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Dealing with too many ‘quick questions?’

Tips to minimize interruptions

Rita Keller | April/May 2022 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated March 29, 2022

You want to be available to your clients, and you also must be available to your team, peers, bosses and direct reports. However, if you are constantly interrupted, your work and efficiency suffer greatly. Whether you work in public practice or industry, interruptions have become irritating at times and stressful for the long haul, which is why it’s so important to first recognize common distractions and secondly be able to effectively address them. Let’s first look at some typical interruptions.

Inside the firm:

  • Tom is the managing partner or CEO. Many people need his insight and direction.
  • Arlene is the firm’s tax partner and all-around tax guru. So many people have so many questions for her. Her answers enable them to continue their work.
  • Vince is the IT manager and must respond quickly to any issues that could possibly keep people from being productive.
  • A newly hired staffer finds it necessary to interrupt people sitting nearby with questions.
  • Mary is the firm administrator. She is the firm’s go-to person, and there is usually a line of people outside her office door asking anything from mundane guidance to issues that could save (or cost) the firm thousands of dollars.
  • Your spouse calls to inform you the dog is sick.

Relating to clients:

  • Your voicemail never seems to be empty.
  • Clients leave messages that seem very urgent to them but, in reality, they are routine questions.
  • Certain clients seem to think that they are your only client. Or they think that they are your most important client.
  • Perhaps, your firm publicizes that all employees will return voice messages within 24 hours (or even a shorter period of time).
  • Clients fail to provide their tax information in a timely manner causing you to repeatedly remind them of what you need.
  • Clients think that you are the person preparing their tax return when, in reality, that is not the case.
If you are working in a public accounting firm in the months from mid-January to mid-April, you have experienced way too many interruptions. This is problematic because it interferes with your main focus of serving the client and completing the necessary compliance work.
Per the Washington Post, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found after careful observation that the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks, on average, every three minutes and five seconds. And it can take 23 minutes and 15 seconds just to get back to where they left off.

Take steps to minimize interruptions

You might think that this is just a fact of life when you are an accountant. Someone always wants you — and your knowledge — to help them. Coaching and mentoring clients, staff and peers is an important part of who you are.
Regardless, for the sake of maximizing productively and maintaining your well-being, it’s important to set boundaries. The following are some suggestions on how you can minimize interruptions.

Minimize client interruptions

  • Begin with onboarding the new client. Set expectations upfront by saying, “I am usually fully booked in the mornings, but I am available from 2–4 p.m.”
  • Introduce the client to the person who will be their preparer or in-charge accountant.
  • Include a supporting staff member in that first meeting so the client knows two people who they can contact.
  • Let clients know they can contact your administrative assistant if they can’t reach you. Your administrative assistant can answer many routine questions from clients.
  • A knowledgeable administrative team is a shield from interruptions.
  • Block out hours in your schedule that you will be unavailable and let everyone know.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate with clients. Refer them to your website, blog posts or other website resources.
  • List “Frequently Asked Questions” on your website.

Minimize internal interruptions

  • One thing that has been very helpful to some of my clients is setting hours designated as quiet time or focus time. Let everyone in the firm know that you will not be available for conversations, emails, phone calls or texts from 9–11 a.m. Some clients prefer those quiet hours to be in the afternoon. It is incredible how much you can get done in two uninterrupted hours, but you must be disciplined.
  • Train your staff thoroughly. Be sure your orientation and onboarding programs are clearly defined and structured.
  • Empower a qualified firm administrator to handle responsibility for all internal firm operations. This one person is a strong shield that prevents partners from being interrupted.
  • Provide a guide or coach for all staff members. Be sure your coaching and mentoring program is informational and educational.
  • Design a full-featured intranet that provides answers to the many questions inside a growing firm. The personnel handbook and commonly used forms and guidelines should be on the intranet.
  • Provide training for your managers to supervise and respond to staff questions rather than just being high-paid preparers.
  • As a boss, be aware of how you interrupt others. Refrain from sending emails to staff after regular business hours.
  • If people depend on you, do random check-ins — going to them rather than having them come to you. That way you can keep the check-ins brief. It is easier to leave someone’s office or workstation than it is to get someone to leave your office.
  • For the firm administrator, interruptions are part of your job. If you want to walk down the hall without someone stopping you with a question, try this tip I learned years ago. Carry a clipboard, look straight ahead and walk fast!
Final thoughts: If you have less drama inside your firm, you will have fewer interruptions. In addition, clearly defined processes and procedures that are faithfully followed will also eliminate the need for so many interruptions.

Rita Keller is the president of Keller Advisors, LLC, and a widely respected voice to CPA firm management. She writes a popular daily blog for CPA firm leaders and has been repeatedly named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting. Rita acts as an adviser and coach to CPA firm leaders across the country. You may reach her at rkeller@ritakeller.com.