If you’ve been reading, it’s clear that I’ve been at peak season crankiness for a while. As with much of my whisky drinking, donut eating internet persona, there’s a lot of hyperbole in the blog. I’m not nearly as grouchy as I sometimes seem when I write. By and large, at least in my practice, this tax season has gone extraordinarily well. I give the credit for that to my clients. In general my clients are engaged (they communicate with me throughout the year), financially and tax savvy (they understand how the tax system works even if they don’t always like or agree with it), and organized (for the most part they follow instructions and submit complete and accurate paperwork). In short, my clients are awesome. Most of them anyway.
One thing I realized in the aftermath of the 2020 and 2021 filing seasons was my own threshold for pain. I am a ways away from retirement age, but I am planning a long-term exit strategy that does not include me dying shortly after I leave my desk from the stress of this job. Consequently, I’ve been shifting my workload and my client mix to better suit my work style. Last year I reduced my client volume by almost 20%. That cleared the way for some new clients who mesh better with my “mostly virtual” model and removed some of the clients who made me dread coming to work in the morning—clients whose returns should be straightforward, but who create more chaos during return processing than the most complicated entity returns on my list. I have a term for these clients (“high maintenance, low margin”) and I work hard to keep them to a very low percentage of my client mix. It may sound crazy, but I think the straightforward returns should be, well straightforward.
Thanks to non-stop tax law changes since 2018, “simple” returns really don’t exist right now. In my office there are returns with which I am more familiar, whose parts don’t change much year to year, and then there are new returns or older returns with big changes. I’ve found the peak volume I can handle and I am no longer trying to grow the practice. My goal is working at peak volume each filing season and re-evaluating what is “peak volume” after each filing season based on the complexity of the return mix and my own abilities. This is a brain-intensive business and I’m well aware that cognitive abilities decline with age. I am not going to be able to do the same number of returns at 60 or 65 that I’m doing now (at 54).
After a couple of cups of coffee this morning I had an epiphany. An epiphany that will probably have many readers saying “duh!” The epiphany was that different tax pros have different things that try their patience and make them want to disengage with (fire) clients. Some don’t like individual 1040s; they prefer business returns and the accounting that comes with them. For some it’s dealing with paper (or extraneous paper). For others it’s clients who want to meet face to face or talk on the phone instead of using chat or e-mail. Clearly some problematic behaviors (e.g., being verbally abusive to staff) are problematic in all offices (or should be). But often what sets off one tax professional rolls right off of another.
For example, I love individual 1040s. I’ll do entity returns for some small partnerships and S-corporations, but they will never be my main focus. And, while staples are never my favorite thing to have to remove from tax documents, they aren’t a firing offense. Neither is not opening your envelopes if you’re providing me with paper documents. For that matter, neither are paper documents. I don’t mind when elderly or disabled clients include a bunch of extra, not tax significant documents with their return documents. Seemingly simple questions don’t usually bother me either—none of us are born knowing this stuff. I don’t mind when clients don’t schedule their calls as long as they don’t mind leaving a voicemail when I don’t answer their unscheduled calls. I don’t mind when clients want to chat—as long is it’s during their review and signature appointment or during a call made at my convenience. If I’m calling you, I’m expecting some casual conversation in addition to “the work stuff.” Also, I mostly don’t mind a certain amount of ranting about having to pay taxes in general or about IRS and Congressional chaos. I may not agree with you, but up to a point, I am willing to listen to you.
I have, however, realized that certain behaviors will almost immediately land a client on the “consider curating” list:
- Not using e-mail. I have a few elderly and rural clients who get a pass on this, but for the most part if you are able to use e-mail and are simply choosing not to, I cannot work with you. Too much of my practice is built around e-mail based communication.
- Lack of trust. That is the client not trusting me to get their return right. Clients show this most often by asking “simple questions.” It may seem like an honest question to them, but too often my brain translates these questions as questioning my ability to do my job. For example, when a single client asks me if they qualify for Head of Household filing status that is telling me they don’t trust me to do one of the most basic aspects of my job. If I think a change in filing status applies to you and will get you a more favorable result, then I’m going to use it if I legally can. If I haven’t been using it, there’s a reason. Same goes for itemized deductions.
- Failure to read and follow instructions. Clients who don’t take the time to do a thorough organizer or accurately prepare paperwork relating to their itemized deductions and/or business expenses. Next year I’m going to start charging clients who ignore my forms and continue to submit their information any old way they please. Having to parse multiple clients’ different formats for submitting information has really slowed down my workflow this season. I’ve warned everyone about the change and the new charges and will warn them again before next year gets busy. I know it’s difficult for clients to truly comprehend the sheer volume of calls, e-mails, and documents that come through a tax office during filing season, but for accuracy and processing time, following instructions and processes is a must.
- Unreasonable expectations. Unreasonable expectations include a refusal to understand (despite all of my efforts to communicate it) the difference between my business model as a small, solo practice and that of a mid- to large size firm and/or tax franchises. Unreasonable expectations include expecting to tell me how I should be running my business based on your personal needs as opposed to my needs and the needs of my business and my overall client mix. Unreasonable expectations include expecting me to make exceptions to clearly communicated processes and deadlines when you are not experiencing any hardship other than inconvenience (I don’t work the way you want me to).
- Failure to communicate. I communicate constantly with my clients. More during tax season, but also periodically throughout the rest of the year. I’m done accommodating clients who ghost me and then show up expecting me to be happy to see them. If you’re having a problem, take 5 minutes to send me a text, e-mail, or voice mail and let me know what’s going on. I get that you’re busy and that taxes may be a low priority in the grand scheme of whatever is complicating your life right now. I really get it. But if you cannot do me the basic courtesy of letting me know that you have not made other arrangements by mid February, I’m going to assume that you have made other arrangements and give your spot on my client roster to someone else.
Nevertheless, these are my personal hot buttons. Mileage may vary. What bothers me may not bother other tax professionals at all. They may have admin staff to act as a buffer or to help when clients don’t follow instructions. They may have a much higher client volume so lack of communication is a blessing, not a curse. They may not care when clients ask questions that imply they have overlooked something basic on the return or that seem to question their competence. I’ve said it often recently and over the past few years, tax professionals exist at many different price points, experience levels, and business models. It’s important to find one that works for you as a taxpayer and it’s just as important for tax professionals (at least those who want to stay sane and in the game) to work to develop a client base that suits their business style.