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Busy Season & Beyond: Good to Great for Accountants

Steve Cox, Director of Business Intelligence @ IRIS Software Group, shares what works for accountants and CPAs during and post busy tax seasons.

Steve Cox, Director of Business Intelligence @ IRIS Software Group, shares what works for accountants and CPAs during and post busy tax seasons.

Rob and Steve discuss the international prevalence of busy seasons, and the impact it has on accountants in terms of long hours, stress and mental health.

Steve provides advice for accountants on how to get through busy season and how to reflect afterwards on what went well and what could improve. He emphasizes the importance of long-term planning and strategy, reviewing your client list, and looking at processes and workflows.

Steve also discusses the role of software vendors in supporting accountants during busy season. He predicts that busy season will continue but technology and benchmarking can help smooth out the cycles.

Key Takeaways:

  • Busy season is an international phenomenon, with accountants worldwide facing intense workloads leading up to tax deadlines.
  • Busy season takes a toll on accountants through sleep deprivation, stress, and negative impacts on health and family life.
  • After busy season, accountants should reflect on what went well, what could improve, and what’s in their control to change.
  • Long-term planning and strategy is critical rather than just focusing on the short-term. Review your client list and staff wellbeing.
  • Software vendors play a key role in supporting accountants during busy season as an agony aunt and shoulder to cry on.
  • Technology like AI may make compliance tasks easier but won’t eliminate busy seasons. Knowledge sharing will help.

“Frazzled is a really good word to describe them because there isn’t much else you can say. It is all those long hours take their toll.”

“Is life going to get easier for an accountant? No. Everyone seems to be thinking that AI is either going to come and replace their jobs or make their lives easier.”

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Transcript
Rob Brown:

So we hear a lot about frazzled accountants and overwhelm and work in really long hours, put it in the weekends. What kind of shape are they in after busy seasons, Steve?

Steve Cox:

Frazzled is a really good word to describe them because there isn't much else you can say. It is all those long hours take their toll. The busy season actually increases like the sleep deprivation for an accountant because actually it's not one night, two nights, it's a month, potentially for some people, two months of this constant piece. Is life going to get easier for an accountant? No. Everyone seems to be thinking that AI is either going to come and replace their jobs or make their lives easier. For the tasks that we do today, it is going to make your life a bit easier. But the role of the accountant is ever evolving.

Rob Brown:

Steve Cox, busy season for accountants. Who invented that one? It's gotta be a great idea, right?

Steve Cox:

It's kind of a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy to be honest with accountants, because they're always working to a legislative deadline, so therefore there's always going to be this hockey stick as they get towards that deadline, which is always known as busy season. Is it a good idea though? Categorically, no. You want to try and spread it out across the year. The problem is, is that it's not just on the accountants to fix. There's multiple aspects that would cause them a problem with busy season. So one is, there is always going to be a legislative date, and I hate to say it, the majority of humans will always leave things to the last minute. There's only a few of us, probably not myself included, who are that organised that would have done it months in advance. The second one is then getting everything in process, ready to get that done, so that therefore you're not at the last minute scrambling around. The third one is then your clients, right? The clients have got to know that they don't need to wait until the last minute to send stuff, that actually there's this big, long, nine, ten month window. that people can send information across. So is it a good idea? No. Could it be changed? Maybe.

Rob Brown:

We might dip into that. What's the current state of accounting, Steve Cox, in your eyes?

Steve Cox:

Do you know what? It's fascinating. I mean, I've been in the industry now over 20 years. I'm a qualified accountant myself and. I've never seen the profession so digital as it is right now. Now you could say that actually there are different aspects to digital but if we take it as a kind of an all encompassing piece across a practice, across a firm, then now there's more technology being used and it's not just a case of they're being forced to use it or it's a case of it's being used for being used sake. It's actually being used in the right way as well. It's still a long way to go, but actually We can see some real big changes and big movements for this. The pandemic over the last few years did have a big kind of push because it made everybody have to go digital because they couldn't work from the office. But what's happened now is that whilst firms went, let's say, 100 percent digital during that period, that's now come much more of a balance between being in the office and being at home, but also a case of having the right tools for the right jobs, rather than just applying a digital tool. It's almost like a digital band aid whilst people couldn't do what they were normally doing. So what we're getting is to this balanced environment, but digital is leading the way for it. And I think that's ignoring the whole kind of technology aspect of it. It's actually been a big mindset shift for a lot of people, a lot of accountants, a lot of CPAs and firms in general, where they suddenly realised maybe tech might be able to go and help me. But let's go find the right use for it.

Rob Brown:

Now, you work with Iris. They're a global company. But when we talk about busy season and tax deadlines, is that an international phenomenon? We're not just precious to it here in the UK, are we?

Steve Cox:

No, exactly. And in fact, it doesn't matter which country you go to in the world, because a legislative mandate is, doesn't matter what time of year it is, you'd always see this real kind of like tail end of filings and work being done as you get closer towards that mandate. Here in the UK, we're actually going to come towards the end of it now, or the end of January is the deadline. Obviously, it depends upon where you are in the world for where that deadline is. But busy season is still always there, no matter which country you're in. And the problem is, is that actually those three things we talked about earlier reside in every single country. It doesn't matter where you are. It just time shifts, whether it's cold when you're doing the, uh, the busy season or whether it's roasting hot in the summer, it's still all going to happen.

Rob Brown:

And do some countries have more than one busy season, multiple tax deadlines, so it just comes wave after wave?

Steve Cox:

Yeah. I mean, most countries will fit to an annual profile and therefore it comes annually for it. And once a year. But there are other countries, including the UK now, that have got multiple deadlines for that. So in the UK, as an example, there's Making Tax Digital, which means that at a minimum, there's a quarterly filing, and then there's a final year filing. So actually, there's five different kind of like mini busy seasons throughout all of it. Now it doesn't It hasn't happened for everybody yet, there's still a number of people that still don't have to fall into MTD. So therefore there's still this big peak at the year end. There are other countries that are looking to do the same and some that have already implemented this kind of quarterly filing. What we've learned from looking at other countries that are doing all of this is that it doesn't actually matter whether it's once a year, twice a year, four times a year, five times a year, heaven forbid, eight times a year. It still goes through these peaks and troughs rather than kind of helps flow it out a little bit more.

Rob Brown:

we hear a lot about frazzled accountants and overwhelm and work in really long hours, put it in the weekends. What kind of shape are they in after busy seasons, Steve? You talked to a lot of accountants.

Steve Cox:

do, and I've got a lot of friends that are accountants, a lot of people I've kind of grown up with through my years at Iris as well. Frazzled is a really good word to describe them because there isn't much else you can say. It is all those long hours take their toll. It's fine doing the odd few nights a week or maybe a few in succession. But it all takes its toll and I always look at it as the busy season actually increases like the sleep deprivation for an accountant because actually it's not one night, two nights, it's a month, potentially for some people, two months of this constant piece. What do we see? Generally, there's two different things that I really see. And it sounds terrible, but it all happens to people's kind of like health. So you either find that there's these people who are almost like on a knife edge where they're so stressed with everything that's going on. And therefore their families almost don't want to be around them because they just know that they're going to snap at every little thing that's said. But also the blinkers are on. They're thinking very much, I've got this deadline to hit. I've got all of this mountain of work. Nothing else matters. So suddenly everything else gets put to the wayside. The other side of things are those that I'm going to say I'll call them the smug crowd because they're the ones that have already done a load of the work and actually they've already removed that peak down throughout the year and don't get me wrong, this isn't like they've done a silver bullet one year and it's magically happened. This is years of hard training of their clients, of their processes to make a difference. But they're sitting back going, well actually I can start thinking about the future. And what do I need to do post busy season? And what comes next after that? And how do we continue to remove this kind of tail end? year on year. So they're sitting there with a big grin on their face compared to the other people who are really pulling their hair out trying to get everything done last minute.

Rob Brown:

So what should accounting firms be thinking about post busy seasons, post deadlines?

Steve Cox:

So one thing they shouldn't be thinking is, I've had enough, I should quit. Because a lot of people do that, right? They come off the back of it and go, my god, I never want to do that again. That is not the right kind of mindset. Actually, they should be looking at it going, okay, What went well? What went bad? And what's in my control to change? Those are the three questions I'd be asking literally straight after any busy season. When we think about it and we go, right, okay, so what went well? Always look at the positives because if you're always in a negative mindset, then actually it's just going to get worse every time. And one of the great things to do about looking at this kind of like what went well, and I advise this to quite a few accountancies, When something good happens, write it down. Now, the reason why you write it down is because in that day, they all have positives and negatives. And the moment you get a really bad negative, if you go look at what went well, it will pick you back up. It might be case if that doesn't happen until over a week period and you get to the end of the week and you're like, my God, I've got to work Saturday. I've got to work Sunday. Look back at those positive pieces and go, yeah, but actually hasn't been as bad as I think. And it changes the mindset. Then when you get to the end of the busy season, you've already got your list of all of those positive things, all the things that went well, you can very quickly refer to because often enough, we always think of the negative rather than the positive. So that list of positive things is going to be really important. What could have gone better? Yeah, sure. There's going to be quite a few on that list, but actually don't look at them as individual items. Roll them up into what are the bigger items. So is it a case of actually, we had a really poor internet connection, so therefore we couldn't get all the, all the information in? Well, okay, well, we can do something about that. Let's look at an alternative provider and things like that. Was it a case that we didn't have enough stuff? Okay, well, then we need to go and change our resource planning to make sure we've got the right people, or have we got better tools to go and do it? Don't just look at it as individual items. Look at how bigger changes can be made. And then ultimately After all of that, we need to be thinking about, right, okay, how can we make a change for good for the future? So what are the other things that are kind of going on that now we need to look at? And part of that won't just be about busy season because whilst busy season is a long period and it affects a big proportion of the accountant's annual calendar, there's a lot of other things that go on to it. So the final bit I would say on that is very much a case of don't forget about all of your other bits, your strategy. your goals, ultimately what you're trying to go and achieve. Yes, busy season is a big part of that, but it's not the only part. There's a lot more to consider in all of it. So take the blinkers off and start looking at how you can grow and ultimately get your business going the direction you want it to. That might be top line growth. It might be bottom line growth, or actually it might be your whole goal is I don't want to work weekends, but make sure you take that all encompassing picture in.

Rob Brown:

And long term, there's that lull or that winding down, that decompression after a busy season for the individuals involved, and perhaps the firms as a whole. But long term, Steve, what should firms be thinking about?

Steve Cox:

So it's quite funny. A lot of people say. Post busy season, it becomes the, uh, the, the, the skiing period for accountants. They all disappear off in February. Um, I can say that is a myth, right? Some do, but it's all around the long term planning, right? It's around not just the next. A couple of months, it's not just half a year, it's not even the annual piece, it's looking at those long term strategies for what they should be going and doing and taking the impact that they've seen previously, I've said about this digital mindset coming in and continuing to feed and nurture that. And ultimately change that as part of their strategy, because every bit of learnings that we get, that all helps us to inform how we're achieving on our strategy and whether we need to pivot, or whether we need to tweak or stay on course. So for me, a lot of it will really come down to, are they reviewing what they're doing, or is it? They're just doing the same old day in, day out. So that, that long term strategy bit becomes really important. And in all honesty, Rob, the majority of firms I speak to haven't done it and they don't look at it. They're looking very much at the, I suppose, hand to mouth approach of have I got enough coming in this month? And in fairness, small businesses. will be very much in that mindset because they might be the sole income provider for their household or all their own personal savings are within their business and therefore the long term just seems far too long away. My advice to them is that if you keep going hand to mouth and doing this short term strategy bit, You'll never achieve the bigger goals, which is probably the reason why you got into business in the first place. So suddenly it becomes really important. You don't have to do this constantly, but the end of a post busy season is the perfect time to do it, because you've got a small window of opportunity before the next tax season will start. So what would I suggest is kind takeaways for them to go and do with that. One, first of all, look at your clients, right? You will know, during that busy season, the clients you were really pleased to work with. You'll know those that, kind of, you've had to push a little bit, but actually, you still like working with them. And then you'll have those clients that, quite frankly, you really wish you didn't have during that busy season. Now, they're often referred to as your D list clients. What a lot of firms don't do is review that D list clients and go, Are we serving them right? And ultimately, should we be serving them. And that last bit is really important because we always want to say yes to everybody. We want to help people, but if that's at the detriment of ourselves or of our practice of our firm. Then actually you kind of need to be a bit more business orientated and go, I can't serve you right, there might be another accountant for you. So first thing is look at those dealers clients, look at the ones which you really do kind of like make a reaction to when you go and see the emails come in or you know that you can speak to them and look at, should we have them or not? The second bit then is look at your staff. Now, if you're a one man band, this doesn't not apply to you, still look at yourself and go, right, how do I feel? After that busy season, is this something that has, I can chalk down to experience. Is this something that has negatively affected me? Or is this something that actually, there's some positives there that I can grow on.

Rob Brown:

And mental health, mental well being, Steve, is at a premium, isn't it, these

Steve Cox:

Exactly. It's huge, right? And for years and years, it's just been the, Oh, it's the busy season, suck it up. That's the wrong attitude to have with it. Because throughout that season, there were lots of things that can be done to improve people's mental health. And, The fact that a lot of us are all working from home means that you haven't got the camaraderie around you of a team. Yes, there's ways you can do it virtually, but it's probably more important than ever. So look inwards and look at your teams to see ultimately the effect it's had on them and start to think about what are the things that we can do. to improve that. The third and final one is then thinking about the long term from a point of view of what's the experience like. Now experience comes into a couple of different fold. One is what's the experience that it's been Throughout the journey within the firm and looking at probably the best way is looking at what happens with the process all the way through from the point you're bringing in the data while bringing on the client in some regards to them managing it, bringing their data through, doing all of the hard calculations, doing all the hard work to get to the tax figure, how then, once it's been submitted, are you then collecting the money and ultimately how are you planning for the future on all of that? So that cradle to grave approach is really important, first of all, to look at that experience, because that's almost your business experience. Then go take a look at it from a point of view of, how does the client see it? Has it been a kind of a constant exchange of information between the two, and actually there's no dialogue between it? are they getting a good experience and therefore they would want to come back to you the next year? And then because of this digital mindset I think you've really got to look at what's the kind of like a user experience on both sides of this. Look at the tools that you're using, software or services, to make sure that are you using the right things or is it a case of you've got a really nice shiny tool that you love using but it doesn't work with another tool so therefore it's a It's almost like a broken journey between those two tools that you're actually taking data from one and manually inputting it into another. Is there a better way that allows you to just have the data and the experience flow as it would do as a normal conversation between two people? That's the really important point is to make sure that How can you make everything be as smooth as possible? Because quite frankly, beyond the next 12 months, there's so many different things that are going to happen within the accountancy profession and the global markets that one, we can't predict. So therefore, let's see what we can control the controllables on and that journey piece is one of them. But with all of the other things that are happening with the changes in regulations, with all of the changes in the funding markets, I mean, crikey, with all the different wars that are going on globally, There are so many uncontrollables out there that actually we shouldn't worry so much about those and think about what we can be doing internally and those things we can control to make a difference on,

Rob Brown:

Describe for us the role of the software vendors and tech providers in busy seasons and the aftermath of that. Are they an accountant's best friend or their worst enemy?

Steve Cox:

I suppose it depends on whether you can use the software or not, right. um, uh, ultimately the, the, the role of the vendor at this point, I, I like to think, is that agony on, it's that shoulder to cry on. I take from an iris point of view, and obviously we're a global organization, so we see it across different countries and different points of the year for these busy seasons. We will always see a huge spike in the number of calls that are coming in to us. We'll also see it on web chat, we'll see it in the usage of our kind of FAQs, of our online help and all of that. What's really interesting is you start to look at what people are asking questions of. Now, I, once upon a time, I, I worked in support, I was on the phones helping our accountants use our software. So I've got first hand experience of the sorts of questions they ask. You'd kind of think it would be, uh, the software's not working, how do I fix it? That's why you'd normally phone someone. Yes, there's a lot of those, and we do get a case of, there's a lot of accountants out there that aren't kind of like technically gifted from a point of view of computers. So yes, we do help them with that. But a lot of questions are I've got the following situation with a client and I'm not sure how to process it. Now it starts as that question. What they're really saying is, Can you help me a little bit with a bit of advice as to what should I be doing in the software that gives them their best outcome? So actually we end up kind of like playing the role of, in some regards, what the membership bodies do, which is providing advice as to the best technical outcome from an accounting technication. Others are actually, there's someone phoning up because they need someone to talk to. Yes, they might have a genuine question, but they feel like they're going through this all on their own. So therefore, that's where the agony arm bit comes in to kind of go, look, actually, you've got this. Let me show you a way in the software to show you that you're over halfway through the amount of work. Sometimes it's the role of the vendor to kind of go, take the blinkers off. Let's show you what good job you're doing. Yes, there's then the wider part of the and we can help you to stop this from happening again. And therefore there's an education piece for what we can go and do as well for it. It's not a case of going, well, actually during the busy season, we really want to be selling you the following. Actually, that's not the role of the vendor. The vendor is to be as supportive as possible through what can be a really hard couple of months.

Rob Brown:

going to ask you three things to finish, Steve. One is, one tip for accountants for busy season to get the best out of it or cope with it in the best way. The second is going to be post busy seasons and deadlines. What is your best tip for them? making the most of that. And then the third is a prediction for busy seasons and deadlines and the cadence of the accounting world going forward. So priming you up for that. What's your best tip for accountants for maybe this busy season or the next one they're in, in going from good to great?

Steve Cox:

So the real one would be, look at those D list clients. You'd kind of think from a software vendor, I might be saying, Oh, go check your technology. But during the busy season. That is the point where you can be categorizing which clients are good and which clients are bad. Don't just look at the numbers, look at the impact it has on you. And almost, you kind of want like a list, don't you? I suppose it's, uh, in the UK, when we're doing busy scenes just after Christmas, it's almost like the naughty and nice list, isn't it? Which clients go on which side of the list? That would be the, the The biggest bit of advice I could give them, first of all, is because that allows you to make decisions post busy season, but actually gives you the most informative view as to, is this the sort of client I want to work with?

Rob Brown:

So that's busy season tip. Post busy season, you could still do the client segregation, segmentation, whatever you want to call it, but what's your best tip for the post season?

Steve Cox:

So post season for me is starting to review the way you do your work and the ways you interact with your

Rob Brown:

The workflows, the optimization, the processes.

Steve Cox:

For me, I do this quite a lot with firms and I say to them, let's look at it from a kind of a, an end to end process, but the six parts to it is how are you attracting new clients or new staff? How are you then onboarding them? How are you then managing your relationship with them? How are you then serving them? How are you doing that compliance, aka busy season? And then how are you making it a success for them? Those six areas. If you write down the different ways you interact with them and then ultimately the different softwares you're using in each of those sections and then draw a line in one color of red being where it's a manual piece of where the way you're interacting with them and you're interacting with that software is a manual process and then maybe in green where it's an automated one. That process map. Give you a baseline as to areas you can then go and make an improvement because often enough firms don't know where to start. This is a great way to go. My new busy season resolution is not to have to be so hard as it was last time. Start with this map. It will really help focus the mind. Yeah,

Rob Brown:

this again. We've got to be focusing on improvement, streamlining future work cycles, being more efficient. And if you don't take that time to evaluate what's gone well, what hasn't gone well, you're going to end up doing the same thing next time, which is madness.

Steve Cox:

Exactly.

Rob Brown:

All right, just to finish off then, Steve, what is your prediction for future work cycles in the accounting world?

Steve Cox:

Is life going to get easier for an accountant? No. Everyone seems to be thinking that AI is either going to come and replace their jobs or make their lives easier. For the tasks that we do today, probably the answer is it is going to make your life a bit easier. But the role of the accountant is ever evolving. When in the UK they introduced self assessment, the original intention was is that individual taxpayers would do all of this themselves. Actually, it created an even bigger role for the accountant at that point and the evolution of the accountant. What's going to happen as a prediction is that the accountant is almost going to grow some more arms and legs to cover off more bits of how they can help a business. It won't just be the core compliance anymore. Actually. it will start to show, right? Yes, this is how we're doing your compliance. We always talk about advisory. That will continue to grow. There will be one extra arm that comes in. Then there'll be a bit around how do we help your business internally from a point of view of ultimately resources, staff, that HR and talent management. Accountants are growing into those areas and that will become another arm that comes off the back of it. But the big bit that technology in some regards is going to help accountants for the future. is helping the learnings from one client to help another client. And this often gets referred to as benchmarking or analytics, but it's that now we're getting to a point where big data has been around for years, but actually we've got some of the tools and knowledge and in some regards time to go take a look at it to see how what we can do with this client can help this client and can help this client and what one practice does can help another. So it's that knowledge exchange That's going to be the big prediction for the coming year and beyond of how we're going to change and evolve.

Rob Brown:

Good time to be an accountant.

Steve Cox:

100% Accountants are the lifeblood of a lot of businesses because we can make or break a business with our advice and whether it's being actioned. The old saying is there's only two things in life that are certain death and taxes and accountants have got the taxes covered right and they can prevent the death side of things. So great time if you're thinking about joining an accountancy firm or thinking about studying. The future is really bright for accountants.

Rob Brown:

Steve Cox, Thank you

Steve Cox:

Thank you very much.