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4 Strategies to Keep Your Tax Preparation Business Thriving during COVID-19
The social distancing and shutdowns caused by COVID-19 has led to stressful times for tax preparation business owners.
These past few months are when tax prep businesses are supposed to be their most productive and profitable. So, it’s completely understandable that tax practitioners are feeling a lot of anxiety right now; their busiest time has become their slowest time right before their eyes.
However, there is good news; the deadline for tax submissions has been extended until July 15th, and tax preparers who can quickly adapt to provide their services virtually will be able to keep their previous clients and even attract new ones.
Convert your practice into a virtual office
A specific concern for smaller tax service businesses is maintaining personal connections with clients. They want to have face-to-face interactions with their clients to maintain the relationships that will help them be successful not only in 2020, but in years to come. Also, they have to facilitate a transition in ways that will help their clients feel secure in both the professional interactions and the privacy of their information. To keep that personal connection with the clients while adjusting to the new realities of social distancing will require tax practitioners to develop services and capabilities that could be delivered virtually.
It may seem overwhelming to consider turning your practice into a remote-capable office with such short notice. However, key technologies to support virtual tax prep business are widely available, and you can still become remote-ready before July 15th if you act now.
4 steps to make your practice remote-ready on a short notice
Here’s what entrepreneurial tax prep service owners are doing now not only to survive, but thrive during COVID-19 conditions (and you should too!):
- Provide a confidential, encrypted video conferencing solution as an alternative to face-to-face client meetings
- Offer a secure file exchange tool or online portal to receive tax documentation from clients and post completed file returns
- Start using a digital signature application with Knowledge Based Authentication (KBA) to automate your workflow and eliminate offline hand-offs between you and your clients
- Promote your remote-ready tax services using targeted social media, email marketing and local search advertising channels
Step 1: What you need to know about video conferencing
Face to face communication is critical to bring in new clients and maintain existing relationships. In person meetings are currently very limited, so tax practitioners must adapt to a virtual model. Here are some things you need to know about the different options that are already available for virtual appointments.
It is important to be informed about the different video conferencing solutions and consider the pros and cons of each. There are several inexpensive and popular platforms, and then the more costly but also more secure options.
- Zoom has become #1 video conference choice during the lockdown as it’s incredibly easy to use and has tons of great features. However, it has significant privacy drawbacks and security vulnerabilities. If you care about your clients’ privacy and security, don’t use Zoom until the issues have been fixed. Zoom’s credibility has taken a serious hit and if you decide to use it, that might be a deal breaker for some clients. Instead, consider more secure video conferencing services that offer encrypted and private communications.
- FaceTime is a popular video conferencing application that is a great alternative to Zoom. Unlike Zoom, it uses end-to-end encryption and usually offers high quality video. Plus, it’s free. However, it only works if both parties are using an Apple device. Also, FaceTime is viewed as more of a personal video platform and not something to use for a professional service.
- Skype is a stable, long-running video platform that most people are familiar with. It offers similar features to Zoom, and since it’s owned by Microsoft, it has a solid reputation. Although their video calls are encrypted, Skype doesn’t truly have end-to-end encryption (read more about that below).
- Microsoft Teams is another alternative from Microsoft if your business has a subscription to Office 365.
- Signal is a very reputable video conferencing platform and offers end-to-end call encryption, although its features are limited.
- Fuze is a popular unified communications solution with businesses of all sizes that offers high quality, secure video conferencing. Data is encrypted both during the call and afterwards. However, it’s not free. The plans start at $20 a month per user.
- HighFive is the Cadillac of video conferencing. It offers HD audio and video capabilities. Highfive video and audio streams are fully encrypted in transit and at rest. However, it’s pricey; the plans start at $199 a month and customers are billed annually.
- Additional relatively inexpensive options include GoToMeeting and WebEx.
Here is something to consider: Do you truly need end-to-end encryption (meaning the message is never decrypted at all, and even the service provider can’t read it), or is having encryption in transit and at rest (i.e. when it’s stored) good enough for you?
End-to-end encryption simply means that all communications are encrypted between devices- not even the organization hosting the service has access to the contents of the conversation. Basically, nobody can watch or listen to the video chats or have access to any of the data.
Very few video platforms provide true end-to-end encryption. But unless you are dealing with government officials, incredibly wealthy individuals, or public figures, it’s probably not necessary.
What you do need is a secure platform that offers encryption in transit (i.e. while it’s moving through the public internet) and encryption at rest (i.e. where data is stored on the hosting provider’s servers). While the service provider has a key to decrypt your message (let’s say at the request of the government), it’s virtually impossible for a third party to hack it if it’s encrypted in transit and at rest.
Step 2: Use a secure file exchange solution to receive tax documents and post completed tax returns
There are several ways exchange documents securely without either party having to leave the house or use their mailbox. There are 3 broad options for this; free tools for file sharing, general use managed file transfer (MFT) platforms, or integrated tax and accounting client portals.
Integrated accounting portals (such as CCH Axcess or NetClient CS) would most likely be too costly for small tax prep business owners, so the choice is really between paid MFTs and similar free options such as Box or Dropbox. As you can imagine, free services have limited security, but both Box and Dropbox offer paid plans that provide encryption in transit and at rest.
With the MFT solutions, you’ll need to consider ease of use; if it’s too complex or difficult to use, clients might choose to go elsewhere. You should also consider security, and management features such as storage, back-up, and recovery options.
For a more detailed evaluation of MFT platforms, download our FREE Best File Transfer solutions for Tax Professionals guide.
Step 3: Utilize digital signature apps with Knowledge Based Authentication (KBA)
Similar to the documents themselves, a tax preparation professional has to work around having any in-person signatures. You can do this by adopting digital signature tools that offer Knowledge Based Authentication (KBA), such as DocuSign.
If your office is an approved Electronic Return Originator (ERO), the digital signature route would be the way to go. IRS officially accepts eSignatures as legally binding, but you must use a solution that meets the IRS e-signature standards.
While you could probably upload the forms to your online portal for clients to download and sign and send back via portal or by fax, using an electronic signature application with KBA makes the whole process a breeze for both you and the client.
Step 4: Promote your new virtual tax office
The fourth key to launching your remote office is establishing an immediate marketing plan.
You’ve got less than two months to promote your new virtual office. First, update your website to include new features, such as online virtual appointment scheduler, and make sure it’s integrated with your client portal. Second, ensure that the website is fully responsive, meaning it renders correctly and is fully functional on mobile devices of various sizes.
To get the word out quickly and economically, Facebook advertising offers the best option. Combined with smart local marketing strategies and targeted search advertising, it can deliver the best results in a short period of time.
These stressful and uncertain times don’t have to mean you can’t be successful; there are opportunities for your business to not only stay relevant, but also thrive. Be an innovator in your field!
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