Sometimes the help you need to get through tax season is right under your nose. That was the case this past tax season at Satter & Hiller LLC, a six-person CPA firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This last tax season was one of the most productive and smoothest-running ones I’ve had in my 16 years as an accountant, and that was because of the secret weapon we found in our new administrative assistant, Marisa Pacini.
Marisa had been an administrative assistant for an architecture firm and had worked as a manager in retail, but this was her first job after finishing her degree in communications. She met Russ Hiller IV, CPA, CGMA, ABV, our firm’s owner, through his father, and they hit it off immediately. Russ had bought the firm in 2015 from its founder, Dick Satter, CPA, who stayed on to help transition his long-term clients to the next generation.
Soon after she started working at our firm, Marisa discovered a hidden aptitude for preparing tax returns and talking to clients about tax issues. I recently sat down with her over lunch to talk about her role at the firm.
Liz: Before you came to Satter & Hiller, had you ever thought about doing tax or accounting?
Marisa: Definitely not. It wasn’t something I originally thought of or considered. I was just open to possibilities after graduating and was ready to see what my future could hold. As my role evolved at Satter & Hiller, accounting topics became more and more interesting. And then that ballooned into wanting more education, so I took three continuing ed classes last summer, pretty soon after I started, just because I wanted to understand the dynamic of the work and how parts related to each other.
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Liz: How did it come about that you started doing tax returns?
Marisa: After my first few classes of continuing ed programs, Russ and I started talking about my desire to do more in the business. I felt like I could be an asset to the team by being able to flex up during certain times of the year. I mentioned to Russ that I had an interest in it, and he knew I had been taking those classes, so he offered to do some more trainings, and it all began from there.
Liz: So what exactly did you do during the busy season?
Marisa: Gosh, a little bit of everything. We found someone to help with the administrative duties and hired her part-time for tax season with the goal of giving me more time to focus on preparation.
I also helped with phone calls from clients who normally would be routed to one of the CPAs in the office – questions about the status of their returns, questions about estimated payments they could make or how that would relate to their tax liabilities. Of course I did do a lot of prep work, a lot of the basic 1040 returns.
I also helped with the flow. Every return that came in would go through my desk first. We would then assign them and distribute them. Every return that was going out would come across my desk for billing purposes. So I saw a lot of returns full circle. I helped with workload and pacing our work, making sure that we had returns coming in and going out as quickly as possible, following up with clients to make sure that source documents were received, and asking clarifying questions. Part of my goal was just to keep things moving in the office.
I also did a lot of the follow-up work for some of the other preparers who weren’t in the office as frequently.
Liz: You fielded a lot of the calls for Dick that normally he would take. That really helped him out a lot so he could just focus on working with the clients he wanted to.
Marisa: Yes. And that was one of the biggest challenges – the dynamic within our office is changing. Dick has such long-term clients with really strong connections. So part of what I tried to assist with was making them feel valued and welcome, and to also understand that there are other resources and other people they can work with aside from Dick.
Some of his reason for having me doing some of the calling was to help alleviate the pressure of it all just being on him. So many people had the expectation of talking to him, meeting with him, dropping things off to him directly because he was basically a sole proprietor for a long time. It helped our business grow, and it helped our long-term clients understand that one day he may not be a part of it. For now he is, but he’s definitely looking at retirement, and with that comes decreased hours and workload.
Liz: What are your future plans?
Marisa: I’m really open to possibilities right now. I have applied to grad school and am considering taking the CPA exam, so I’m taking courses that relate to the CPA. I’m trying to think about how my management and communication skills can play into my future career.
I think one of the things that I’ve been really trying to develop is to make tax a subject that isn’t overwhelming to clients, to have a conversation about it that doesn’t make them want to hide or be scared or fearful. And so I don’t know exactly what that role would be. In my mind, it’s somewhere in between a management role or a coordinator role, but also being able to help in the preparer side as needed.
A Terrific Solution
With Marisa fielding most of the simpler calls from clients, I had fewer interruptions and more time to focus on getting my work done. That alone reduced my tax season stress level.
I’ve worked in public accounting long enough to know how rare it is to find an admin person who does more than just answer the phone. Because Russ was willing to let Marisa grow beyond the parameters of her job description, we found a terrific solution to the current talent crunch in accounting.
I’m sure there are many others like Marisa who are already working in accounting and tax firms, just waiting for the chance to grow and to do more.
About Liz Farr
Liz Farr, CPA, has worked in tax and accounting since 2002. Besides tax returns of all flavors, she’s worked on audits of governmental entities and not-for-profits, business valuations, and litigation support. She is also a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for accountants and bookkeepers around the world.