How to beat the January Self Assessment panic

By Jake Martin

4 min read

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

In a perfect world, clients would send their Self Assessment information to you in plenty of time before the 31st January Self Assessment deadline. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and January is often hectic at accountancy practices, with staff scrabbling to meet client expectations that they can wave a magic wand and prepare returns on time – no matter how close to the submission deadline their data arrives.

 It’s an issue that has been bedevilling the industry ever since the current SA regime started in 1997, and these days the stakes are even higher because of the £100 penalty for late returns.

However, by taking action now you could relieve a lot of the January stress and improve your interactions with customers.

Whose fault is the January Self Assessment bottleneck?

It’s fair to say that many of the problems you encounter are down to client behaviour and their underlying understanding of the January Self Assessment deadline. They are paying for your expertise and probably don’t give too much thought about the work going in at your end.

All accountants have clients who wait until the very last moment, despite repeated requests, to submit their data. You probably also deal with the client who sends some information then has to be chased for the rest, and the smiling client who dumps everything in a muddle on your desk for you to sort through.

These clients can be a headache, but is that partly down to you? Have you allowed them to get away with this behaviour, year after year, because you’re afraid of losing their business? Have you given them the tools and information they need to get the right data to you at the right time?  And more importantly, have you created incentives for them to submit their data early and in a complete package?

Although client behaviour may be at the root of the problem, changing the way you work can help to resolve some of the issues.

Ten practical steps you can take now for a happier January Self Assessment

  1. Highlight clients like those mentioned above and schedule reminders to contact them at key intervals about what information you need and the benefits of getting the data to you in good time – mentioning the £100 late returns penalty may help focus their minds.
  2. Change the way you approach each return, by drawing up a checklist of everything you require from a client before beginning the job. Make sure clients have a copy of the checklist.
  3. Manage your own time better by asking clients for missing information within a certain timeframe and take time out every day when you direct all calls to the answer phone, so you have an uninterrupted window to concentrate on returns.  You may even consider hiring a student or temp to chase missing documents, leaving you free to do the returns for which you have all the data.
  4. Provide incentives for your team, if you have one, with a prize for the staff member who completes the most returns, accurately, in a set time frame.
  5. Produce information for clients based on their sector on the information you need to help ensure they’re not paying more tax than they need to. Include examples of the types of errors people make and how they can sidestep common mistakes.
  6. Provide each client with information on the notes made on their previous year’s return so they know what they need to include this year, such as details of their pension policies and bank accounts.
  7. Offer special deals on fees, based on a sliding scale of when you receive a client’s complete information. Think about charging a higher fee every month you get closer to the 31st January deadline.
  8. Remove clients’ concentration on the 31st January deadline by setting your own earlier deadline for submitting data for January Self Assessment returns – and only mention this date when corresponding with clients.
  9. Organise evening networking events, where you can brief clients on the information you need to reduce their tax liability and any changes in tax regulation. This is also a good opportunity to answer clients’ questions.
  10. Use cloud accounting software, such as QuickBooks Online and QuickBooks Online Accountant, to help clients keep their books up to date all the time – minimising the work required by you and them at tax return time. Data is held securely in one place – not on lots of pieces of paper that clients often can’t find when they need them. With education, and the use of bank feeds, clients get used to keeping their accounts current all the time, and the last-minute rush becomes a thing of the past.

Review and refine for next year

Once the January Self Assessment rush is out of the way, it’s time to take stock of which of your improvements worked, which didn’t, and how any new areas for action that became apparent can be worked into your plans for next year.

If you have staff, encourage their feedback and incorporate the best ideas into your plans. Ask yourself and your staff:

  • What further changes to your office procedures, from standard letters to your terms, are necessary?
  • What could the team do better/differently to improve efficiency?

What steps have you taken to get Self Assessment data in on time? Has it worked?

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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