Most CPAs and accountants start out the new year with set plans and goals — both personal and professional. But no matter how well you prepare, there are bound to be some unexpected twists and turns along the way. Your goals, priorities, and even the people you work with can change in the blink of an eye — it’s a fact of life.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still plan where we can for the year ahead.
Planning is an awareness-generating process that helps you to identify your goals, resources, and potential roadblocks so you’ll be as prepared as you can. Even if circumstances veer a bit off course, a little pre-planning will put you in a better position to roll with the punches, stay agile, and quickly get everything back on track.
With that in mind, here are eight ways to prepare your firm — and clients — for a successful year ahead.
Do your homework
Tax laws, accounting, and auditing standards, and deadlines are constantly changing, and clients count on you to stay up to speed — and a step ahead — of updates. In fact, an OnPay survey found that more than 50 percent of small businesses expect their accountant to help them stay up-to-date with changes to tax laws. The good news is that there are tools you can use to keep informed about updates in real-time and within a few mouse clicks.
Many state societies release annual year-end updates, either in-person or online. Subscribing to newsletters, magazines, and podcasts can also provide actionable information you can share with clients. Here are some excellent resources to consider subscribing to:
- The AICPA’s CPA Letter Daily
- Accounting Today and the On the Air podcast
- The Cloud Accounting Podcast
- CPA Practice Advisor
- Journal of Accountancy
- IRS e-News Subscriptions
As you tap into these resources, take note of any tax savings or planning best practices that can add value for your clients and their business. It can help you build credibility, earn trust, and create new revenue opportunities for your firm.
Get your continuing professional education hours
Speaking of learning, how many CPE classes did you have to cram into the last few months of the year? Instead of feeling like you’re drinking from a firehose next December, why not get ahead of the game and mark next year’s CPE opportunities on the calendar now?
First, block out the big conferences you plan to attend, such as AICPA Engage, QuickBooks Connect, and Xerocon. You can usually get a big chunk of your CPE requirements out of the way at these events. Then you can fill in the rest of your calendar with webinars, local seminars, and Earmark courses without feeling the strain of the annual deadline.
Renew your license and PTIN
Depending on where you practice, you need to renew your CPA license every one to three years. The renewal process is different in each state and jurisdiction, so make sure you know when your license expires and what you’ll need to renew it.
For example, in odd-numbered years (such as 2015 and 2017), the renewal window in Delaware is between July 1 and June 30. However, the state of Oregon takes a different approach: renewal takes place in odd-numbered years if your license number is odd and even-numbered years if your license number is even. So it’s a good idea to keep ahead of your state’s deadlines.
Additionally, if you prepare federal income tax returns, you’ll also need to renew your Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). Here are the dates to remember:
- PTIN renewal season usually begins in mid-October
- The renewal deadline is December 31
Check your email for the renewal reminder, or visit the Tax Professionals page at IRS.gov.
Nurture client relationships
Chances are, your small business clients think of you as more than just someone who helps keep their books in order or files their tax returns on time. In fact, 53 percent of small business owners polled by OnPay consider their accountant to be a trusted advisor.
The start of a new year is a perfect opportunity to proactively nurture and check in on these client relationships (and chances are they’ll be delighted to hear from you.) For example, you could:
- Write a blog or email newsletter that outlines upcoming any important tax deadlines and the paperwork they’ll need to file their income tax and payroll tax returns.
- Reach out to clients on critical aspects of their finances, such as cash flow, payroll expenses, and year-end tax planning.
- Schedule monthly or quarterly check-ins with clients to discuss financial results and progress toward goals.
These actions help clients see you as someone who is on top of business trends and is proactive in advising them.
Plan how you’ll market and sell your services
Did you know that only 30 percent of small business owners use an accountant? The takeaway is you have plenty of opportunities to attract new prospects and grow your client base in the coming year. So take the time to get your marketing strategy together. Here are some elements to consider:
- Website. According to Adobe, 89 percent of consumers stop engaging with a website if they encounter content issues, such as web pages that load slowly, articles that are too long, and pages that don’t display well on mobile devices. It can be a good idea to take a fresh look at your firm’s website and make updates that ensure you provide the information clients and prospects need — without bogging it down with unnecessary filler.
- Blog. If you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to set up a blog and content plan for your firm. The content you publish here is a great opportunity to establish yourself as a thought leader in your niche — plus it can improve your site’s ranking in search results and support your social media and email marketing efforts. Determine your content calendar for the coming year and start scheduling relevant topics that would be useful to cover for your clients.
- In-person networking. For many accountants, referrals are the bread and butter of marketing (and client prospecting). If you have a knack for networking, add this to your outreach list and decide which events you’ll attend in the coming year. Here are some groups to consider:
- Society chapter meetings. Networking with other accountants in your area can lead to valuable referrals.
- Business communities. Meet other business owners via the local Chamber of Commerce or networking groups.
- Industry organizations. If you specialize in serving specific industries, join their local networking groups. These groups often need speakers, so you might even have a chance to speak at an event, further establishing yourself as an expert in their industry.
Offer more services
Adding value-added services to your existing practice offerings is an efficient way to better serve (and stay in front of) existing clients while growing your revenues.
The types of services you offer will depend on the focus and strengths of your firm but might include:
- Service consulting. Help clients choose a payroll software or manage payroll on their behalf.
- Technology advisory. Consult clients that are shopping for new accounting software, time and expense tracking tools, or project management platforms.
- Strategic planning. Leverage your knowledge of your clients’ businesses to help them improve financial results, attract capital, and meet their goals.
- Cash flow projections. Perform regular cash flow forecasting to help clients make day-to-day decisions and prepare for cash shortages.
Automating tasks and streamlining your workflow leads to smoother operations, time-savings, and more capacity for those value-added services mentioned above.
Look at your existing technology stack and workflows and see if you can automate any steps. If you’re not sure where to start, here are a couple of common to-dos that can benefit from automation.
No frills file sharing
How often are you searching through your inbox to dig up files that customers have emailed you? While email certainly has a time and place, receiving client documents this way can be cumbersome and time-consuming, especially when having to search for a year’s worth of files. Cloud-based file-sharing tools such as Dropbox or Filecloud simplify the process — and allow customers to drag and drop files in seconds. The takeaway is it won’t feel like you need a map to find files when completing client work.
Calendar sharing for client appointments
As tax time rolls around, clients will likely be clamoring to book time on your schedule. Instead of the mind-bending back and forth of email threads, there are many calendar apps that allow your clients to view the times you have available — and book them without help — from their phone or computer. Calendly and Zoho books appear toward the top of many annual round-ups.
Seamless client transition
OnPay is very easy to use. As a CPA with clients that process payroll, the transition to their software has gone very well — even for clients with limited knowledge about processing payroll and payroll taxes. For any support needs, the OnPay staff worked with me and my clients to accomplish goals.
— - Donald J., OnPay Accounting Partner
Put your best foot forward for the new tax year
As the year comes to a close, proactively reaching out to clients is a golden opportunity to communicate changes for the upcoming tax year and help them stay on top of compliance-related items. Furthermore, you can provide assistance on a variety of business-related topics, ranging from software evaluation to reminding clients about 401(k) contributions. Here are some topics to keep in touch on:
Small businesses can typically count on increases to the minimum wage rate in their state, nearly every year. Tracking down updates on state websites can feel a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. As new minimums are released, share the state-by-state announcements with clients. You can also keep them informed of any state or federal payroll updates which gives you another chance to put your advisor hat on.
Help evaluate tools
In addition, conduct a year in review to see if clients had any issues with tax filings or calculating payroll. If there were any bumps in the road you can help them switch to a payroll provider that’ll get things right — and some even offer free account migration to make switching a no-brainer. It’s another way to start the new year off with a clean slate.
Are you helping your clients stay on top of their 401(k) retirement savings? It’s a good time to step in and make sure they set up in time for January 1 so they can maximize contributions before limits undergo changes in the new year.
Help clients stay compliant
Most businesses should be aware of their state’s compliance requirements, but it can be challenging to keep track of it all. That’s where your expertise can be a difference-maker. For example, you can keep clients up-to-date on new workers comp requirements or any changes to state-by-state sexual harassment training laws. As you help clients get up to speed, it could be a good opportunity to inquire about referrals and if they know any business owners looking for bookkeeping services.
This type of guidance keeps their business operations running smoothly and cements your role as a trusted advisor.
New year equals new opportunities
Even if you can’t get all of this done before the busy season hits, taking some time to think through what you want to do in the year ahead can ensure you hit the ground running after January. And remember, you don’t have to do it all alone. Get your team involved and lean on the expertise of your solution providers. Here’s to a well-thought-out and prosperous new year!
Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA is a freelance writer with a background in accounting and income tax planning and preparation for small businesses and individuals. She enjoys helping people make sense of complicated accounting and income tax topics. She lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska. Visit her website at www.jberryjohnson.com.