With tax season 2022 fast approaching, how are you doing with final stretch preparations? While many core processes will be repeated with the deftness and confidence that only years of experience can provide, there have likely been changes in people, processes, and technology since tax season 2021 which require both special attention and communication as we barrel our way into this new year. It’s the success of the new that we are judged on when it comes to the experience of our clients and staff. After all is said and done with re-engineering processes, developing new strategies, rolling out new software – we still have the ongoing job of managing the message and getting people the right information at the right time.
In this article, I’m focusing on the communication side of tax season – and how CPA firms can improve both firm and client engagement by being intentional in their interactions around change.
As recipients, we all have experienced both sides of the spectrum: On the one hand, not having enough of the right information at the right time, and on the other hand, what feels like a gross overcommunication on a topic that is seemingly already well understood. As the communicator, we often feel that we have painstakingly communicated relevant details and are baffled that still some folks “didn’t get the message.”
This phenomenon is obviously not relegated to the business world – I’m still wondering how my children haven’t gotten a few messages, and I hear them complain loudly about things I’ve repeated (apparently) ad nauseam. But as we face another tax season – and all the added pressures and complications related to this familiar, yet unique, time of year – we cannot risk under communicating either internally or with our clients.
As you consider key areas of change, consider building clear, multi-faceted communications plans, remembering that one email is not a communication plan. Having been on both sides of the communication dilemma – I empathize with those who feel people should just read it the first time. On this one, I’ve learned to listen to our marketing partners who tell us that it takes 5 to 10 attempts to really get the message across.
So what should be considered in your communications plan?
Start with the key areas of change since tax season 2021. You may even want to include significant changes from 2020 as a refresher as well. Put a special focus on communicating client-facing changes for your internal and external audiences and remember that collecting feedback is always part of a good communication plan.
- Key areas of change – create an inventory of what has changed in the past year. Summarize these changes to tell the story of improvement efforts the firm has made. Focus on how these changes will benefit your clients, your staff, and your firm to help mitigate the pain of change.
- Changes impacting clients – focus on changes that impact the client’s experience. Changes to client portals, intake or delivery systems will impact the way your client interacts with your firm and will require sending information and reminders early and often. Be clear about who clients can contact regarding questions and how to best reach them.
- Feedback – remember that gathering feedback is a critical part of a communication plan. Getting that feedback during tax season is highly desirable so that you can pivot, add clarity or resolve issues in real time instead of waiting for after tax season surveys. Gain a sense of the pain points as people are feeling them. This is a powerful way to improve culture, and in some cases even rescue a negative client experience by showing your care and concern.
As you consider these three categories – internal changes, client-facing changes, and feedback – recognize that your communications plans will vary depending on the scope of changes and audience.
Consider different communication methods and mediums as you plan your communication around change. Email is certainly still a viable option, but there is a risk of your message being lost in a sea of email during tax season.
- Email – When using email to communicate change, think about it as a moment in time message. Don’t expect your clients or staff to remember or retain them, though some certainly will. Instead, use email on a cadence and always reference the appropriate documentation locations or better yet, link to them from the email so that you are training people to use the “source of truth” for critical firm documents. By having a single location for critical changes (perhaps one for internal audiences and one for external audiences), you provide a resource you can repeatedly link to that can help drive self-help and reinforce those changes. Consider adding that link to signatures, in Teams, and other firm-wide communications vehicles for omnipresent access.
- Meetings – For firms that hold a tax kickoff meeting, be sure to communicate the summary of your changes this year, including detail where appropriate. In addition, thread your communications around change into your regular existing meetings, reinforcing and reminding staff of changes, so that staff has multiple opportunities to hear the message and remember to include the “why” of the change.
- Video – consider using short video messages around change. This can garner more attention than an email and is often easier to produce and to consume. By using tools you already have in place for video conferencing like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, the process can be quick and easy, and you can ask different firm leaders to rotate this role to make it more interesting for the viewers.
- MS Teams/SharePoint – Microsoft Teams sites and SharePoint sites are excellent tools to share change information. Reference these communication tools in your email, meetings, and video messages for some cross pollination of communication. Using Teams’ sites and specific channels for feedback are a great way to get real-time information in the thick of tax season when it is most relevant. Surveys to clients as part of the engagement process also keeps feedback close to the time of the experience and drives up the efficacy significantly.
The biggest takeaway here is that major changes need to be communicated repeatedly and in multiple ways for greatest effect. Which leads us to…
Always consider a cadence of communication in your communication plans for staff and clients. Again, one email is never enough. Also remember that with so much on the minds of your people, repetition through multiple mediums increases your ability to reach the right people with the right messages at the right time – when they need it the most.
- Clients – clients need even more communication than staff as their motivation to take your message in is very different. Consider a cadence of messages that start early and come out regularly. Once their engagement is complete, you can take those folks off the list and if you have tools to do so, you can build that logic into an automated process. If you have a client section on your website, be sure to update that with the same changes you’re communicating via email and drive clients to your website for some early cross-service marketing as well!
- Staff – looking at your change inventory, consider what staff needs to know and when. Are there changes and improvements in process or technology that will impact some groups early in tax season, and others later? Process changes to 1040s will likely be pushed to the back of the mind while business returns are taking our collective brain space. Changes to internal processes may need to be reiterated regularly to help keep them top of mind. We all need to practice our patience on these changes.
Don’t forget feedback!
No matter how well considered your changes and how strong your communications plan, there are always going to opportunities for improvement, so keep looking for ways to get feedback and make adjustments. Consider ways to make it easy for your staff – and your clients! – to give feedback. Then periodically remind them to use it. Use survey tools and schedule reminders or go old school and create an email distribution group and mark your calendar to send out reminders periodically asking people for feedback. Or anything in between – but collecting feedback in real time is by orders of magnitude better than collecting feedback after it’s over and asking people to relive the pain. Try a tool that allows staff to vote up issues that other staff have recorded – and share the actions you’re taking to address those issues. Taken from the experience of managing support desks for decades, people can handle knowing that their issue may take a while to fix, as long as they’ve been heard and have confidence that it’s on someone’s radar.
Even if the feedback can’t be considered / implemented this year, it will provide you with an excellent start on next year’s plan.