By Ahren von Schnell • Photos by Jessica McCafferty
Tax preparation is something most people think about for only a few months of the year. But Lisa and John Wheeler, who own and operate Plattsburgh’s Jackson Hewitt franchise, think about taxes virtually non-stop. The couple, and the tax preparation professionals who work for them, make it possible for their clients to focus on other priorities. With nearly a thousand individual clients, many of them small businesses, they serve customers in Clinton, Essex, and Franklin counties. They also have military service members who call on their expertise.
Initially, Lisa tried her hand at a variety of jobs to get a sense of where her interest lay. Perhaps the most impactful was her time spent at a tobacco company where she served for ten years as General Manager. That role exposed her to the nuts and bolts of business management — most importantly its payroll and accounting aspects.
Realizing she had an aptitude for bookkeeping, Lisa made the decision to pursue an Associate’s degree in Business Management and Accounting at Clinton Community College and earn a certificate in payroll as well.
From there, she spent time working at another tax preparation service, but was struck by what she perceived to be an assembly line approach and a culture which did not prioritize customer service. Long wait times and a lack of communication with clients were often the order of the day. She believed she could do better.
Rather than opening a private, independent tax service, Lisa and John, opted for a franchise with the nationwide tax experts at Jackson Hewitt. That brought with it several advantages. For staff members without a tax preparation background, Jackson Hewitt would provide the individuals with training, as well as ongoing support for any issues that arose. With technical elements of training ungirded, that allowed the Wheelers to focus on what they believed would be the most critical component of their business — customer service.
Tax preparers are required to be licensed, in order to provide their services for compensation. They must demonstrate the appropriate knowledge and skills needed to shepherd their clients’ returns through an ever-changing set of tax laws and regulations, which to many a lay person can seem labyrinthine.
One way Lisa ensures that her staff is equipped with the necessary tools to accomplish this is through direct involvement in the college to career pipeline for tax preparers. As an adjunct, she now teaches a course at Clinton Community College —Federal Income Tax. Many of her staff have been drawn directly from her pool of prior students, which affords her a greater degree of confidence in their abilities and in their likelihood of success in their new role.
Lisa not only contributes to workforce development by ensuring new tax professionals are equipped with the very latest information to tackle even the thorniest of returns, she also regularly gives her students hands-on experience by providing them with internships at her own business. This experience helps to familiarize students with the importance of the human factor, even when crunching numbers.
The Wheelers live by the tenet that a friendly smile when greeting a client is the bedrock of stellar customer service. A welcoming and empathetic demeanor is an essential tool for all employees, and in particular the receptionist, who is most often the first person a client interacts with. As with most first impressions, this will often set the tone for subsequent engagement a client has with the business. And since tax season can leave some people flustered or with flaring tempers, the receptionist plays an integral role in reassuring the customer that the team at Jackson Hewitt is there to assist.
A critical factor in providing the best assistance possible is the need to stay current on shifting tax laws. Much of this continuing education can be done remotely, affording flexibility to the tax preparer in how they wish to approach it. And, as a franchise, the Wheeler’s business is provided all this training through Jackson Hewitt.
The virtual training allows Lisa to stay up to date on how each staff member is progressing, in terms of the amount of time spent on training, as well as performance on assessments. This allows her to identify areas in which a person might need additional support, so as to ensure the highest quality of service provided to customers.
This high standard means that employees can give the best possible advice to members of the community. As an example, one of the most common mistakes that Lisa and John advise against is when businesses mix operational and personal expenses. They note that some of the best practices that can be followed include being organized, keeping receipts and financial documents in a dedicated folder, and keeping at least the first several paystubs of the year.
Mid-October marks the period of the year when things become a little less frenetic in the tax preparation world. And as the pace slows for the autumn months, the Wheelers can be found spending time with their family, including 22 chickens and four dogs, and hiking. But by mid-December, they and their staff at Jackson Hewitt will be ready to help make filing taxes less taxing.
63 Smithfield Blvd.
25 Consumer Square
Plattsburgh, NY 12901