It’s 30 January, and accountants across the UK are knee deep in tax returns, with the deadline looming. Calculator batteries are being worn out, the coffee machine is working overtime, and the numbers are being knocked off at an alarming rate. We’re heroes in January, aren’t we?
Or are we?
Whilst I’ve been immersed in the accountancy world for nearly 20 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the sidelines for at least 10. That’s 10 years of not doing tax returns, not being affected by the mad rush, and 10 years of formulating my own views on the quirks of our profession – from a position of inside knowledge without the blinkers. Those very blinkers are what lead most accountants to believe that they are an “emergency service”.
Now, superficially I know that those of you reading this are all far too intelligent and logical to think of yourselves as an “emergency service”. That status is reserved for ambulance staff, firemen, and the on-call plumbers that we can’t live without in the winter months. You’re a professional – someone whose clients have to reach your standard, someone who shouldn’t have to work overtime or be dictated to by their clients.
But, I bet a good proportion of you who do tax returns have worked a bit harder during tax season. I know of some who even have sleeping bags in the office in January. They need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Let me be absolutely blunt about this. You are not saving people’s lives. You are not fixing a boiler to save a family from the freezing weather. You are adding up numbers, putting them onto a form, and sending it off. It is not an emergency service, so stop implying that you give this service to your clients.
I get that being firm might be scary to some. You might be wondering whether your clients will leave. You know, some might. Let them work with another idiot who is prepared to damage his health and family life. You might be wondering if it’s unethical. Forget the Institute for a minute: it’s unethical to rush work, to put your clients at risk of errors, but most importantly, it’s unethical to put your family life at risk. These two examples are just examples of avoidance of the underlying fact here. Without providing an emergency service, you won’t feel loved by your clients. You won’t feel like a hero. Well, if you’ve worked far too hard in January, let me be the first to tell you that you don’t deserve that bottle of champagne.
The traditional advice is to be firm with your clients. Charge a £25 penalty, they say. Set a deadline, they say. Yet still, there are thousands of accountants working harder this January. Spending time away from their families. Feeling stressed about the piles of work to do. Expecting their staff to work harder and harder. There’s an easy answer… Just say no! Stick to your guns, rather than giving in “just this once”.
There is only one reason why your clients expect you to offer this service. You have implied that it is available by being weak with them. Would you expect your doctor to see you for a routine appointment if you turn up an hour late? Would you expect your plumber to wait until the afternoon because you are too busy to be there for the arrival time? Of course not. But you allow your clients to do the same. These guys are genuine “emergency services”: they’re not simply filing a form on time to avoid a £100 penalty (because let’s be honest, any client who leaves their tax this late cannot benefit from the value and advice that you can bring). The simple way of avoiding this is to “man up”. I wouldn’t expect a shop to open up at 9pm just for me. And your clients wouldn’t expect the same, unless you let them expect it.
Man up. You aren’t a hero, to yourself, your clients, or your family. And put that champagne away.
Carl Reader is a director of Wiltshire-based firm d&t, which won the 2013 British Accountancy Award for Independent Firm of the Year-Wales and South West England
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