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Streamline your workflow and reduce tax season stress

4 February 2020: with self-assessment season over for another year, it’s time for firms to reflect on how it went and look at how things can improve next year. For many accountants, 1 February is the time to make new year’s resolutions, writes former practice owner and business writer Della Hudson.

With tax return season done and dusted, it’s tempting for accountants to rest on their laurels or hit the ski slopes in search of some much-needed R&R. However, 2020 promises to be another year of seismic change for accounting practices and, after a good rest, getting a head start and improving tax workflow efficiency will pay off in the long run.

While Making Tax Digital for VAT is (almost) sorted out, firms should now be preparing for MTD for self-assessment with annual tax returns being replaced by five submissions per year. If we don’t want it to feel like an eternal January, then now is a good time to review our tax workflows.

Workflow automation can be vital to simplifying the burden of any new regime. To help with this there seem to be many newcomers to this market over recent years, either as standalone systems or as part of existing tax and accounts production systems.

Some of these systems come with standard self-assessment workflows and others make it easier for firms to create bespoke processes. The good news is that this technology is generally affordable for small practices too.

One thing I’d like to stress is that it doesn’t need to be complicated. There are plenty of fairly straightforward things that firms can do to improve the efficiency of their tax season workflow. Here are a few pointers I picked up while gearing up my own firm’s system.

  1. Deadlines

    The key thing you need to manage is the deadlines. My biggest stress over tax year end wasn’t so much the workload but the fear that we had somehow missed a client. Small firms may do this on a spreadsheet but there are time savings to be had by fully automating the process with suitable software.
  2. Automated reminders

    Most workflow software can be set to send automatic reminders to clients when information is due. Remember, just because it can be automated doesn’t mean that it should. Some clients might still prefer a phone call to a standard email, so your firm may choose to use these reminders as internal prompts.
  3. Templates

    Using templates wherever possible will save time and allow more junior members of the team to send out standard correspondence. All our templates were written so that they could be sent out exactly as they were, but I encouraged my staff to personalise them where possible so that clients felt like more than just their file number.
  4. Delegation

    With standard procedures enshrined in the workflow software, it becomes easier to delegate simple tasks to more junior members of staff or even to a separate administrator. Standard work papers and proper training help to ensure a good standard of work throughout the organisation. Use February to organise training for the whole team.
  5. Electronic signatures

    These can save so much time. Instead of generating three sets of paper accounts or asking a client to print them off from their own printer, they can be checked and signed online in a matter of minutes instead of days or weeks.
  6. Review meetings

    Having up-to-date tax and accounts will enable more businesses to take advantage of a planning meeting prior to their year end. This may even negate the need for a sign-off meeting to inform them that they have spent 50p more on stationery this year than they did last year. It’s an opportunity for a good accountant to add more value to their clients with timely advice.
  7. Client quality

    After a stressful month or two, it’s also worth looking at those clients who are politely known as "D clients". The sort who need constant reminders to file even the most basic information. Can you speed up the year-end work by improving the quality of their bookkeeping? Can this be done with training, or introducing them to a competent bookkeeper, or can you do it in-house? If they are beyond help, then it may be time to move them on to another accountant who is happy to accept this behaviour.

But first, and most importantly, don’t forget to thank your team for all their hard work over the last few months. Looking after your team will ensure that they give your clients the expertise and care that they need.