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What Would You Do If …?

Column: Tricks & Tips

From the Jan./Mar. 2008 Issue

You’re either reading this article during the holiday break or you’re
back in the office and it’s the first week of January. For most practices,
especially tax-heavy ones, only a few days remain before the onslaught of clients,
W-2s, K-1s, 1099s and everything else that accompanies this most wonderful time
of the year: Tax Season.

But aside from throngs of clients lining up at your door, are you prepared
for other potential challenges you might face during the tax season? A variety
of contingencies could negatively affect your firm’s busiest time of the
year, and while there aren’t always pat answers or solutions, there are
technologies that can remedy some of the effects of these events. The most notable
among these are simple: Remote access capabilities, power surge protectors and
online data backup systems.

course, just taking a few minutes to consider the potential of these events
can also make coping with the challenges easier. So think about what you would
do if faced with one of the following events:

If the power goes out, your practice will be closed until it comes back on.
It likely would also affect your neighboring competition, so the risk of losing
clients to them isn’t too great, but the forced temporary closure of
your office can have significant effects on deadlines, especially if the outage
is prolonged. If the power goes out during business hours, there is an entirely
different concern: Are your computers and servers on a UPS system (uninterruptible
power supply) that allows you to power them down safely and protects them
from power surges? Is the client return you’re working on saved? Even
short-term power outages can cause major headaches, and UPS systems can be
your aspirin.

Since the tax season falls during the hardest winter months in the north,
the traditionally wettest months in the west, and the beginning of severe
thunderstorm season in the Plains states, the potential for significant weather
events can affect all practices. While the results are usually short-lived
like power outages or temporarily closed roads, more significant events can
cause towns to be cut off or difficult to reach for longer periods, or they
may even result in damaged buildings. If your servers are still up and you
can access them remotely, you can easily work from a temporary location almost
immediately. The same is true if you utilize an online data backup system.
If setting up a temporary work site, you will also need to get the word out
to your clients. Note: While there are only a couple of online tax programs
on the market, there are several technologies that can assist in remotely
servicing those clients.

Even if everything is going smoothly and the weather is nice, you can still
be struck by a crashed computer or server. While systems are much more reliable
than in the old days (10+ years ago), sometimes they give out, whether it’s
due to power surges, corrosion, faulty parts or other causes. For sole practitioners
whose one computer is the hub of their practice, this can be an involuntary
career-changing moment. But even larger practices are vulnerable when it comes
to their file servers since they usually act as the central repository for
client data. Data backup, whether online or disk-based, is the key to surviving
this challenge and getting back up and running as quickly as possible.

Accounting and tax practices necessarily handle a lot of very sensitive financial
data and identifying information. So it is imperative that practices secure
that data from prying eyes. This means setting up rigid security protocols
for wireless access, as well as having need-to-know password access to client
files only for staff working on particular clients. Automatically updated
anti-virus and SPAM/phishing blockers also reduce vulnerability.

Still in the realm of a security breach is the potential loss of a portable
computer with client data on it. Laptops and wireless access have been a great
productivity boost, but unfortunately they sometimes disappear from our car,
restaurant table or other location. Aside from being a financially expensive
loss, the potential threat to your clients’ data is also significant.
First off, your laptop should have at least the same protective features as
your office systems, including strong passwords, virus protections and other
features designed to prevent the bad guys from seeing the information even
if they do grab your computer. A new breed of programs can track a laptop
and lead police or users to its location.

Even without some new pandemic, people get sick, even you and your staff.
For ordinary colds and even the flu, we often suffer and work through it.
But significant illnesses can be the end of a practice, especially for smaller
firms without a plan for business continuity in case of the principal’s
incapacitation. Who will pay the bills and the paychecks at a sole proprietorship?
Who will manage a specific department if there is a vacancy on March 10? For
very small firms, what will happen to your clients if your office is closed?
You might consider a pact of sorts with a friendly competitor who would usher
your clients back to you when you’re able, but it’s still a tentative

There is no singular tool that can help the small or mid-sized practice overcome
a significant event. Instead, you must consider all of the potential problems
you could encounter and at least think about how you would cope with them if
one or more were to hit during your most critical time of the year. This will
likely include adopting technologies that enable you to work from any location,
to safeguard your client data and to protect your infrastructure. But it absolutely
requires that you plan ahead for these contingencies.

One or more of these events will likely happen during the course of your professional
career. The only question is which ones, and what would you do if they happened
during tax season?


Mr. O’Bannon is the technology editor for The CPA Technology Advisor.
He can be reached at