Your office may be geared up and ready for tax return season. However, even the most streamlined office procedures will not guarantee a successful tax return season without the cooperation of one key element: your clients. If clients are habitually late in submitting tax return information, or supply you with incomplete or disorganized information, the time spent sifting, sorting and contacting clients for missing data will throw a monkey wrench into the most well-oiled machine.
Here are some tips for getting your clients ready for the upcoming tax return season:
Get Clients Organized
Now is the time to provide your clients with tax return preparation packets and tax data organizers. Send them out early so that clients have time to complete them properly. As part of this process, explain to them when you need to see actual source documents and when it is acceptable to simply provide you with lists and schedules of tax data. Impress upon your clients that the more preparatory work they do before submitting their return for preparation, the smaller their bills will be. After all, time is money.
You may also want to consider developing a checklist for clients of the types of documentation they should be accumulating throughout the year. By giving clients this checklist, along with their completed 2016 returns, you can get a jumpstart on the next go-round. Stress that it is much easier to compile tax records on an ongoing basis than to scramble to collect everything at year end – and they are much less likely to overlook something that could save them tax dollars.
Set Firm Deadlines
Establish deadlines for when you will accept client data, and clearly communicate those deadlines to your clients. Stick to your guns by putting returns on extension, if documentation is submitted after the deadline. There will, of course, be extenuating circumstances in which clients deserve some leeway. However, perennial procrastinators will get the message if you set and stick to your cut-off dates.
As your deadlines approach, send out reminder notices, or call those clients who have not yet submitted their 2016 tax data, or who have not submitted all the information necessary to complete their returns. Emphasize once again that a client’s return cannot be prepared by the original return due date, if tax information is not received in a timely fashion.
This is a good time to get clients to commit one way or another. Explain the rules for obtaining an automatic filing extension and advise them that a filing extension may be appropriate, if they are having difficulty gathering the necessary tax information. In fact, you may want to send this type of reminder early on to those clients whose returns have typically required an extension. These are the ones, for example, who have to apply for an extension every year because of habitually late K-1 information from partnerships or S corporations. By identifying extended returns as soon as possible, you and your staff won’t waste limited busy season time working on returns that will not be ready by the original return due date.
Establish Procedures for Missing Info
It’s always preferable to get information from clients in writing, but it’s not always possible when the tax return deadline is fast approaching. You may have had instances where you or a staff member obtained client information over the telephone, only to have the client later dispute the accuracy of that information. To avoid such disputes, develop procedures now to ensure the accuracy of last-minute data submissions. Whenever possible, have clients submit any additional information in writing by fax or email. If you must, obtain information verbally and make it a practice to follow up with a written memo. Make sure your clients understand that you will assume the information is accurate, unless you are promptly notified of any changes.
Estimate Your Bill
Most tax return preparers have had experience with clients who are outraged when they receive their bills. If you are not offering value pricing, you can avoid this type of confrontation by providing clients with upfront estimates of their return preparation costs. Stress that these figures are estimates only. Midway through the return preparation process, send an interim bill, along with an explanation of any changes from your original estimate.
Cut Off Deadbeats
You may have clients who are habitually late paying their bills, who always contest – and refuse to pay – part of the bill, or who have owed you significant amounts of money for quite some time. Take a long, hard look at your outstanding accounts receivable. Now is the time to bite the bullet and decide which clients you ought to write off and refuse to serve any longer.
Editor’s note: Want more tips on how to have a smooth tax season? Visit the Intuit® ProConnect™ Tax Pro Center for a variety of content, including articles on niche-industry services, major life changes such as having children or moving, and issues related to serving small business clients.