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Small Business Owners: Delegating for Massive Profits

My previous post on delegation had a comment from John McCarthy with the following request for advice:

I would be interested in some of the behind the scenes (nitty-gritty) detail of the things you are now delegating. Like you, I am running a tax preparation firm. For the past 15 years it has been a side business, but now I am putting my full effort into marketing and expanding it. I spent a year building a financial planning practice at XYPN but decided I could do more good in the world by helping other financial advisors as a tax consultant and a safe place for them to send their financial planning clients to for tax preparation. I am really enjoying working with financial advisors to provide proactive service to their clients.

If you were advising a new business owner of a tax practice, what would be your top three pieces of advice? Would love to hear your perspective!

I felt my answer would serve more readers than just business owners and the answer in rather long so I decided to make it a special post. (Two posts in one day! Wow Mr. Accountant, are you on something? Why, yes. Yes, I am.)

First, let me address how I structure delegation in my office. Delegation is more than just taking stuff on my desk and throwing it on somebody else’s. If you want work done right you need to delegate to the proper people. The best delegation keeps projects from your desk in the first place.

I will use tax returns as an example. When clients bring in their tax return the front desk scans all the paperwork and puts the return in one of three drawers marked: A, B, and C. “A” tax returns are easy and any preparer can do them. A limited review of these returns is conducted before distribution to the client. Advanced preparers (that means me and any high-paid employee) never touch these returns. “B” tax returns make up 60% of the work load. Advanced tax professionals handle these returns with review, except for me. Novice preparers (do I have any of these?) can data enter these returns, but an advanced preparer finishes the return. The “C” drawer contains the most complex tax returns and comprises 25-30% of clients. Anyone can data enter the material, but an advanced preparer finishes the return with a review by me. If I prepare the “C” type tax return, my work is also reviewed.

Bookkeeping and payroll never enter my office; I have a massive allergic reaction to that kind of tedious work. The truth is I can hire bookkeepers and payroll clerks all day long. So I keep control of my time by never accepting recurring work on my desk. A steady flow of bookkeeping or payroll will tie me to my desk with low margin workload. I will do the “real” retirement thing if I am ever forced to handle such work.

Karen, my office manager, and Ashley, my administrative assistant have authority to make decisions. Every phone call does not have to reach my office. By granting authority I create a shield between me and nuisance sales calls.

Phone calls can destroy your life. My cell phone is usually off unless I expect a call. Sorry. At the office, notes in my mail box pile up. I handle phone calls in blocks so I spend the least amount of time on the phone.

Another thing my office started doing to save time is screening new clients. Below I will show you how to get lots of news clients. These new clients will wear you out if you don’t control the flow. Karen and Ashley contact most new clients and pre-approve them. Most of the time they can handle all the setup work the client has, eliminating any need for me to be involved. Consulting appointments are set up on my scheduler so I can plan and control the time involved with each client I must work with.

My clients rarely face a tax audit because we audit proof every tax return (I guess I have another post to write). However, we take audits from off the street and from other accounting firms. When you are in over your head and every accounting firm in town sent you away and law firms say it is hopeless then we are your guys. In other words we take the worst of the worst audits. Our success rate is pretty good considering the type of audits we handle.

Three Pieces of Advice for Business Owners

There are a lot of moving parts to a small business. I’ll try to stuff as much as I can into three nuggets of advice while keeping this post reasonably short.

  • Get more clients than you want and then fire the ones who don’t fit in. Sounds brutal! It is. Clients leave for a variety of reasons. Having a few too many clients allows you to pick the easiest clients to work with (and the most profitable) and firing the rest. Be gentle when you fire. I usually send a letter stating I have too much on my plate to handle their account in the manner it deserves. Sometimes I find another accounting firm who will take the client and provide an introduction. My competitors know I am not out to harm them; I am a source of new clients. Clients from hell never get a referral. To date I have never had a client complain about being let go or beg to stay. Also, don’t take every client who walks in the door. If something feels wrong, walk.
  • Focus on the type of client you want. If you want business clients give presentations to the local Chamber of Commerce, Optimist Club, et cetera. Go where your client is. You don’t talk about taxes if you want golfers as clients; you only attract other tax people. (Witness this blog.) You can’t be a master of the entire tax code. (Only I am that good!) A great demographic to chase outside business owners is landlords. These taxpayers need a good tax professional considering all the new cost segregation and tangible property rules. Lots of good speaking material there to acquire new clients. Focus on certain taxpayers and get good at that area of tax code, including reading regulations and tax court rulings.
  • Learn to say no. This is really hard. You want to help and you know how to help, but you are only one person. Over-extending only means all your clients suffer; a lesson I had to recently relearn. This past tax season I had close to a thousand ex-pats contact me to prepare their return. I said no to all of them. I can do the returns and know how. My problem is time. I want a life outside of work and have a family. Ex-pat returns do not fit nicely into my office structure. My focus is on small business, landlords, and investors. That is a full plate for a small accounting firm.
  • Under promise and over deliver. As an accountant I sometimes have willful math difficulties. I promised three pieces of advice and here we are on four. It is not always possible to over deliver, but I always try. When it doesn’t happen I review my office workflow processes and modify until I keep my promises and give a little something extra.

There many are more tips on how to run a successful business that one small blog post cannot cover. Each business is different. Always keep your eyes open for new ideas to improve your practice. Read. Read a lot. The library, and even investing in a few books, is a great investment. Your time is valuable. Control it. If you lose control of your time doom will follow. Good luck. (Luck has nothing to do with it.)

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John McCarthy

Thursday 18th of August 2016

Thanks for the detailed response. Would love to hear more about how you prequalify clients (price?) and more about how you audit proof your returns. I am currently using an AICPA checklist as a sanity check.

Love the tips that create barriers between you and the things that you don't need or want to be doing. Would love to build these into my business as it grows.