Surviving self-assessment

Lesley Meall explains how careful planning and client control can combine with the humble spreadsheet to help small firms avoid post-Christmas mayhem.

After seven years of self-assessment, the impending 31 January deadline still heralds the silly season, with practitioners up to their eyes in Revenue forms, toiling into the wee small hours. But if you plan ahead and use technology to help you systematise the process, this does not have to be the case. 'A feature of any well-run practice should be the manner in which work is planned, organised and completed,' suggests Phil Shohet, director of KATO, a consultancy specialising in practice management.

So why do so many firms fall at the same hurdle each year?

According to Shohet, all too often the tail is wagging the dog. 'Too many firms allow their clients to take control of the process,' he chides.

But if you let clients hang on to their paperwork until the last minute, you will have to live with the side-effects. You may need to spend money on support from external bookkeepers, or make partners and staff work long hours and weekends, while neglecting other clients - and forgoing any private life.

'The year before last was a waking nightmare for me and my staff,' recalls small practitioner Frederick Kirkland, 'so I was determined to get it right last year.' He did this by spending time deciding his course of action well in advance. 'I took a half day out of the office and spent it really thinking about what the issues where,' he explains, 'then tried to think of ways of making the process more efficient and less time consuming for myself and my admin staff.'

Money for old rope

The firm now gives each client its own tax folder with a timetable and checklist, so that they can store all the appropriate papers together.

Clients are also offered a £25 fee reduction if their accounts records are received before the end of August. However, as Kirkland found: 'They liked the fact that I made the offer, but only a handful took advantage of it.' This year, he has also tried to entice them with further potential cost-savings by explaining that the firm has more time to consider the available tax options for those who get their accounts in early.

Kirkland also explored the possibilities offered by software and systems.

'I have a client database, so I could have adapted it to help me keep track of my progress,' he says, but he opted for Excel instead, because it seemed easier and less time consuming. 'I can achieve the same result with a lot less effort,' he says.

So, a simple spreadsheet was created listing all of the firm's self-assessment clients. 'It took a while, but now I just need to keep it up-to-date,' he says. Then he used a number of columns to detail related tasks and monitor progress.

This included progress chasing tasks such as emailing or posting monthly reminder letters requesting the clients' accounts, colour coded to indicate those that have and have not responded. It also detailed the key progress milestones ranging from receipt of the client accounts records through to submitting the agreed and signed return to Revenue & Customs.

All together now

In addition to making life easier for Kirkland, the planned approach has gone down well with clients and staff. 'The clients like having the tax folder for reference and the staff like having the spreadsheet for guidance,' he says, adding: 'Everyone involved is much clearer about what is expected of them, and when.'

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