20 Oct The Right Way to Assign Staff Projects
Let’s talk about assigning staff to projects. Understand that this discussion will mean nothing the first two weeks of April, when you may be assigning the family dog to some returns.
And that makes perfect sense in those circumstances. I’ve done worse. Who knew that goldfish can’t type?
There are two factors to consider in assigning a project to a staff member.
First, does your staff member have the technical capability to complete the project? Some people are good at personal tax returns. Others are good at business returns. A few rare, wonderful individuals are good at both.
We shower love on these people, and the truly great ones are as rare as unicorns. When you get one, seize her cell phone and cut her off from her family and anyone else in society. This sounds a bit cultish, but you’ll thank me on March 14th when your most profitable client shows up with an S corporation return with 15 states. Glory demands sacrifice. Not from you, of course. From her.
Second, does your staff member have the available time to complete a project on time? How do you determine this? There are a few possible methods here.
First, count the stacks of unprepared returns sitting on her office floor. An average stack of files will grow to about five returns before collapsing. Multiplying the number of stacks by five yields a largely fictitious estimate of returns in progress.
Second, glue a turkey sandwich to a file and put it in the break room. Desperate preparers will do anything for a turkey sandwich during tax season when the normal balance between eating and sleeping breaks down. Because possession of a tax return is nine-tenths of the law, that person has accepted responsibility for the return. If this doesn’t work, add cheese to the sandwich and repeat.
Lastly, you might assign the return based on real knowledge of staff workloads. This requires some 21st-century software assistance.
Ten years ago, very little was available to help CPAs manage projects. You had a choice between Excel and developing a custom database. Now, we have many choices. Most of them are rudimentary web apps with little CPA industry-specific functionality. But there are some good ones.
The good ones track your staff workload with just a few keystrokes. One morning during late March, I spent an hour doing a top-to-bottom analysis of all of our projects in process. We had about 900 in progress, of which about 500 were mine. I identified returns falling through workflow cracks. I prodded clients to answer questions and approve draft returns. I gave staff updated priorities. I did what a manager is supposed to do – manage.
I treat my project list like a beautiful, teenage daughter. I need to know what’s happening all the time with her. When I stop paying attention, returns go sideways and clients start calling. You know that place, called “what’s the status of” hell, where you get no work done because all you do is talk to clients about the status of returns. You can’t get returns done, because returns aren’t done.
Having good project management software lets you quickly see and manage project statuses, getting you out of “what’s the status of” hell. If you don’t have that software, stop reading this article immediately and Google “CPA project management.” Your tax season sanity hangs in the balance.
Here are some criteria for selecting project management software.
First, you must be able to create a project and assign staff in 30 seconds or less. You can’t afford to spend 10 minutes setting up a tax return project that will last an hour. If the software doesn’t have project templates, move on to the next.
Second, you must be able to see your projects and staff workloads on the screen with just a few keystrokes – no reports that take five minutes to run. Printing a status report is a quaint notion during tax season when statuses have changed by the time the printer stops.
Third, the software must integrate with other pieces of your workflow management processes or perform a number of workflow tasks. No, I am not suggesting that you will find one piece of software that will do everything from opening the office in the morning to collecting outstanding bills. That would be nice, but no vendor is there yet despite claims to the contrary.
Project management software should include a number of what seem like non-project management tasks. For instance, the software should automate routine client communications. How much time do you spend on follow-up calls and emails to remind clients to answer your questions? At a minimum, you spend on average 10 minutes per client with routine follow-up. If your project management software is smart enough to know you are waiting on answers from a client, as it should be, it should be able to automatically remind clients to be adults and answer your questions.
And while the software is communicating with your clients, it should track 8879s and engagement letters. While we’re at it, why shouldn’t it be your portal where you deliver client draft and final returns along with any other important files? Of course, if you’re delivering returns, you should be able to leave instructions and comments for clients and receive comments in return. Communication is two-way, after all.
Clients should only have to deal with one system. If you’re spreading client activities across multiple software platforms and multiple media, like a portal, email and a project management system, clients won’t use any of your systems, and your life will be hell in April.
At our firm, the system also provides lists of commonly used client questions, review checklists, and project review notes. How many times do you need to type, “How much did you pay in personal property taxes?” before your fingertips bleed? We just check a box and the question becomes part of our questions list to the client. When clients don’t answer in a few days, the software reminds them.
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