Rick Telberg

Getting Smarter About Handling Busy Season

Savvy CPAs are focusing on new management strategies. How does your season compare to recent years? Join the Stress-O-Meter survey panel. See the answers.

February 19, 2008
by Rick Telberg/At Large

They don’t call it busy season for no good reason.

With the tax preparation workload pendulum just beginning to swing forward at most firms, practitioners have three reasons to dread the months ahead: more time in the office, less time with family and more stress. But then it’s all over after April 15.

Staffing concerns — more so than of tardy or sloppy clients — appear to be at the forefront of the challenges this season.

“More work and less help,” laments Tom Newell, operator of an accounting firm in Columbus, Ga., where his work schedule increases to more than 70 hours per week during tax season. The season has hardly begun and he’s already reporting stress levels at “a crisis point.”


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To be sure, the 2008 filing season could be relatively uneventful for most practitioners, despite last-minute AMT changes and an economic stimulus package.

In fact, by my estimates, one in three practitioners expect to average more than 70 hours per week at the office through April 15. And another third will average about 60 hours or more. Of course, don’t complain to your clients. Most small business owners, according to surveys, already work 60 hours per week — year-round.

It’s hard to complain, too, when you think about the reasons for the extra hours — more work, which means, naturally, increased billings. About 63 percent of the public practitioners we’ve contacted lately attribute their increased workloads to more business.

Compounding the staffing shortage, several tax practitioners noted that their firms have been losing partners and other key people to retirement. Replacement staff simply cannot match the experience and expertise that is lost.

“We have had a significant amount of turnover in our experienced staff and have not been able to recruit replacements,” says Vern Stille, a senior staffer at a CPA firm in Davenport, Iowa, who is among those putting in 70-hour weeks this season.

With more business and fewer hands, the strategic challenge for the profession becomes workflow management. In manufacturing sectors, the problem is well understood as resource planning. It’s such a staple of the industrial landscape that entire software and consulting empires have been built on three letters: E-R-P, or enterprise resource planning.

The lack of effective ERP in accounting practices can be devastating. “Poor staffing coupled with fast growth means that deadlines are frequently missed or extended,” admits one tax partner.

Some firms are dealing with the new management challenges better than others. At Mooney & Thomas in Aurora, Ill., for instance, staffers are getting trained specifically on how to handle new engagements.

Busy season also increases pressure on personal lives. Maintaining a sane balance begins on Day One. “Keep the balance from the beginning,” advises one senior staffer. “If you start to over-work, it will snowball on you.”

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COMMENTS: Questions, rants or raves? Write Rick Telberg.

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About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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