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Cubester® Chat: Tight Deadlines and Why They Don’t Have to Be So Painful

Posted on 01-30-2015
Cubester® Chat: Tight Deadlines and Why They Don’t Have to Be So Painful

By Kristin Ryan

We've all dealt with externally imposed deadlines, especially in the audit, tax and consulting services profession.

Our ultimate goal is to help ensure our clients meet the deadlines imposed on them, as well as provide them with a higher level of client service as their trusted adviser.

In meeting these deadlines, we impose deadlines on ourselves, but we should also consider placing similar deadlines on our clients. After all, we’re both striving toward the same outcome. Expectations should be set upfront, and communication is key. We should also be in constant communication when those expectations on deliverables appear to be at risk.

When inside a professional services firm, specifically, we impact the success or failure of a deadline or project at all levels of the organization. We should be communicating upward and to the clients, especially when challenges arise and there’s an indication that the deadlines may be compromised. With some experience under our belts, we learn when to escalate the issues and how to communicate that the project or engagement is not coming together as expected. Being open and honest is always preferred over waiting and hoping that the results we want will materialize.

As professionals, we need to constantly be mindful of how our company cultures are impacted by the decisions we make. When we allow deadlines to be missed and we don’t do everything we can to encourage accountability within our teams and with our clients, we’re sending the message that this is acceptable. Not only are we potentially growing a firm of underperformers, but we’re also quite possibly taking the wind out of the sails of those who have extremely strong work ethics and high expectations of themselves and others. Those are the ones who we value the most when we look to grow and develop the trusted adviser relationship with our clients.

Beyond public accounting, seemingly impossible deadlines appear to span almost all industries and seem to be of considerable concern in the IT consulting world. Even though most deadlines are being imposed by an external source, there are things we can do to relieve the pressure. In Managing Projects with Unrealistic Deadlines, Tom Mochal wrote, “Although it appears that you are being held accountable for events and circumstances that are not within your control, you do have control over the processes you use to manage the project.”

He has the following three helpful tips

  1. See if you can balance the early deadline by increasing resources or reducing project scope.
  2. Proactively manage risk, scope and the work plan so that you can better manage expectations and have the best chance for success, given the constraints you are under.
  3. Work with your manager, client and project team to evaluate how you are executing the project. You may discover ideas and techniques that will allow you to deliver the project sooner than you might have first thought possible.

An interesting article, “How to Handle Tight Deadlines as an Accountant,” says, “Prioritize projects by deadline and factor in how important each project is. Complete the high-priority projects and tasks that you can finish quickly before you begin more complicated projects and tasks that will take more time.”

When determining which project is more important, consider long-term consequences, as well as those that will be felt in the short run. The one you initially thought was more important might not be the same as the one you ultimately decide on. The article provides additional guidance, such as giving projects with tight deadlines as much of your undivided attention as possible, letting your phone go to voicemail unless the person on the other line is directly tied to your project and not allowing unscheduled walk-in visitors.

Tell anyone asking for your time who is not a higher priority than your project that you are on a deadline. Ask your boss or co-workers for help if you do not believe you can meet the deadline on your own. These are things we can all probably do a better job of. It’s difficult to find a healthy balance between getting our work done and being empathetic toward others in order to develop and foster those relationships that are so important in our daily tasks and career growth.

Part of what comes out of fostering these relationships is becoming comfortable setting expectations upfront and communicating challenges we face along the way. Equally as important is learning how to tactfully set deadlines for our clients, consistently having those tough conversations about potential fee increases and recognizing and communicating that the deliverable we originally agreed upon may not be within reach. In general, we should expect the same level of commitment from our clients that we expect from our team members. That’s the foundation for a solid relationship and fosters trust.

Quality services take time and come with substantial cost and effort on everyone’s part. There’s most certainly someone else out there to do the job in today’s market, but ask yourself if that’s really what you’re seeking. Most likely, you’re still with the firm you chose because of its reliability and quality work product. If expectations aren’t lining up or there are questions about the process and deliverables, speak up. Oftentimes, the cause of stress and strain is a lack of communication. Remember, we’re all working toward the same goal.

Not only do we need to be educating our clients on what it takes to reach the deadlines imposed on them, which have been imposed on us, but also, management needs to educate the personnel that will be involved in the audit, for example. We all work more efficiently if we know the reason behind why we’re doing something. This helps with motivation and helps those producing deliverables understand what they need to produce. Make sure you designate enough resources to the process no matter what service is being rendered. For example, the CFO, controller, assistant controller, and accounts payable and receivable clerks should be accessible and responsive during the audit process.

Preparation is key. Being prepared is the best insurance the company has to keep fees from rising above what was originally agreed upon. It also ensures that the most value possible is being derived from the project. For instance, if it’s not in place already, come up with a process for identifying and gathering the documentation that will be requested as part of the audit during close. Many of the documents and schedules that will be requested, such as significant agreements, reconciliations, general ledger details, invoices and check copies, are readily available and can easily be filed away in preparation for the audit, or at least be organized and easily accessible upon specific request.

While the engagement letter that our clients sign becomes a thoughtless administrative task, it is a useful tool in referencing what we both agreed upon. We should not be afraid to remind our clients that fees are contingent upon the management team ensuring that we have received everything we have requested to facilitate an efficient and effective process. If preparedness is lacking or information is incomplete or inadequate, we ought to immediately be entertaining an increase in fees or expectations of the timeframe in which the work is completed in, if that’s feasible.

Kristin Ryan, CPA, is an audit manager with PKF Texas. Contact her at (713) 860-5479 or kryan@pkftexas.com.