October tax deadline putting a crimp in your autumn?

It happens every year. Some clients put off the pain of tax return filing as long as they possibly can, and that means your firm might be experiencing an October crunch. Are those clients procrastinators, disorganized or… suffering from tax-related mental illness? Or maybe a combination of all three?

Whatever the cause, if last minute filers are causing chaos in your office you might want to consider taking steps to turn the situation around.
 
Here are a couple of winning strategies from your colleagues:
 
Scott Heintzelman of Pennsylvania’s McKonly & Asbury says his firm has the October tax season pretty much under control. “The key is consistent communication between the time you file their extensions and October 15th. If your clients don’t hear from you, you won’t hear from them until October 14th.” Consistent communication might be in the form of reminders by postcard or e-mail, brief phone calls, or mentions in your firm’s newsletter, geared to spurring action.
 
Jim Cross of Cross, Fernandez, and Riley LLP in Florida says his tax practice has also found ways to smooth out the October tax season. His firm includes due dates on their engagement letters, and explain to clients that if they fail to provide the necessary information by the due dates, the firm cannot guarantee timely tax preparation. In other words, if you build a little fire under your clients, the results may surprise you.
 
What else can you do? Here are some suggestions:
 
  • If you don’t already offer a service that will organize a client’s brown bag of receipts through a software program, consider using an organizing program such as 1040Scan Lite, which will create a pdf file of receipts properly classified and organized. Or clients can get organized on their own with programs like Shoeboxed.com.
  • In this time when every dollar counts, try offering a small discount for clients who get their complete information to you by a specified date. When the 2010 filing season gets closer, consider offering a discount to clients who bring their work in by certain deadlines, perhaps a multi-tiered discount that diminishes as the weeks tick by.
  • You might need to do a little hand-holding and remind clients that putting off the inevitable only increases their anxiety, doesn’t change the bottom line of tax liability, and could result in higher tax preparation fees.
  • In anticipation of next year’s tax filing season, which is just months away, make sure clients have a tax organizer, preferably with your firm’s logo and contact information on it. Even a simple computer-generated list can work to get taxpayers thinking ahead.
 
Are October filers suffering from mental illness?
 
While foot-dragging taxpayers might be the bane of your existence as October 15th draws near, believe it or not, some psychologists have written at length about this “syndrome.” Dr. Lynn Friedman, PhD says “disorganized tax behavior” is the symptom of an underlying condition of avoiding conflict.
 
Here are a few points from her Web site:
 
  • Many individuals measure their worth as human beings by their financial net worth, so they put off learning the truth. She adds that some people also fear that, if their finances have not gone well during the year, their accountants will judge them harshly.
  • Others view the CPA or tax preparer as a symbol of authority that is likely to be critical of them. If the taxpayer sees him or herself as a financial failure the fear is that the CPA will make the same judgment. 
  • Then there are clients who view the tax preparer as the bearer of bad news, and do their best to put that off as long as possible by showing up at the last minute.
 
You may be thinking that psychology and accounting don’t mix, and that the last thing you need to do is double as a shrink. But the truth is, you might take some of the stress out of the season if you put on your psychologist hat on, at least for a little while.
 
Friedman suggests that you set ground rules, verbally and in writing in order to rein in tax-avoidance behavior. Assure clients that you are committed to helping them get their taxes done, worry-free, and helping them reach their financial goals. Then try to identify with them the obstacles that stand in the way of efficiency. Here are a few of the questions she suggests you put to these clients to get to the bottom of the problem:
 
  • Can you agree on and honor deadlines or would you like some help with that?
  • Where and when do you get "stuck"?
  • Is it difficult for you to organize receipts?
  • Is it difficult for you to do bookkeeping?
 
 If the client doesn’t seem able to get his or her act together, it might be helpful, says Friedman, to explain that you have people resources who are experienced in helping taxpayers get their financial lives in order, like bookkeepers, financial planners and personal organizers, attorneys… even psychologists. 
 
Is this all just psycho-babble? It may sound like it, but keep in mind, the very name “IRS” has the power to make grown men weak in the knees.   It makes sense that they might need a little handholding and a lot of understanding. 
 

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