What to do if a client threatens you

Evgeny Sergeev/iStock/Thinkstock

After hearing from an accountant who was threatened by a new client, Mark Lee has been thinking about how to handle such situations.

The story that follows was relayed to me recently. I have simplified the facts and changed names to preserve the anonymity of the accountant concerned. I have also abbreviated the story so we can focus on the lessons to be learned and how to avoid similar situations happening to anyone else.

There will also be a follow up piece to address some of the related issues.

Background

Accountant Annie is a single lady in her mid-30s who works both from her home by the coast and from an office address in Biggin Hill. Annie tends to only come up to the office once a month. She rents it from a lady in her mid-80s who lives in the bungalow alongside. This lady also collects and sorts the post for Annie and calls her if anything appears to need urgent action.

The new client

Annie was approached in mid-June to act for a new client, Neville and his business partner Nick. They came to see her at the office and admitted they didn’t have a partnership agreement. It transpired they were about to dissolve the partnership so didn’t take Annie’s advice on this point.

Two weeks after the meeting Nasty Nick called Annie and started shouting that he wanted the figures by the end of the week. The aggressive client insisted that he would call round at the office to collect his papers. Annie tried to explain that the papers weren’t there and that she couldn’t easily get them there from her home on the coast. This was not good enough for Nick, who turned up at 8pm on the Saturday evening and frightened the old lady next door.

When you want out

Annie is not alone. Numerous other members have previously reported occasions on which they have been similarly threatened:

Annie’s story highlights several issues surrounding unreasonable clients, but responses to the earlier discussions show that some accountants put up with otherwise unacceptable behaviour so as to avoid losing the related fees.

It’s sad to think that any accountant should ever feel trapped into allowing clients to abuse them verbally - or worse. At some point, though, even the most submissive and non-assertive accountants reach the end of their tether. They want out.

Disengaging from difficult clients was addressed most recently in Five ways to get rid of a client. After considering how to handle Annie’s case, we will return to that theme in a follow up article.

Register for free and log into AccountingWEB to read the full article which covers:

  • Initial responses
  • Staying calm and assertive
  • Taking notes to record the facts 
  • Balance - understanding their situation and getting them to recognise the underlying problems

What else might you do in such situations?

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB. He also facilitates The Inner Circle group for accountants, entertains as a conference speaker and is chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists providing help and support to smaller practices.

Continued...

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Comments
ShirleyM's picture

I've received the occasional nasty phone call ...    3 thanks

ShirleyM | | Permalink

... mostly from clients that we have sacked, but we had one 'almost' client who made us feel physically threatened.

He was to be a new client, we had all his data and personal information and so we asked for our usual 50% up front (he was already aware this was a requirement). He then informed us that he wouldn't pay up front, and that he would pay after the tax return had been submitted, and 'accepted' by HMRC.

I explained that was not our agreement, and repeated my request for 50% up front, and then he started ranting that none of his previous accountants had ever asked for payment up front and that 'we' were doing it all wrong and he should not have to pay until HE was satisfied and we should be reported, blah blah blah, BUT, he handed the cash over and informed us the payment was under duress.

He was really shouting at us and he was a very large man and he gave the impression of a nasty temper which was barely held in check. On the outside I was calm as anything but inside I was shaking, so I slid his cash back across the desk and suggested he go to one of the accountants who do it 'his way'. He pushed the money back to me and said he wanted 'ME' to do his tax return. I slid his money back towards him and informed him we were not obliged to prepare his return and we didn't want his business. The money was pushed backwards & forwards several times, him adamant that we do the work, and myself just as adamant that we wouldn't.

He eventually stormed out and nearly took the door off it's hinges, making threats all the while. Myself & my employee heaved a great sigh of relief (after checking the door wasn't damaged) and spent the rest of the day discussing it.

We laugh about it now, especially the way the money was being pushed backwards and forwards, but it wasn't funny at the time.

John Stokdyk's picture

Money laundering issue?    2 thanks

John Stokdyk | | Permalink

A passing comment in Annie's account caused me to draw breath. Without knowing more, it's a concern that she thinks that Nasty Nick might be the sort of person to falsify accounting entries. Would this be for fraudulent or tax evasion purposes? My fear is that she could be straying into proceeds of crime territory here and she should very much review whether her comment was based on the unfounded assumption that he was just the sort person who do that sort of thing, or whether she had seen evidence of such activity.

We haven't heard from David Winch just yet on this topic, but I suspect we will. To save him a bit of typing, here's a link to his comments on one of the previous posts on this subject.

In Annie's case, the wording of s330 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 stipulates that it is a crime (punishable by up to 5 years' imprisonment) if she "knows or suspects; or has reasonable grounds for knowing or suspecting" such activity as part of her regulated professional work and doesn't report it.

This is getting to be a very murky, ill defined area that complicates all the interpersonal and client management issues even more. For everyone's sake, it might be safer to "assume" Nick is just nasty - and not actually a criminal - unless there is solid evidence, in which case you wouldn't want to touch him with a barge pole and the report should already be on its way to the National Crime Agency.

 

Harassment by client    1 thanks

Donald6000 | | Permalink

I don't think that there is much discussion required here; the work should be returned to the client and any monies paid up front. The client should be warned that any further contact will result in a complaint to the police.

Just as one should not accept abuse from people in the street, one should not accept abuse and intimidation from clients.

I don't accept that one should attempt to find out what the underlying problem is either; we are accountants, not forensic psychiatrists.

It takes a formidable amount of experience to deal with personality disordered people; experience which accountants have not got. Having been an Appropriate Adult with Mind and having seen what these sorts of people are capable of, may I please advise my colleagues within the accounting field to close the door on them straight away and get police assistance when required.

 

 

Dealing with bullies    1 thanks

Hayter | | Permalink

Dealing with bullies isn't easy and requires a confident and calm attitude in order to stay in control of what can be a very aggressive situation. This can fall into a number of categories but I would identify two with which we're probably all too familiar.

The first is the client who is under some pressure where his business or financial affairs are not in good shape and he is fighting off creditors and lenders. Or he may just not handle stress very well. Mark Lee's tips work well in such situations. Being a good listener and having a calm approach are the key to a positive outcome to such a meeting and may, in the right circumstances, enable client and accountant to identify a strategy to reach a positive outcome.

Then there are those who would attempt to control us and threaten our integrity. 'Annie's Case' would appear to fall in that category.

Put simply there isn't enough loot in any assignment to become a stooge for a bully who won't even thank you for your efforts. Certainly there can be no respect for your professionalism if you succumb. The only way forward is to resign. You don't need that sort of business. If you don't get paid then chalk it up to experience and learn from it.

...999?

68fw | | Permalink

 

I've generally found (after 35 years as a public practice accountant) that bullies, predators, villains and of course opportunistic clients generally attack the physically and/or mentally weak.

Should an accountant experience repeated problems with such 'clients'... I suggest he/she really needs to pick up the phone and ring for personal counselling and not the police...

Avoid the Issue

Ian McTernan CTA | | Permalink

I have never had any problem with any of my clients in this respect, and I think this stems from not accepting work from anyone who I don't gel with.  You do tend to attract clients that reflect yourself, and this should be your target market.

I almost didn't accept a potential new client recently as I didn't feel we were getting on that well until I went into his background a little, then I understood his personality type and now we get on like a house on fire.

My standard practice these days is to ask for some money up front, payment for the balance before final submission to HMRC and for limited companies we'll then go on to a monthly standing order.

In the end, remember that it is YOUR practice and you can act for whomever you like- don;t be so desperate for business that you take on just anyone as you will end up spending enormous amounts of time on the problem clients.

Another good practice is to review your client list at least once a year and see who is costing you the most in terms of time (not so much a problem for sole traders, but staff=money), and make sure you raise the issue with the client.  You'll be amazed how many clients will agree to a hefty rise in your fees to cover the time if they are happy with the results, especially if it's an adjustment to their standing order going forward.

If you are deciding whether to act for a partnership or a limited company, make sure you can deal with all the parties, make sure there is a partnership agreement in place and lastly make sure they are all committed to the business- you do not want to take on a partnership that is just about to split up (unless this is your specialty).

Clients to avoid

mehere | | Permalink

I have to admit that as the majority of our clients are referrals from existing clients so it does seem that most are very pleasant to work with. That being said I recall 2 occasions when things have been very unpleasant, and despite going over all our actions afterwards, I cannot see anyway the unpleasantness could have been avoided.

The first occasion was when a new client had been advised by the previous Accountant to split his building company in two to avoid going over the VAT threshold.  I explained that this was not appropriate, and that I would not prepare VAT Returns as such.

At this stage I was very aggressively accused of seeking to close down the business, being unware of the problems if he had to charge VAT, and I was making this statement to simply increase my fees. Bit of a shock really as this was an initial free meeting.

He did calm down and apologise but I advised him I had no wish to act for him. This prompted another outburst of wasting his time, as I showed him to the door. That being said it did unnerve me for a while.

 

The second was as bad, if not worse. A long standing client introduced his sister into his business as financial manager. For many years prior  his accounts and VAT etc. ran very well.

The months following the sister’s introduction,  information was not forthcoming.  After many reminders I received just a row of figures, that’s it!

I eventually received more figures that still made no sense. At this stage I could not prepare the VAT return, simply because I had no details that I had any confidence in. I asked him to come and see me and got an email back from the sister saying she wanted all the paperwork back.

I then managed to get through to my client and asked him to come as see me to discuss this, and he arrived within the hour.

Upon greeting him he accused me of delaying the VAT return.  I explained I did not have any invoices, receipts or bank accounts etc. just a single row of figures in “Word”. I could see him getting more aggressive with this answer and he suggested that if I could not understand his sister’s figures then I needed some training. I asked if his sister was qualified, and without any concern he said yes, she had worked on the till at a local supermarket.

At this stage I was pretty worried for my wellbeing as he was certainly under a great deal of stress. To calm this down I suggested he advised of any major expenses in the quarter to see if I can agree anything with her word document.

So as he advised of her  new company car, new clothes, I pad, new phone and contract, company credit card, and a very very generous salary to his sister.

I suggested he needed to keep an eye on this, and that was my mistake…  He simply lost control and whilst he did not threaten me personally, I would rather have been elsewhere. He was standing above me and shouting abuse and using every swear word ever used.

The outcome was I ceased acting for him, and later found out that the sister was promoted to Company Accountant.

 My fees remain unpaid, but  they have since contacted me to deal with an HMRC enquiry for periods since the daughter became an Accountant, with a promise to pay outstanding fees.

Needless to say I will not take such a tempting offer up.

Avoid the issue...

68fw | | Permalink

Agreed, the best advise.

An answer to someone who said we were weak?    4 thanks

Donald6000 | | Permalink

68fw wrote:

 

I've generally found (after 35 years as a public practice accountant) that bullies, predators, villains and of course opportunistic clients generally attack the physically and/or mentally weak.

Should an accountant experience repeated problems with such 'clients'... I suggest he/she really needs to pick up the phone and ring for personal counselling and not the police...

 

Well you clearly have not dealt with people with personality problems otherwise you would not have said this. There are instances of these psychopaths all over the place, including Jimmy Savile. Clearly all of the people who dealt with him were weak and needed counselling? He even fooled top psychiatrists at Broadmoor Hospitals.

I suppose all of them needed counselling as well. This is not a case of weakness; it is a case of a man knowing his own limitations. Nothing to do with weakness at all. Just because an accountant does not deal with evil that well does not make them weak. A shockingly condescending post on your part.

 

"these psychopaths all over the place..."

68fw | | Permalink

 

" Well you clearly have not dealt with people with personality problems otherwise you would not have said this. There are instances of these psychopaths all over the place..."

Come, come, really...?

Get a grip now :-D

Avoid the issue...

HUGH W DUNLOP | | Permalink

Yes but what about the reverse? An accounting body trying to hide unethical behaviour from one of its members and attempting to browbeat you into submission.

mrme89's picture

Hugh, you have a bee in your    3 thanks

mrme89 | | Permalink

Hugh, you have a bee in your bonnet about an ACCA member.

Why not start your own thread rather than talking in riddles and ranting on other unrelated threads?

Chess    4 thanks

spurs1952 | | Permalink

If all else fails one can only try that old tried and tested move  - Right Knee 1 to Left Goolie 2.  

Checkmate I believe.

Most clients are a pest

AndrewV12 | | Permalink

Most clients are not easy to work for you can bet most of us have problems with at least one of the following,  fees, records, promptness, not returning phone calls or emails, querying your work (my mater says.....), thinking they know best, attitude ................- feel free to add your own      

bookmarklee's picture

Just a thought @AndrewV12

bookmarklee | | Permalink

AndrewV12 wrote:

Most clients are not easy to work for 

Just a thought as I'm not sure that this is a commonly held view. If most of your clients are like this it COULD be a function of who you take on as clients and how you engage with them. 

Then again if loads of other accountants feel the same way about MOST of their clients, perhaps you're right. ;-)

Mark

bookmarklee's picture

Diffusion Training

bookmarklee | | Permalink

Just remembered I came across Diffusion Training recently. It might be of interest to those who have felt experienced physical threats from clients.

Website says:

Effective Defence Against Urban Assaults.

Attend one of our one-off 90 minute (or 3 hour) seminars to learn about simple, yet very effective approaches and techniques (such as our "Diffuse Hands" and "Hands to Face" responses) for how to manage conflict and predatory situations.

Our self defence system is designed for men and women alike, and is particularly suited to those with no previous martial arts experience.

 

 

Mine aren't    1 thanks

frankdavid | | Permalink

AndrewV12 wrote:

Most clients are not easy to work for you can bet most of us have problems with at least one of the following,  fees, records, promptness, not returning phone calls or emails, querying your work (my mater says.....), thinking they know best, attitude ................- feel free to add your own      

 

Most of my clients are easy to work with and are really nice people, those who don't fit into that class get sold on or are sacked. I don't want to work with scroats and why should anyone else