Managing workflow

I always find it interesting how one practitioner will ask me a question, and I suddenly find myself being asked the same, or very similar question, by many accountants and bookkeepers.  

The question is this:

How do my manage the onslaught of work coming in? How do I prioritize my own workload as well as that of my team?

Managing one’s time, prioritizing and delegating is a tremendous skill that can and will impact your and your team’s stress, improve client satisfaction, and greatly increase your bottom line. That is if you can master it. The problem is that mastering this skill is a life-long journey.

So where do I start?

Lets say I have 20 year-end files to work on.  Which one(s) should be given highest priority?  

Most will tend to prioritize which file they’ll work on next based on one or more of the following 3 criteria:

  • Deadlines imposed on the client by CRA, bank or some other institution.
  • Client’s ability to scream and make your life havoc. The louder they scream, the higher up the priority list they go.
  • Value of client to the firm, generally measured by the fees generated by the engagement. In other words, firms will give priority to a $4,000 engagement over a $2,500 engagement.

Does this resonate with any of you?

May I propose a different solution.  

I suggest you prioritize your work based on the date ALL (and I do mean ALL) the information was received. I suggest you give minimal consideration to client deadlines. Their lack of planning should not constitute an emergency on our part. Nor should their lack of planning result in them getting better service than others.

We used to be guilty of prioritizing based on deadline. Client would bring in their information on May 15th, knowing full well that taxes were due at the end of the month, or the banks required statements in the next 15 days. So what would we do? We’d get to work ensuring this deadline was met. Putting aside all the work that came in from other clients who did not impose any deadline on us. And you know what, most of the time, we’ll pull it off. Yes siree boy, we got it done on time. That’s what we do. We get ‘er done.  

It finally dawned on us that we were rewarding bad behaviour. The clients who brought it their documents well in advance, who did not impose any deadline on us, ended up waiting much longer for their financial statements than those who made our lives hell by failing to plan and impose those self-inflicted deadlines on us. Why would we do this?

So we became smarter. We started doing all work in order of reception. Your work came in today? Well we’ll get to it once all the work that came in yesterday is done. It’s only fair.  

Now this change in prioritizing surely comes with tremendous amount of push back you’d think right? Strangely, no. Most clients will understand that fair is fair. Most will not appreciate standing in line, but they also understand that those in line in front of them should be given priority over them.  And most do not appreciate those trying to cut in, in front of those who came in before them. They get it far more than you would think.

I will however suggest that you will need to train those “demanding” clients to plan things better going forward. Now is a good time to advise them that their financial statements will only get worked on when:

  • ALL – Yes ALL – 100% – of the information needed is in
  • When all work that came in before theirs is also done.

No exceptions, unless of course they’re prepared to pay a very high priority service fee for moving them ahead of the queue. And I do mean high!! Like 150 to 250% fee increase.  

So what do we do about all of those who will now owe taxes and thus penalties and interest? Do we simply file them late? Yes. Yes you do. But nothing prevents you from taking 10 minutes, before the CRA deadline, to look over the client trial balance to estimate taxes and have them send in the money BEFORE the deadline date and thus reduce or avoid penalties and interest.  

I suspect not everyone reading this article will agree with this strategy. And that’s okay. You can prioritize your workload any way you like. And while you’re busy servicing those clients who give you most grief, your competitors will gladly take those easy-going clients who brought in their papers early, who have now left your firm because you took too long,  because you were too busy meeting your demanding client’s deadlines. If those are the clients you prefer, continue giving them better service.