The Rev. Martin Luther King dreamt that men would be judged by the content of their character. I have a more mundane dream – that all staff members perform their jobs without micromanaging from me. I dream that tax season is filled with the joyful experience of staff accountants setting good priorities and keeping projects on schedule. How practical is my dream?
The dream of eliminating micromanaging is quite achievable if you implement effective project management combined with positive reinforcement of good staff behavior.
Projects and schedules get off track when your staff doesn’t set good priorities. Unless you have a good project management system in place, your staff will likely use the piles of files project management method. That means the first files they see will be the first projects they’ll work on. This gets even worse in a paperless environment. With no visible files to review, they’ll pick projects at random. They don’t know which projects are two weeks old already and which ones just came in a few days ago.
Your CPA, accounting, or tax practice management system must have the ability to:
- Track projects (tax returns) by preparer, reviewer, and person in charge of the engagement
- Sort projects by age, due date, and expected delivery date
- Track projects by status, such as which ones are waiting on client input and which ones are in progress with staff
- Alert staff (and you) when projects are behind schedule.
If your practice management system has these features, you begin can the push to make your staff self-managing. You start the process by meeting with each of your staff at the beginning of each week. This meeting should take no more than ten minutes per staff member. So you say you can’t afford this time? You can either spend the time now with staff or spend it later on angry phone calls from clients asking why returns that were started a month ago still aren’t done.
Sort projects by staff member and then by age. This list tells you what projects are in trouble. Start with the oldest project and ask the preparer what’s holding up the return. You will get some amazing answers. Nine times out of ten the explanation for an overdue project will start with the phrase I hate more than any other English phrase, “I’m waiting on…”
“I’m waiting on the client to give me stock basis.”
“I’m wanting on answers to our questions.”
“I’m waiting on world peace.”
“I’m waiting on a cure for cancer.”
There are bad reasons for waiting and even worse reasons. For the stock basis question, do you think the client knows what basis is? Of course not. The question confused the him, and when clients are confused, they do nothing - for a couple weeks. Then they call and blast you for not being done. If you’ve been in the tax prep business for more than thirty seconds, you’ve experienced this joy.
When I hear that a preparer is wanting on a client response, I ask when the preparer has last prodded the client for answers. If I’m in charge of a client, I’ll prod the client during the staff meeting with a quick note. Our practice management system (Clarity Practice Management) lets me do this in seconds. Of course, it also prods clients automatically when they don’t answer questions.
During each staff meeting, you remove the obstacles to project completion. “I’m waiting on…” hell is where projects go to die. You give them CPR in the staff meeting.
After a few weeks, your staff will get the message. They will show up prepared to tell you the status of projects and what they’re doing to push projects to completion. If they don’t get the message, you know you’ll need some new staff after tax season. If they get the message, you owe them some heartfelt praise. I’m fortunate to have experienced the latter.
The success of your practice as a business, and your sanity, depends on your staff managing themselves to a large degree. As your CPA, accounting, or tax practice grows beyond the size where you can manage it in your head, you need great staff and a great practice management system. You will take on the role of traffic cop, teacher, and head of client communications. Better tax seasons then follow.
Thanks for reading!
Frank Stitely, CPA, CVA
Clarity Practice Management