By Chris Basom
It used to be I could work really hard for about five months of every year and take it very easy the other seven. That meant mid-January to mid-April – hard work, then again leading into the August 15th extension deadline and again for a month leading into the October 15th deadline.
Being a Tax Pro in those days was both mysterious and respected. It paid well, was strenuous for short sprints, afforded me the chance to coach my kid’s soccer teams, and take a good amount of time off to recover. Working 14 hours a day 6.5 days a week was acceptable knowing that from April 16th until the end of July, I wasn’t going to work more than half days.
But times have changed. Costs have increased, fees haven’t. Real audits are down but CP2000’s are up over 2000%. Technological advances have now created client expectations of immediate response and 24/7 on-call attention.
We used to have “busy season” and then literally “the rest of the year”.
Now the choice is different.
Sure, you could still choose not to work in the non-filing season…but in today’s market that means you have a part-time business with clients who only value you for your help filing their return and nothing else.
Our options have morphed into a choice between having an “Off-Season” or a “Post-Season”.
A New Definition
Let’s do a little bit of defining – traditionally you could sort the days of the year into two distinct categories:
1) “Tax preparation/planning time” - all year long up until 12/31. This is when our clients affect their taxes with every financial action they commit and we can try and jump in to help them with some planning to decrease the pain come filing time.
2) “Tax filing time” - traditionally from the IRS opening of e-file to 4/15. This is when “what’s done is done” and we take their numbers and create a tax return.
Although this is traditionally how we’ve broken down the year into sections, and these two concepts are still very accurate, this definition leaves out an important aspect of the conversation – namely US and how we feel throughout the year.
So not wanting to leave out a major piece of the equation, here are two additional ways to categorize how we think about our year:
1) “Off Season” which means we’re done for now. We lived through April 15th, and now we aren’t working on issues related to our business, our clients or our income. It’s time we’re “taking off” and thus “Off Season”. I recall this as being more than half of the year back in the 80’s when I got into the business.
2) “Post Season” has the same meaning that it does in the sports world. This is the time to take advantage of the work you did during the “regular season” (pre-playoffs) and presents the opportunity to cash in on the efforts expended and gains made during the “filing season”.
These two attitudes are very different, not even close to the same – and yet, without consideration and the benefit of definition we might believe they are very similar. “Off” and “Post” provide a very different result – given the opportunity to understand and choose one over the other.
Benefits and Costs of Each
Adopting either of these new attitudes has benefits. Off Season allows for time with family or self. The space to rejuvenate, rest, and peruse other interests. Off Season is the extended recovery from a tough filing season. There is a lot of value in taking care of yourself, spending time doing the things that you love, and investing in your life outside of your practice.
Post Season affords the opportunity to benefit from all the lessons learned during your filing season. The opportunity to work on and solve client questions and the issues raised. This pursuit allows you to maximize your revenue, increase the value you provide to clients and really grow the business you have always wanted.
Both have merits – and both have costs. “Profitability” means getting more of what you really want. The point of our discussion at this juncture is that the choice for a Post or an Off Season is in your hands. What I fear is that you don’t know that. That you believe the next several months will be decided by others – not by you. I can only tell you that the anxiety of the future is born from a feeling of not being in charge of it.
We Have to Choose Our Own Season
Your happiness (your true deep-down satisfaction) and your “profitability” is rooted in you being the decider of your future. So this year be in charge of that decision. Ask yourself, “Do I want a Post Season or an Off Season?” Be patient in demanding an answer from yourself – be still and listen to your own heart. Then, when you get an answer, act on it.
It sounds strange to urge patience. I do so because there are two very strong and opposing powers at play inside yourself when you’re thinking about how to spend your time after April 15th. Both mind frames are protective, but one continues our defensive posture while the other requires an offensive posture.
The first mind frame is motivated by just having survived another tax season (and only those who have, really know what that means), and for that reason, it is defensive in nature. It says “Hey, you deserve a break – look how hard you just worked!” It points out that there is money in the bank, and reminds you that soon enough you’ll be in “extension season”.
The other is a mixture of fear and hunger (differing degrees of each for every one of us) and takes the shape of an offensive stance. The fear element says things like “Sure, there’s money in the bank – but not enough, I remember December.” And “What if your extensions go somewhere else to file?” The hunger side points out that you just had a record “season” and lobbies for you to use that momentum going into the summer.
It might be good to recognize these different attitudes as our playing ”defense” and “offense” at different times of the year. And all of this is counter intuitive. The filing season is when we play defense – clients are initiating contact, calling us, coming in and dumping work on our desk. Our activity is all about circling the wagons, hunkering down, grinding it out and getting through. And it’s driven by the filing deadline. Our clients force the issue due to their need to file their tax return. (Our client’s fear of the IRS motivates them to engage and pay us – an important topic for a future discussion.)
If the deadline was a month later we would likely do the same amount of actual work – just spread out over another 30 days. I sometimes wonder what our world would look like if there was no deadline.
The rest of the year our activity is driven by us. We have to identify projects to work on, clients to circle back to, etc. etc. The day before a deadline we are facing a relentless flow of phone calls and emails asking for (demanding) our time and attention, all building to a crescendo on deadline day.
Then, the day after the deadline, we’re met by quiet phones, empty calendars, and the ultimate refuge of internet surfing. In this part of our year, we are required to drive client activity. To move the needle we have to go on offense. If you’ve ever coached (or played) team sports you know that a team’s ability to transition from offense to defense and back is critical to success.
The same is true in our business. Your firm’s ability to transition into and out of filing season will determine your overall success. The question is, what transition do you want to make? Are you going to move from filing season to “Off” or “Post” season? You will be happier if you make an active decision – get there on purpose, as opposed to stumbling into the rest of your year.
How Do You Decide What You Want?
This is the part you’ll need to invest some time to work through on your own. As I’ve said – both have merits. No one can tell you who you should be – only you.
A dangerous thing we often do when making decisions about our business is focusing on what we “should” do instead of what we “want to” do. Then when we make our decision, there’s a natural uneasiness inside of us because we’re not doing what we really want.
For those of us that are brave enough to make a decision truly based on what we want, we beat ourselves up about it and harbor feelings of guilt, instead of feeling proud for being true to ourselves.
I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I’ve learned life is much better when you act on purpose and create the life you really want.
I often encourage firms toward a “Post Season” decision – it’s the decision that propels our industry forward.
But either way – make a choice, identify what that choice requires, and organize your life for that choice.
Making Your Choice Come True
If you decide you want an Off Season – a season to spend time with and invest in family, outside interests and rest – then you’ll need to make accommodation for that.
Here are some practical ways to make an Off Season profitable:
- You may need to reorganize your practice by reducing costs to match the non-income producing time you’ll experience. This could include reducing office space, reduction in staff, etc.
- You may need to reduce your client load – either demographically (clients who won’t require as much “off season” attention) or psychographically (clients who are emotionally lower maintenance).
- You may need a steep increase in fees to allow for a lower number of clients that you’ll work with during your limited year.
Your action plan will need to be identified first – and maybe this year is your time to set up your plan for execution next May. Luck favors the prepared!
If you opt for a Post Season – a season to build your business, develop your staff and systems, and create more client opportunities – then you’ll need to make accommodation for that. You may need to reorganize your practice first to accomplish it.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to make that a reality:
- Are there new services you’ll want to offer to help you increase your overall value to clients?
- Do you need to upgrade your technology, physical offices, or team’s quality/ability to handle your year-round workload?
- Do you need to prune your client roster to release low-value clients and begin a new client acquisition program?
All of these issues will need review – all from the perspective of your Post Season goals. Changes in this direction will also dictate changes in attitude. Good thing they’ll all be your decision!
Key Take Away’s
A Post Season and an Off Season can both be very profitable and fulfilling. Strategically thinking about how you’re going to invest your time past April 15th allows you to take control of your practice and achieve what you might have thought was impossible before.
All of this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that you can create the life and practice you want – but only if you’re on purpose and take action aligned with that purpose.
The first step in a journey this big is to decide where you want to end up. I hope you’ll take the time you need to think about the practice you want. Instead of blindly engaging in the endless circle of deadlines our clients face, ask yourself “what do I want from my business?”
That simple question will help you clearly identify “Off Season” or “Post Season”, and show you exactly what you should be doing to get what you want!