A good relationship with your accountant can help avoid tax headaches, writes Sylvia Pennington.
As tax time looms closer, thoughts turn to the annual trip to the accountant, group certificate and shoebox of receipts in hand, and hopes high for a healthy refund or a bill that's not ruinous.
Do many Australians shop around for the best-priced return or the advice we want to hear, or are we creatures of habit who toddle along on autopilot to the same old bean counter?
Sydney sales manager Antony Schillaci is a poster boy for the latter camp. The 39-year-old's relationship with his accountants in his home town of Perth has lasted 20 years, survived two moves east and is still going strong. It's a family-run firm that was used by most of Schillaci's extended family when he became a client.
He's now on his second professional within the practice after the founder passed the baton to a nephew in the late 1990s. It was a transition Schillaci says he found challenging.
"I find going to the accountants quite a personal experience - you're baring your soul," he says. "They know lots of things most people don't know about you ... there needs to be trust. It's important to feel that they're doing right by you and you're paying the right amount of tax. I don't want any surprises at tax time."
There were 15.9 million income tax returns lodged in 2011-12. Seventy per cent of individuals and 90 per cent of businesses used a registered tax agent to prepare their returns. There are 31,750 accounting businesses in Australia, many of them sole traders, according to 2011 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Schillaci says quibbling over costs has never been his style. "It's not a $99 thing that gets done in a shopping centre," he says. "The fees go up each year but, to be honest, I get value for my money even though they increase, because of the high level of trust."
Given they're a similar age, he reckons he and his current man will go the distance together, even if physical distance continues to keep them apart.
"You hear lots of stories about bad accountants and I think I've got a good one."
Accountants say this sort of long-term loyalty is far from unusual.
Brisbane-based accountant Grant McCarthy hung up his shingle in 1999. Many of the individuals and businesses on his books have been with him since those early days, including several who have relocated to other states.
"People consider their tax affairs as very sacred," McCarthy says. "They don't like the idea of it going around among different people, what they're earning and what they're doing." Clients typically move for one of four reasons, McCarthy says: bad service - lack of response to queries, or advice that's slow in coming; perceived overcharging; relocation; or a mistake that cost them money.
Others stay put because moving seems like too much hassle, according to Melissa Browne, who founded her Sydney practice, Accounting and Taxation Advantage, 11 years ago.
She estimates her retention rates at 95 per cent for businesses and 80 per cent for individuals.
"There's a perception that it's difficult to change accountants ... the pain of moving is too much," Browne says.
The reverse is true, she says. Professional protocol dictates an accountant must write to their predecessor after accepting a new client. The outgoing practitioner is then ethically bound to forward paperwork.
"The reality is [clients] don't have to do anything," Browne says.
Clients Browne has lost over the years have tended to be individuals lured by a cheaper alternative.
"[Individuals] definitely shop around more than businesses," Browne says. "Some business owners shop around on price ... they don't want value-add, it's purely price. We're not the cheapest. I usually tell them they may be better off going elsewhere."
Businesses and individuals looking for a change rely overwhelmingly on word of mouth. McCarthy says that suits both parties and is the reason many accountants aren't much for marketing, even as other professions step up their spruiking.
"Dodgy clients get attracted to dodgy tax agents," McCarthy says. "We want to recruit clients from our existing clients."
Self-employed career coach Sally-Anne Blanshard sought the advice of a business connection via Facebook when a move from Sydney to Brisbane put her in the market for a new accountant in late 2011.
That was the extent of her shopping around. The personal thumbs up, and the recommended party replying quickly to her initial email, were enough to secure her business, Blanshard says.
"I don't question the fees - availability and service levels are more important," she says. "It appears [the accountant] drops everything to make things happen."
Tips from the Australian Tax Office for getting it right:
1. Only registered tax agents are permitted to charge fees. Check yours is registered, via the Tax Practitioners Board website, tpb.gov.au.
2. Complaints about unregistered agents, or unethical or unprofessional service can be made via the website.
3. If you are using an agent in 2013 for the first time, contact them before October 31 to ensure you’re included in their lodgment program.
Lodge your return and like us on Facebook
The explosion in social media has seen some accountants looking online to build their practices and engage with clients between visits.
Brad Callaughan set up shop in Western Sydney three years ago and has about 1000 clients. He spends an hour a day sharing photos, posting Tax Office updates and blogging, via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Loyal clientele and business built on word of mouth made marketing a low priority for many accountants in the past but this is changing, Callaughan believes.
‘‘It’s about building a presence, rather than winning specific new customers,’’ he says.