities also carry some practical value too. “We strive to find ways that our busy season perks can bridge the gap between work and home. To help keep employees engaged, we incorporate frequent stress-busting activities designed to give our professionals fun ‘brain breaks’ that foster comradery.” These include Football Friday, where people are encouraged to don their favorite sports jersey and gather at lunchtime to share six-foot subs, as well as Summer Solstice and Lunar Eclipse celebrations.
Shivani Jain, CPA, partner at Sax LLP and leader of the firm’s tax practice, also sees value in perks meant to engage staff. “We provide catered food for those in the office on the weekends and coordinate visits from a masseuse, a shoe repair and shining vendor, and a dry cleaning service. We work to hold more ‘let your hair down’ type of events like themed parties with prize giveaways and a post-tax season happy hour event to celebrate the close of tax season,” she says.
And connecting with staff members’ families in a nontraditional way also goes over well with employees during tax time, adds Fantasia. “Some of the treats we’ve issued to ensure that we remember to connect our employees and their family members include our annual Valentine’s Day family-oriented gift (which has included a box of four designer cupcakes, a theater-goer movie tickets/popcorn/soda package, and wine) and care packages of doggie treats in recognition of National Dog Day and our professionals’ favorite four-legged friends,” she says.
Simulating Boot Camp
While it’s necessary to keep one’s staff in the loop over new tax laws or regulations, it’s becoming equally important — especially with different generations in the workforce — to discuss expectations of employees at this busy time of year too.
For Sax, a balance of mandatory hours along with some flex time works. “During tax season, we start with a mandatory 53hour work week beginning the third week in January, and as our workload ramps up moving into February, that increases to a 56-hour work week. The overall firm has a 37.5-hour work week, so tax team members have the flexibility to work the additional hours from home or in the office, at the times most convenient for them (earlier mornings, weekends, etc.),” notes Jain. “We have seen that this makes working longer hours easier, and in the same vein, we have seen this extended flexibility to team members only aid productivity.”
Staffers preparing for tax time attend tax focus sessions and study groups, according to Jain. But these programs are not initiated in a vacuum, she notes, since the firm’s audit and accounting department works sideby-side with its tax department in the tax training programs. “The biggest advantage is that our A&A team members are able to help the tax team in preparing basic to moderate tax returns, thereby allowing for a more efficient workflow and alleviating pressure on the tax staff,” she says.
Interns, too, are not immune to tax boot camp training. At Citrin Cooperman, interns are called in at tax time and go through a 12-week regimen. During their stay, Sylvia Zozulia, CPA, audit director at Citrin Cooperman, says “the interns discover more about the firm’s culture, people and different practice areas, but they also discover more about themselves and gain valuable insight about their career aspirations.”
The training also provides a good dose of reality. “This gives interns the opportunity to experience firsthand the workings of a CPA firm during the busiest time of year. The interns go through a full week of intensive training on various computer programs, office procedures and tax return and auditing basics,” says Zozulia. The routine may, indeed, be worth it, she notes, since at the end of the internship, several offers are typically made for full-time staff positions.
Zozulia also believes in educating staff in the off-season so they are adequately prepared for the busy season. “Our firm strongly believes that you don’t have to work harder, you need to work smarter. The firm provides seminars on various topics, such as analytic procedures, sampling and running effective planning meetings to the audit staff prior to busy season.”
That goes for all staff, too. “The seminars are given by individuals at various levels so everyone is learning the particular topics while improving their presentation skills,” she says.
Rethinking Client Contact
Preparing clients ahead of tax time is important for smooth-running operations when tax season finally comes. Some accounting firms have methodical preparation in place, while others prefer to make contact on a case-by-case basis. Whichever method works, one thing is clear — more contact is better than less.
Marcia Geltman, CPA, tax partner at Nisivoccia LLP, for one, says written communication with clients begins in December. “We send out engagement letters in December and organizers in January,” she explains, noting that clients also have to do their part in the process. “We request that most information be provided at least 10 days before the filing deadline. We hold fast to this date and put returns on extension if significant information is received after the deadline.”
As Geltman puts it, client contact is most important during tax season, and forgetting that often results in a visit from senior management. “Our top priority is client service. Our founding member, Raymond Nisivoccia, instilled this concept into our staff from the beginning. He required all staff to call their clients back within the same day, or else you were invited to have a one-on-one chat in his office,” she says. “We prepare over 2,500 tax returns each year and make an effort to call each client to discuss the return. This is a great opportunity to continue developing client relationships.”
And those client conversations need to be thorough and holistic in nature, according to Geltman. “While discussing the tax return, we ask whether they have any concerns about retirement planning. Being able to offer these services is appealing to many of our clients.”
Good communication with clients doesn’t stop after tax time either. “During the year, we continue developing relationships by providing useful newsletters on various topics to our different client segments,” she adds.
Sax’s Jain agrees, noting that periodic meetings with clients throughout the year are most helpful. Having open dialogue, for example, ensures the firm receives the full scope of information on their clients for tax planning, succession planning and any other issues they may have. This includes holding a CFO Focus event every November, which emphasizes relevant tax changes pertinent to CFOs and other financial managers.
This article appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.