The SmartCenter Blog

Tools, tips and insights for how to manage your tax business the smart way.

3 Ways Workflow Can Remodel Tax Season
November 21, 2016

By Chris Basom

Why do people “remodel” things? 

An old, out-of-date house with a lime green kitchen straight from the 70’s? Tear it down to the studs, put in some granite counter tops, and a bring in all stainless steel appliances! 
 
A Rusted-out ‘66 Corvette 427 with a 4-speed? Media blast that thing to bare metal and rebuild the engine!    
 
We see it happen all the time - there are 16 different cable TV channels dedicated to the idea. 
 
People remodel things when they’re not happy with the way they are, or because they want to increase their value.
 
If it’s so natural to remodel or add value to inanimate objects that we own – 
 
Why on earth are we content with the way our lives function during tax season?

 
10-12 hour days (in February - that number goes up in March & April)
 
Crushing anxiety about getting everything done on time.
 
Breaking out in a cold sweat when we forget to file something important.
 
Losing touch emotionally and even physically with our loved ones because we just aren’t available.
 
The constant threat of confrontation with staff and feeling like you have to walk on eggshells in your own office because the pressure is just so heavy.
 
Frankly, it’s not that we don’t function during tax season because we do.
 
Just like that house built in the 70’s you can still live in, or that rusted out Corvette that’s still worth $25k even if it doesn’t run – you survive tax season every year.
 
But Why Don’t We Remodel It? 
 
Probably because we don’t think it’s really possible, or worse, we don’t know how. 
 
It’s time for that to change. It is possible.  
 
The easiest thing to affect is changing how your work. No, not leaving the business, that would be too easy. 
 
Rather, you can change the way you work. 
 
The most direct path to changing the way you work is modifying the steps you take to process the things that come across your desk. 
This change can affect every single position in your firm. These “steps”, as you probably already know, are called your workflows. 
 
There are some very specific and totally achievable actions you can take this tax season to remodel your life and make February 1st - April 15th shine brightly again.
 
Let’s look at three ways implementing new workflow processes this season can get you there. 
 
1 | Eliminate unnecessary stress & duplication of work
2 | Increase efficiency & decrease turn-around time
3 | Create more control through real “management”
 
Step 1 | “Tear It Down to the Studs” – Eliminate unnecessary stress & duplication of work.
 
The main components of tax season stress are:
 
A. Anxiety over something being missed – e.g. Constantly worrying about “Will I miss a deadline? or “Will I forget to bill this client for that extra thing we did?” 
 
B. Fear of the unknown – e.g. not knowing if an important file is being worked on or if it’s buried in a pile on someone’s desk. Or, not knowing if you’ve processed enough work/revenue/files to meet your goals for that day/week/deadline
 
Both of these stresses can be eliminated if you implement a digital workflow process in your firm for every piece of business that comes through your door. 
There are a few things you’ll need to do first, to implement a process that will genuinely eliminate your stress. The first step is analyzing or “tearing down” what you’re currently doing. 
 
Doing the Work vs. Thinking About the Work
 
I know. Most of us are so busy just trying to keep our heads above water processing returns, trying to get & keep clients, and dealing with administrative garbage, we think we’re taking the best possible actions for our business each day because it’s what’s “kept the lights on” so far. 
 
But what if that wasn’t the whole picture?
 
What if there was a way to modify what we were doing by 20% and receive back a 40% increase in effectiveness? 
There is. It happens if we would stop for just a minute and think about our work instead of just doing the work. This is true for our work and that of our staff. 
 
If we’re going to truly eliminate anxiety over things being missed and the fear of the unknown – we’re going to have to do some deep thinking about our work process and discover what steps we’re taking that’s allowing those feelings to have even been an option. 
 
Notice I didn’t say “long & hard thinking”. I said “deep”. This doesn’t have to be a huge project. 
 
It does need to be something that you set aside some time and attention for as soon as humanly possible. 
 
Here’s how you do it - lock yourself (or you and some trusted staff) in a room and work through your current workflows with this specific perspective:
 
1) What is the actual work we’re doing for clients – what are the steps?
 
2) How many of these steps are specifically there to deliver tangible value to the client vs. how many are internal steps that don’t have a direct benefit for the client?
 
3) Out of the steps that are internal – how can we adjust those to more closely align with the value our client wants to receive from us?
 
Asking the following questions for each service you provide will help you clarify this perspective:

 
What are the specific steps required to process this piece of business from beginning to end?

 
Who is responsible for each step – Us? The Client? A 3rd Party?

 
Which steps in the process feel like they take the longest on average? Why exactly do these steps take longer than other steps in the process?

 
Are there any steps in the process that can be eliminated? Why or why not? 

 
Are there any steps, if added, would make our work product tangibly more valuable for the client or make the client’s life easier in some way?

 
Are there any steps in our process that we’ve accepted as “status quo” because we’ve always done them – but in reality, these steps can be adjusted or removed?

 
For the steps that are assigned to us – what additional data or action from the other party(s) would make our work easier or faster to accomplish?

 
For the steps that the client or a 3rd party completes – is it absolutely necessary for them to do this step or, is there some way we could just handle it ourselves to speed up the process? What would have to happen to be able to handle it ourselves?
 
This is a robust list of questions – I know. But that’s where the value is created - when you go deep. 
 
When you look at the steps you take to process business through this lens, you will identify specific areas where you can adjust workflows to deliver more value to the client and eliminate stress for you. 
A perfect “workflow” has a one-to-one ratio of each step in the process delivering specific, tangible value the client can experience. That should be the goal. Every single action you take is to deliver value that the client can see, hear, touch, or feel. 
 
We don’t live in a perfect world, so often times that’s not achievable. That shouldn’t stop you from seeing how close you can get to that goal. 
 
We often overly complicate our workflows or add in several misaligned steps that don’t deliver client value but make us feel good in some way. It’s natural to internally “reward” ourselves for the amount of work we do instead of only focusing on the results of work we do. That can be a very dangerous trap. 
 
So the first step to remodeling tax season is to analyze what you’re really doing through a very specific lens, adjust what you’re doing to align with client value, and cut out anything unnecessary. 
 
Step 2 | “Build Exactly What You’ve Always Wanted” – Increased efficiency & decreased turn-around time.
 
We’ve torn the house down to studs and our car to bare-metal through analyzing and deep thinking about what we’re currently doing.  
 
Here’s the fun part – now we can start building the exact workflows that will give us we want!
 
What color granite do you want? What size engine sounds exactly the way you want it to? 
 
The reality is you have a choice. Now’s the time to start building.
 
How to Make Your Choices a Reality
 
The hard part about architecting what you really want isn’t making the choices. It’s taking action on those choices for long enough that they become your new reality. This is where it falls apart for most firms. 
 
Every tax season you probably make a list (in your mind) of all the things that you aren’t going to let happen this year, but by the time March rolls around, you feel like you’re living a bad dream.
 
Here’s how you make sure that doesn’t happen again this year. 
 
Work based on blueprints. 
 
It makes sense right? If you took all this time to design your dream home – you would expect the contractors would use your blueprints when they actually started building right?
 
You need to do the same. 
 
If you take the time to design what you want your new tax season to look like, once you start working you need to actually work off of the blueprints and not just revert to what felt good or easy before, like you have in the past. 
 
The tool you’re going to use this year to help make sure you don’t just “wing it”, are digital workflows.   
 
Here’s how they work:

 
Whenever you begin a service for a client, you launch a digital “blueprint” (workflow) of the steps that will be taken to process that piece of business from beginning to end. 
 
No matter who in the firm is doing the work, everyone is using the exact same pre-designed blueprint. 
Here’s how digital workflows allow you to increase your efficiency and decrease your turn around time.

 
Because the “blueprint” of processing this work has already been strategically designed (using the analysis you did earlier), you don’t have to exert any additional brain power/energy wondering what needs to be done when starting a new file, you simply get to work following a pre-defined list.
 
Because your blueprint was designed with a specific strategy and not just a gut feeling, you can trust the steps you’re taking will get you to the delivered client value in the fastest way possible. 
 
Because everyone in the firm is using the same blueprint, you can feel confident no one is wasting time doing work that’s outside of the pre-designed process or worse, wasting time coming up with their own designs. 
 
Because everyone is using the same blueprints over-and-over, they become practiced in delivering value to the client. Just like anything in life, the more we do something the better we become at it. So over time, it takes us less time to execute the same results. This can only happen, however, when you’re not performing based on one-off custom designs every time.  
 
So the tool you’re going to use to make your new designs a reality, are digital workflows. 
 
Why do they need to be digital? 
 
In reality, they don’t have to be, but using digital ones gives you some huge advantages.
 
That takes us to the last step of remodeling your tax season…
 
Step 3 | “Finally Enjoy Your Dream Home” – Empowered control through real management.
 
Once you’re done with your remodel, don’t you want to live in your new home or drive your new car and really enjoy it? 
Of course!
 
It would be a shame to design a totally new tax season for yourself, but then not be able to enjoy it because you don’t know how to manage this new way of working. 
One of the hardest parts of dealing with tax season each year is feeling like we’re out of control – like we’re just underwater being tossed around like a surfer inside a crashing wave. No matter how badly we want to, we can’t stop it or control it.
 
If we were brutally honest with ourselves, we would admit that even though we might be the owner of our firms, we don’t’ really “manage” tax season, we just hold on and hope no one gets hurt. 
 
It doesn’t have to be that way.  
 
If you implement the things we discuss in this post, you can regain the management of your firm in tax season just like the rest of the year. 
Using a digital workflow can give you a real level of management that you can’t experience without one. 
 
Here’s how:
 
1) You can visually see & understand the status of everything being worked on, at one time and in one place. That will allow you to control where effort needs to be distributed at any given time. 
 
2) You can easily search through all work items and identify a subset of items that may be important. Through the ability to get granular when looking at your work, you’ll no longer have to guess what’s really happening inside the firm. You’ll have the data you need to understand what’s happening so you can manage it for better results. 
 
3) Data will no longer be Siloed. If you’re using paper workflows or excel spreadsheets or no workflow at all, there’s no central location where everyone can look to and see the exact same data. When data becomes transparent, you can start holding everyone accountable because what’s really happening is no longer subjective – it’s proven and documented.  
 
Using a digital workflow will allow you actually enjoy the new home or new car you’ve built.  
There are lots of tools out there you could use to manage digital workflows – if you want to use one that’s specifically designed for modern tax firms, check out our product, SmartCenter.
 
Key Takeaways
 
YES - You can “remodel” your tax season to make it easier, less stressful, and get more done in a shorter period of time.
 
It starts with taking a brutally honest look at what you’re doing now, through a very specific lens.
 
Once you understand what your new tax season is going to look like, you make it a reality by implementing workflow blueprints.
 
You can fully enjoy your remodeled tax season if you use a digital workflow that allows you to really manage what’s going on. 
 
Don’t let another tax season go by not living the way you want to. Change it, remodel it. If you put in a little extra effort in some very specific areas right now, you could be experiencing a totally new reality by April.
 
About Chris Basom

Chris is an avid soccer fan, sailor, and certified scuba diver. When he's not helping tax pros with practice management, he's also the managing partner of a tax firm in Orange County CA. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn.