Saturday, 18 July 2009

Is "progress" disenfranchising the non-technical population?

A couple of incidents recently highlighted have highlighted how easily “progress” can isolate people and prevent them from getting help, and those people are often the neediest.

As a tax professional I am used to the bureaucracy of HM Revenue & Customs, though even for me it can be extremely frustrating. I received a form from HMRC concerning a pensions coding (Form P161 for the initiated). It was addressed to my firm, but did not have the taxpayer-client’s name on it, only the National Insurance number. I could not trace the number in my tax software and telephoned HMRC to find out whose form it was. However, having given the number to the call centre person, she told me I could not discuss the client unless I knew his / her name, but that was what I was calling to ask. She recommended that I sent the form back with an explanation and waited for them to respond by post. However, I knew that the Tax Office in question was months behind with paper correspondence, but even so, there was nothing to be done but to ring off.

Such an intransigent attitude and inability to take the initiative and work around to solve the problem quickly would deter any individual taxpayer trying to understand a confusing form. I can well imagine it would be intimidating. In the good old days…..etc.

The second incident started when one of my very elderly clients telephoned to say she had received a form she had to fill in to get the refund I had recently applied for on her behalf for 2008-09. I was puzzled, but asked her to send me the form to look at. It turned out that the form was actually for next year’s claim – a Form R40 for 2009-10 for the initiated. These elderly people, often on very low incomes and who are on low fees – my few “charity cases”- have no idea how to obtain even the most basis information or understand their entitlements. Just dishing out a form, which would have been best sent to me as agent anyway, is no form of proper communication. I have tried hard to get as much of these people’s investment income paid without deduction of tax so they do not have to get me to reclaim tax, but to no avail. Life would also be simpler if HMRC were to have the option to deduct PAYE from the State Pension, as they have in respect of most pension annuities these days, because fewer elderly people would need to complete tax returns and claims. The only thing is that they like their hands held over all sorts of financial matters even if it is helping them to find a good IFA, so to a degree I am a sort of financial social worker and some would rather pay me a little something so that I am available at the end of a telephone. I would do some stuff for free for a few if I thought I would be insured for it.

Still, I am in business in order to make a living. I do charge realistic and suitable fees to a majority of clients for the excellent service they get. The good news is that having searched my archived records on a whim I found the former client to whom the pension coding form related. I telephoned to ask if he wanted me to send it on and it turns out he would like me to act for him again due to a change of circumstances. All in all that was good news, but I just wish that the workings of government bureaucracy were simpler for the more senior citizens and for those who are not comfortable sitting at a keyboard and monitor.

© Jon Stow 2009

Friday, 10 July 2009

A week of curiosities and a valuable reminder

It has been a strange week. On Monday I went to see a client to collect his tax papers, only to find that they were in a locked cabinet to which only his wife had the key, and she was out. It was a short meeting as a result, and I did wonder why my client had not telephoned to save me the journey.

Two less eventful days ensued, and I went to my monthly local meeting of tax practitioners on Thursday. “Tell me, everyone” I said, “what do you guys do in the way of marketing?” Six faces looked back at me blankly. “Marketing? We don’t do marketing. We don’t need to because we always have enough to do.”

I was amazed, and actually even felt a little foolish for a moment. After all, I spend quite a lot of time marketing. I have one local targeted ad, and apart from that I work on my website, my blogs, the social networking sites, Twitter and face-to-face networking. All this results in work coming in, which compensates for the occasional client of mine who finds it necessary to dispense with my services. There is always some attrition. When people leave me it never seems to be because they have gone off my firm or its service. People move and like someone local to look after their tax affairs, or they sell up everything and move abroad.

How do my colleagues not have net losses of clients? It can only be because they are longer established than me (a mere seven years) and get plenty of referrals without looking for work, or they are good at client stickiness and find it easy to keep their revenue from each increasing year on year. I admire that, and am even envious though I worry about their complacency. Apparently any sort of networking is alien to their natures. I enjoy it and it gets me out, gives me a chance to feel useful in connecting people, gets me work and avoids the loneliness of some small business owners.

I went back to the office to puzzle over an email from a client’s wife. “I haven’t time to send you my husband’s papers so that you can do his tax return as we are going on holiday for the whole of August and we need his refund by September”. Now, hang on, she lives a long way from my office and I cannot easily take the ferry to do my customary house visit, but we have broadband and live in an electronic age; hence the email. Said lady then goes on to ask me how to fill in the Return by requesting a technical calculation for last year. I answered her question of course, and wish her the best of British with the Foreign and Non-resident pages which are hardly logical even to us professionals (we always seem to have to do work-arounds to get them to make sense). I have not had a response to my somewhat injured one, but am not holding my breath. Needless to say I advised her that if she sent me the information she could have emailed copies of the Return and accounts for approval easily by the end of July. It would be inconvenient but I will always try to be flexible to meet my clients’ needs. I am not holding my breath, though.

Late on Thursday, I saw another new client for the first time. It turned out his previous adviser had died, and no one seemed to be running the practice now. I think the accountant was unqualified but nevertheless may have been very good at what he did. The client had obviously found his service good. In these tragic circumstances it is a reminder that we should always allow for someone to take over the reins of our business if we become sick or die suddenly as this guy did as a result of an accident. We owe it to our clients and also to our families as it is better to have a saleable business as a going concern than a business which is as dead as the owner.

If not lessons, I feel I have had some useful reminders. I must check that my nominated successor is still happy to run my practice in the event of my incapacity as I have directed. I will call her to check.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Out with the old…

Like most other people in my business, nearly all things in my office are done online. The tax returns have to be submitted by FBI (file by internet); we can read the Revenue manuals online, download their booklets, read the professional magazines and have website communities of fellow professionals. In other words, we have access to every possible resource of information without resorting to the printed word. Then, if we need something printed, then we print it ourselves,

Many readers of this piece will recognise this; some will be fellow tax professionals and others will have found their business lives completely changed or based from the start on information technology.

This leaves me with a problem though. I have sets of the bibles of UK direct tax, Simon’s Taxes, and of the more recent indirect tax regime, De Voil. They constitute a very large number of loose leaf volumes of many pages in plastic covers and they have not been updated for six or seven years. Actually I had them as hand-me-downs when I started out on my own. They were surplus to requirements from an office that was closing. I could not have afforded to pay for the updates, and although some case law commentaries might still be relevant, the legislation has changed so much especially with the on-the-hoof goal-post moving of recent times. I hope that is not a surfeit of metaphors.

The books have to go. I need the space and have to think what to do. Are they of any interest to anyone? Shall I take them down the tip, take the pages out of the covers and recycle the component parts. Can I sell them on EBay – six years out of date? I guess the tip is odds-on favourite. Any offers – free to a good home?