Oiling the People Machinery in Busy Season

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Tragedy hit our firm smack in the middle of busy season. We lost our COO who was also a major work producer. We also lost access to her intellectual human capital and thus had no idea of what she was working on or how she performed certain functions under her purview. It was as if she died (but didn't).

It could’ve been a disaster for us, the clients and the staff – but it wasn’t. Rather, clients were well-served and our satisfaction survey was even better than 2008.

How? Why? Wouldn’t that have happened anywhere?

I think we prevailed because we invest a lot of time, $$$, and energy in "Oiling the People Machinery." Our aim, especially during busy season, is to have our people like, if not actually love, working for us. Because when you do, magical things happen in your practice.

In our tragedy, everyone pulled together as a team. People stepped up far beyond their job descriptions. They acted as if they were owners, showing initiative, performing functions they weren’t asked to, doing things they were never hired to do.

How do you do this? For over 25 years as a consultant to the profession, I have heard partners verbalize these very desires for their firm. I wrote a book about the subject, Building Entrepreneurial People (Harcourt Brace, 1995). Instead of consulting with others, I was able to do it for our own firm.

What we do everyday is love our employees and partners as ourselves (see New Testament for further information). Remind yourself how blessed you are to have them. Pray for them. Treat them as you would want them to treat you if the roles were reversed.

Literally, our #1 goal is to have fun during extremely busy times. To make the work more enjoyable, lighten the atmosphere, remove some of the pressure, not take ourselves so seriously. Productivity, billing, client satisfaction flow from this (think SouthWest Airlines). But! If everyone is having fun, who’s doing the work? Can’t both be done simultaneously?

Here are some of the things we do during the year, and step up during busy season to create a positive atmosphere that people want to work in:

1) We have a “Good Employee of the Week.” I’ll ask around to find out who has had an outstanding, beyond-the-call-of-duty week. I pay close attention to our people’s attitudes and activities. Winner gets a $50 cash award, and their name is prominently displayed on our Employee of the Week poster in the lunch room. How corny? People fight over it and brag about it. When’s the last time you had people competing in your office to outperform the others? Why the person was awarded GEOW is noted on the sign next to their name (came in on Sunday to finish the Geithner tax return…).

2) We have a “Bad Employee of the Week.” Usually this is one of the owners or managers who had a sense of humor and doesn’t mind being ribbed. Actually, it’s hard to work for us if you are a sourpuss, and these people usually weed themselves out in a real hurry. One week, Larry, a manager, was BEOW because he let the office run out of candy (very important stuff!). Another week he was caught googling himself on the internet and couldn’t find a peep about himself. Yet another week, he locked himself out of his car three times. If GEOW’s get a $50 cash bonus, BEOW’s are supposed to pay the firm $50. Larry owes us a lot of money.

3) Guess the refund game. Unlike many other CPA firms, we review the return line by line with the client when they come to pick it up. Maybe you don’t have time for this; neither do we. However, the client gets to see the value we have created, especially compared to previous providers elsewhere. And if the client is getting a refund, we tell them they have to guess the refund, just like on the Price is Right (you guess over the amount, we keep the refund for ourselves…). Yes, our practice tends to attract a client that has a sense of humor, as well.

4) Popcorn and home-baked cookies. A local bank basically built itself from a trailer to huge market share by making people feel good when they visited the bank; they made them feel at home. Decorated more like a ski lodge than a bank, they serve cappuccino and fresh baked cookies. We’ve done it the last two years and it is a hit. Yes, we allow staff and partners to eat the cookies, too. Every person walking in our office, even salespeople, are offered a fresh-baked cookie and something to drink.

5) Some clients bring children with to the office. So, we have a children’s play area to keep the monsters away from me and others who aren’t fond of them. In the play area, the brats get to spin the wheel of fortune (a raffle wheel we found on eBay), to win their special prize! Kids are happy, parents are happy, client is happy. We found this year that Nickelodeon is like crack cocaine in that it keeps them occupied, through commercials even.

6) We brag about our employees to our clients. No client leaves the office without meeting one of our staff people they aren’t familiar with. I ALWAYS boast about something positive about the employee to the client, such as “Despite the fact that Julie is from New York originally, we keep her around because she is smarter than I am.” This universally makes a positive impression on the client – and the staff person.

You get the idea. Our focus is to keep our focus off of how hard it is to work under such terrible time and client difficulties, and concentrate on all the other positive attributes of working for our firm. This year that policy really came through when we needed it. Don’t knock it until you have tried it. I welcome any other similar suggestions from y’all out there. Email [email protected]

By Allan Boress, CPA, CVA – author of The “I-Hate-Selling” Book, available at amazon.com

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