Navigating year-end: How to stay calm, avoid stress, and grow your firm all at once

The end of the year, for better or worse, is a time when finances are top of mind for business owners. Tax season is looming, creating the need to reconcile transactions. Owners and shareholders want annual reporting data. And everyone is looking ahead to next year’s budget and forecasts.

This heightened interest increases the demand for accounting firms. And this presents possibilities and risks. 

The challenge and opportunity of end-of-year for accounting firms

At the end of the year, many business owners need help on a deadline and will look to their accountant to assist them. The challenge for your firm is to find a way to handle the added workload while:

  1. Maintaining reasonable hours for your staff

  2. Meeting client expectations

  3. Maintaining your standards in value and quality of service

At the same time, the year-end urgency also presents you with a unique opportunity for growth. The increase in requests provides a chance to upsell services, increase revenue, and add new clients who are actively looking for a solution.

And all of this presents you with a bit of a dilemma. Should you focus on keeping things calm, controlling workload, and not overloading your staff? Or do you put in all your chips and do all you can to capitalize on this seasonal opportunity?

Or there’s a third option: don’t choose.

Because with a little forward-planning and preparation you can have both. It’s all about having the controls and processes in place that allow you to work with the right clients to provide value without overstressing your staff.

5 ways to capitalize on increased demand at year-end without any stress 

1. Understand your team's capacity level

Your firm is likely to see an increase in potential new clients, along with more work to do for your current clients. The sooner you prepare for this, the better.

Start by assessing your current capacity. Does your staff have the ability to take on work? Make sure you’re evaluating the work your team is doing to make sure efficiency is a priority.

  • Communicate and organize: Get on the same page. This is especially important for the increased number of remote teams. Touch base with everyone individually, if possible.

  • Understand strengths: If certain members of the team are great at handling client-facing details, gathering inputs, and gauging the scope of needs, focus those individuals on those tasks. And then focus those who are great at compiling the data and rushing out accurate deliverables. Switching to a strength-based work model will allow for much more work to flow through the same crew.

  • Think about last year: Take a look at the output and demand from the previous season and use it to make better decisions this year. Maybe it’s adding to the team, using new tools, taking on fewer clients or restructuring the workflow.

2. Create clear boundaries and processes

A good portion of the increased workload for your staff comes from a couple of areas:

  • Significant changes in the business or tax filing process (PPP loans, the new tax laws from a couple of years ago and/or significant changes in the client’s situation).

  • Procrastination on the part of the client (current clients waiting too long, or new clients trying to sneak in around mid-November or later).

When you receive inbound requests, it doesn’t mean you immediately react to the need. You should have a process in place for evaluating the request. Does it fit in your service model? Is it a profitable service?

Scope creep is a challenge for accounting firms who don’t set clear expectations. One day, you’re doing basic tax prep, and the next you’re offering advice (for free) that isn’t even on the invoice.

If you set clear boundaries and manage client expectations, you will ensure that you get paid appropriately for the work you may have once done for free.

3 solid tips for setting clear boundaries include:

  • Package common year-end services: Accounting for established and larger businesses is typically a custom set of services. That said, tax time clients are typically businesses that need immediate help and similar services. Developing packages around these common needs allows you to clearly communicate expectations, better delegate tasks and easily onboard multiple new clients.

  • Set a follow-up communication schedule: Even if terms are crystal clear for the team and clients, you still need the financial data from the client. If they’re off track, so are you. What your team can do is set reminders to follow up. If the right documents aren’t in after two business days, follow up. Then, each day after until they’re in.

3. Don't settle — know your ideal client

Finding ideal clients is the process of seeing qualities you like in a business (the right size, industry, firmographics). Actively looking for prospects that meet those factors is a great way to grow your business.

However, the end-of-the-year rush is often businesses coming right to you. Most of those potential clients won’t fit into the mold of your very specific buyer personas. Don’t settle for clients that don’t fit into your firm’s culture.

If you know your ideal client, you also know the best process for streamlining their accounting. This puts you in a position of authority, meaning you can dictate the terms of the relationship.

If you have a potential client who has urgent needs, and pushes back against the way your firm operates it’s likely not a great fit.

If you have a strong process in place that fits for the right client, you should be able to prescribe a direction that will mutually work for both sides. 

4. Don't be reactive (know your best services)

Saying “yes” is always easier than doing the work itself. As discussed, unorganized work practices, scope creep and clients who aren’t ideal lead to big problems. That said, if you put in the work to gauge capacity and prepare, as outlined, there’s one thing you must be prepared to do:

Say “No." 

If you’ve grown your firm from scratch, it’s hard to do this. Sometimes you still feel like the early days, where any client is a good client. That’s why it’s so important to really do the work to figure out the capabilities of your team and the types of clients they serve best.

5. Focus on retention: prepare for next year, this year

The end of the calendar year is an ideal time to sell accounting services, if you’re ready. When a business owner calls you, they’re often nervous. They know their books are messy and tax time is so close. You have a great opportunity to:

  • Calm their nerves about the current situation (as long as they meet your criteria)

  • Explain all the inputs you need from them (and when you need them)

  • Have a great discovery conversation about how your firm can ensure the way they feel never has to happen again (via your services)

The truth is, they know they have a problem. At that point, all you have to do is be able to explain their problem clearly to them. Then, the prospective client will likely be open to any solution.

Offer them monthly financial and cash flow statements, bookkeeping and budgeting services or forecasts and advisory services. You know how to hear what your customers need. And if you’re able to better handle the rush, you’ll be ready to offer them the right solution for their success — and yours.

Growth does not need to be painful

Many owners shy away from growing their accounting firm because they associate growth with pain.Processes can break, it is challenging to hire, efficiency is lost and everything becomes more stressful for everyone involved.

This is never more noticeable than during a busy period such as year-end. And for this reason, most focus simply on making it through to the other side without thinking about what they can do better, and how they can take advantage.

By following the tips outlined in this article, you can set your firm up to not just navigate any busy period without any of the pain. You can also do so in a way that allows you to capitalize on the fleeting opportunities to grow your firm and set yourself up for more long-term success and enjoyment.