Five Ways to Say “I’m Reputable!”
Tax return preparer fraud has been a hot topic again this year. Between the continuing prosecutions of those preparers caught in illegal acts, the push by the IRS to regulate tax preparers and an intense focus on identity theft, it might seem that it will be tougher than ever to maintain your reputation as a trustworthy professional.
With the preparer community as a whole being scrutinized under the microscope, you most certainly need to be proactive. The Internal Revenue Service has actually prepared information for consumers on how to spot and avoid sketchy tax preparers. That’s sort of a road-map you can follow – if you are doing all of the things the IRS is telling your potential customers to look for, you’ll put yourself on the “good list”.
In addition, you can stay above bar with just a little effort by adopting three philosophies and taking on five action items – all of which are explained below.
It begins with three simple philosophies:
- Be visible all year long. Your business does not end on April 15, even if you close a particular location or lay off your temporary staff after that date. Make sure that your clients know how to find you throughout the year. Remember that fraudulent preparers disappear once the fraud is complete. They use cell phones or email that can be set up without providing identification, and that can be shut down quickly. Print business cards. Have utility bill accounts in the name of the business.
- Do everything by the book, and let your clients know that’s how you practice. Strange as it may seem, some tax preparers run afoul of the law by trying to do more for their clients by “bending the rules” just a little. Bending the rules means that you are committing fraud, no matter what the intention. And if you do that even once, you can quickly get a bad reputation among your customers and peers.
- Know your customers. If you know them, they will also know you – and can vouch for your character and performance with new customers. It may take time to know each customer, especially if the practice prepares thousands of returns each year. But meeting and getting to know each customer is worth the effort.
With these simple philosophies, there are still five things you can do to differentiate your practice from the fly-by-night preparers. These are:
- Belong to a professional association. We’ve prepared a list of those organizations for your information, and you can find it here. Fraudulent preparers don’t bother to belong to a professional organization – they don’t want to spend the money, and can’t stand the scrutiny of their peers. Make sure your current membership information is displayed for your customers to see.
- Belong to the Better Business Bureau and the local Chamber of Commerce. The BBB maintains files on local businesses called the BBB Business Review, and the small amount of dues charged by your local Bureau make it a great investment. They will give you a certificate of membership to post for your customers. The Chamber of Commerce is also a low-cost investment, with the added value that their business-to-business events are a good place to look for new customers.
- Post your other credentials where customers can see them. Awards, certificates of education and achievement, your status as a recognized preparer with PTIN number, and your electronic filing status, among others. As you know, fraudsters are not joiners, and do not invest in education or improvements.
- Join and participate. While you are too busy to go to meetings and events during tax season, the rest of the year should include such activities as volunteering in community organizations, working with sports teams, offering workshops and otherwise being an active part of the community you wish to serve.
- Check your online reputation. Customers are not shy about telling the world how they feel about your service. For this reason, it is important for you to know what is being said on web sites, Facebook and other places. Dispute inaccurate information, praise those who say nice things about the practice and keep pace with how your customers feel about you and your staff.
Differentiating yourself from the riffraff of the industry is not difficult, but it does require an investment in time, dues, contributions and attention. That investment is one of the most important investments a tax preparer can make if she wants to stand out as a reputable professional.