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Dear Nick: I can't believe what a now ex-client has just said to me

Some clients will never be happy with your service. That’s why ‘agony uncle’ Nick Elston says accountants should set the terms of the relationship, not the clients.

2nd Sep 2019
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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Employees in different states of mind
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Mental health speaker and coach Nick Elston offers advice to a practitioner who is letting off steam over a now ex-client.

The dilemma

Dear Nick: I need to let off steam, my blood is boiling right now and it isn't the heat. So brief history, a client is 12 months late supplying monthly bookkeeping two years running. 

Last January I received paperwork going back to April prior when it should have been received each month. Notice client has gone over VAT threshold and advised what he needed to do and what would happen.

I get an email today to say they are going elsewhere because my advice has been poor! So they expected me to know when they hit the threshold without having the information as agreed each month. But somehow it's my fault for not advising them sooner? 

People really do live in their own dream world. I just can't believe the cheek of it. Had they said thanks for the memories but it's time to part, I’d have said good luck and take care. But they made it their choice to state I was slow at advising them sooner and completely ignoring all the issues they caused which stopped me from advising them at the appropriate time. Grrrrrrr

Nick replies

There’s an old Polish proverb that I live by nowadays: “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” However, sometimes I favour the less grand mantra of a close friend of mine: “People are idiots.”

Either way, how other people act to us absolutely says everything about where they are right now and nothing about you.

Sometimes, in the name of business – or love, friendship, family or any other relationship – we feel we don’t have a choice. But we do have a choice. Sometimes, you need to cull – and keep people (and clients) in your lives that are good for you.

In my last ‘Dear Nick’ article I mentioned the need to sack your clients – to save you the time and hassle of dealing with clients who do not match your agenda, ethics or morality.

It must have caused you anxiety even before they submitted their stuff to you: the waiting, anticipating, frustration, and maybe passive aggression. I know I can get like that anyway with people and situations that I know aren’t ‘good’ for me.

In terms of where you are right now, the best you can do now is to let go of this. Learn and move on. You never know what they could be going through right now. We rarely see the truth behind people’s lives. It could be their defence mechanism as they know they screwed up.

Either way, forgiveness is the key to moving on. You don’t have to forgive them in person. Just say it over and over until you feel better about it, and evaluate all that you did to see if you can do anything different ongoing.

During my time in the hospitality sector of my career I learned early on that managing expectations was essential. Every customer had a different vision of what to expect, depending on their own personal outlook on life.

For every new client, why don’t you set the rules upfront? Tell them the way that YOU work and then tell them that if it doesn’t work that way then you wouldn’t be able to work together – but all done very nicely, of course.

When I get an enquiry in to speak, everyone gets a booking form to complete along with an invoice which clearly states my terms and that I am paid on booking. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world, what size organisation or event, or even if I know them personally. The reason is that I will be actively declining business on that date once agreed.

And importantly, I also say that if this isn’t a good fit for them then that is absolutely fine and we go our separate ways. The reason behind this?

If you are not telling your clients what your terms are, how do they know what or whose terms they are dealing with you on?

It’s better to find out immediately if someone isn’t a good fit for you – personally or professionally – than to find out after they have caused you all of this stress, anxiety, anger and upset. Move on, focus on the positive. Set your rules and go get them.  

Replies (10)

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By SXGuy
02nd Sep 2019 19:03

Thanks Nick!

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By Ian McTernan CTA
03rd Sep 2019 10:14

Excellent advice Nick.

I wouldn't have let it go on that long to start with, even with being paid monthly by standing order:-)

I'm a firm believer in establishing the ground rules early on then we all know where we stand.

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By flightdeck
03rd Sep 2019 10:35

They have attacked your professionalism and you are rightly annoyed. However, if you feel you have acted professionally then you just need to move on. Easier said than done. File all their stuff somewhere you can't see it. Put their emails in a sub-directory so its not in your face etc etc. And stop yourself thinking about them when your mind wanders back there. (But do learn whatever lessons were in that for you - it's often from the bad stuff that we learn the best lessons and it's only experience that can build competence).

The 'people' side of work is a strange. I ran a company of almost 400 people. It was an exceptionally good company because 99% of the people were rather good at their jobs. So why is that one of my abiding memories is of the tiny handful who were tw4tty? It is the same with mistakes. I don't make many but I do make some and it is these that I tend to dwell on while never acknowledge any of the good stuff. People are odd. Ourselves in particular! I bet everyone who has read this has plenty empathy for you.

You just need to file that client in the proper category in your head and have a stern word with yourself that IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT AND IT IS IN THE PAST.

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By rodvoyce
03rd Sep 2019 11:39

Using software to chase clients automatically would have escalated the problem sooner, and provided a concrete audit trail of reminders which would have removed any doubts about who was at fault. Logical Office provides a standard bookkeeping workflow for this, as well as annual accounts, payrolls, conf stats, P11Ds etc. Systematically processing deadlines can avoid lost customers and spread workloads sensibly. Better than losing clients/stressing out about deadlines.
Rod Voyce MD Logical Office Ltd

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By indomitable
03rd Sep 2019 12:25

Well I have recently been called 'shameful' for billing a client for work we had done to date. Incidentally not the first time this client has abused us.

Comment ranged from, 'why are you charging us for your bookkeeping software when you get it free anyway' (we provided them with Xero)

'I am paying you monthly but what do you do for me only takes 5 minutes a month' Of course not true

Emailed me at 12.49
3 calls to my office
Then subsequently emailed me at 15.01 saying

'I have heard nothing for you or your staff so I presume you don't want to help me anymore'

(this was to answer a bookkeeping issue the client was supposed to be doing themselves).

FORGIVE? For what? the ex-client is a m****t

Nothing to forgive just push back and don't let them get away with it. They moved luckily.

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By vodkaqueen
03rd Sep 2019 13:31

Any time I have a new client who cites their last bookkeeper/accountant's flaws as the reason behind the relationship breakdown I get suspicious. Don't get me wrong, sometimes this has been the case but more often than not I discover quite quickly the real reason is they expect everyone else to run after them.

These ex-clients will most likely take their issues and dump them at someone else's door. I'm saying that whilst looking at a pile of stuff on my tray that has been lying for months, VAT penalties and late RTI submissions and I've long given up sending reminders. This client came to me because his last representative was 'crap', apparently. Me thinks I'll be getting the same treatment soon but I would far rather spend my time with people who will take some actual responsibility for running their business properly. Some clients aren't worth having, you don't need people that in your life.

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By Guilford Accounting
03rd Sep 2019 22:51

I recently disengaged with (sacked) a client for much the same reason - bookkeeping errors, credit card accounts not posted, delays and cancelled meetings- who signed the disengagement letter and then accused me of being unprofessional (although we bust a gut to finish the accounts on time that they were then 'too busy' to review).

Yesterday they emailed to ask if we'd take them back.

Some people are just unbelievable.

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By Guilford Accounting
03rd Sep 2019 22:53

I recently disengaged with (sacked) a client for much the same reason - bookkeeping errors, credit card accounts not posted, delays and cancelled meetings- who signed the disengagement letter and then accused me of being unprofessional (although we bust a gut to finish the accounts on time that they were then 'too busy' to review).

Yesterday they emailed to ask if we'd take them back.

Some people are just unbelievable.

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By rich brewin
04th Sep 2019 09:15

Good advice Nick. For too many accountants the advisor-client relationship is out of balance. Historically, we've taken on their failings, their problems, their stresses, their responsibilities in the misguided belief that this is 'client service'. Re-balancing this is a must for the modern practice to succeed. Clients need to face up to their own responsibilities (which we can then help with) and recognise that we run businesses (not charities) too. My mantra is the three 'F's...Friendly, Firm, Fair.

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By George the Greek
08th Oct 2019 10:39

I couldn't agree more - I started my practice a month after being eligible for my practising certificate in 1993 and in my time I have sacked so many clients and a number of staff too and never regretted any of it (it really is the only way to keep control) and the payback is that for a number of years now I only have clients I get on fine with (and pay well) and staff that don't annoy me - I'm not really sure it gets any better than that?

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