Dear Nick: 'I was shocked by my client's ingratitude'

An accountant who didn’t charge for furlough work now feels bruised by an ungrateful client. AccountingWEB's resident agony uncle Nick Elston recommends managing expectations and setting boundaries.  

7th Sep 2020
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The delimma: “I was surprised by the reaction to the work/help I provided on their behalf – some expressed their thanks, many more didn’t. Given that we didn’t charge (preferring to help clients survive) I was shocked by the ingratitude,” the accountant commented in the chatbox during a recent Any Answers Live session on wellbeing.

This accountant sacrificed a fee to not only help a client but presumably secure loyalty. However, it seems to have gone unnoticed and worse – ignored, without even a ‘thanks’.

Another attendee added this, on the point of being respectful: “One self-employed client had three-plus months off then returned to work in July. I asked her to send her books y/e Feb 20 & she asked why I hadn’t asked sooner!  I just wondered why she hadn’t got them ready whilst off work!”

The response

Nick replies: It all comes down to managing expectations. What can your clients expect from you and what can’t they expect from you? But also, what should you expect from your clients and what shouldn’t you expect?

Regular readers of my column, my YouTube subscribers or anyone who has been in the audience when I have spoken will know that I speak a lot on ‘setting boundaries’ and ‘managing expectations’.

These topics are emotionally linked triggers that really can hit a nerve with us, but especially accountants – and especially right now.

Did your phone start ringing as soon as Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak announced the latest tax break or initiative on live TV? It was your client demanding to know how they access it.

You have literally just watched the same press conference but their expectations are (incorrectly) that you should know this already, plus they are anxious as even in the best of times, finances are a huge anxiety trigger to a lot of people.

This goes unmanaged, the precedent is set.

When the furlough scheme was announced, a lot of accountants decided to offer this service for free to help clients survive – did this then set another expectation?

I know a lot of businesses in other industries that I work in started to give a lot of their products and services away for free only to find that now things are beginning to progress, they have nothing left to ‘sell’ – or the expectation is that you will continue to work for free or heavily discounted.

From my conversations with those in the accounting profession over recent weeks, it seems a real 50/50 split on those who refused to ‘do’ free and those who did. But, that’s not the problem. The problem is more emotional than that, more human.

It must be remembered that a lot of people are acting from a position of fear right now. Of course, compassion must be shown, but your actions are continuing to set expectations – either intentionally or by default.

So, maybe look at forming some new expectations by setting boundaries;

When can clients reach you? If you haven’t got a PA or a VA, try a planning app like Calendly to schedule your calls.

How long is your response time? Work out the response time for any given request or action and communicate it clearly to the client.

What do you charge for? This can be a prickly one as you have read above, giving a client a free transaction doesn’t necessarily buy loyalty or in fact gratitude & potentially sets a new expectation.  Work out your pricing and get comfortable with stating it.

Two-way communication: As showcased in the second quote, getting ahead of these game and giving your client an ‘upfront agreement’ of what you need from them, when and what happens if that doesn’t happen.

Don’t forget the self-care: Check your diary to ensure you have some buffer time around meetings and calls to avoid that firefighting trap – also some time out, maybe even define your working hours.

This is a process that I have been through recently with my business, based on an old sales tool called an HPW or ‘high performing week’. It maximises the time we have available whilst minimising the chance of overrunning.

I’d love to hear of any boundaries or expectations you set with your clients, please pop them in the comments below.

Replies (32)

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By brenbrady
07th Sep 2020 18:03

No good deed goes unpunished.

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By memyself-eye
07th Sep 2020 20:15

Remember, revenge is a dish best served cold.....

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7om
By Tom 7000
08th Sep 2020 09:40

If you want to do work for free, let me know... you can help me and I will tell you well done and pat you on the back. Will that help :)

Thanks (3)
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By sammerchant
08th Sep 2020 09:42

How many 'fs' in gratitude?

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By Padam Walburn
08th Sep 2020 09:43

Implementing Caldendly at the start of lock down was the best thing i ever did.

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By johnjenkins
08th Sep 2020 09:46

Nick, we are Accountants and should be used to dealing with situations that "just arise". That is why you have to "know" your client, which, in essence, is what an Accountant is all about. Anything else is just "compliance number crunching" (no disrespect to compliance number crunchers). There will, however be situations where your client acts "out of character", it is then our job to reassure them and bring them back into the fold. An Accountant should not look for, or expect recognition. That will come with recommendations and bottles of, sometimes, undrinkable plonk at Christmas and New Year.

Thanks (3)
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By flightdeck
08th Sep 2020 09:50

(1) It's best to tell someone you are doing them a favour - some people just don't clock that you have even if you think it should be "bloody obvious". (2) Send an invoice for the work but with a £0 total - it reminds them that your time is not free and that you have given them something valuable for nothing. (3) Don't expect gratitude - some people are impolite and expect a lot of things, just human nature for some I'm afraid.

Thanks (3)
By djn24
08th Sep 2020 09:50

I've learnt a while back that when doing things for free the client doesn't appreciate it.
They assume it was an easy task and think no more of it.

We charged for furlough work and only had one grumble. That grumble was because their friends accountant didn't charge for the furlough work!!

At the minimum I would charge them a reduced fee if you felt you wanted to help them out and show the discount. That's my opinion anyway.

Thanks (3)
blue sheep
By NH
08th Sep 2020 09:52

I really have no sympathy - we offered to do this for free not to look good with clients but because a) it felt like the right thing to do, and b) it made commercial sense for me and my business - I dont expect thanks, I want my client to survive so they can carry on paying me.

If you get upset because a client does not say thank you, you should not be in practice!

Thanks (3)
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By wilcoskip
08th Sep 2020 09:54

One of the unbreakable laws of accountancy.....that no matter how much you help some people, how much you have their back and add value, they will still turn round and blame you for something (usually their tax bill) in a second.

As Mark Twain said:
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”

Thanks (2)
Replying to wilcoskip:
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By Rgab1947
08th Sep 2020 10:09

Like that quote. So true.

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Replying to wilcoskip:
By Husbandofstinky
08th Sep 2020 10:15

[quote=wilcoskip

As Mark Twain said:
“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”

[/quote]

Quote of the day.

I believe that emotional detachment comes from experience. Helping someone out (a client or anyone) is not the same thing but is of course inextricably linked.

Furlough work and other Covid derived additional tasks have not been charged, but that was both a business decision as well as a moral one. You make your own mind on that one.

As far as time off during lockdown, despite the promises of many to deal with their books early with their new found time on their hands, quite simply the reality is the same as every other year. It is the same old faces (not literally) during the same time of the year, the early birds, the middle section and the last minute.coms.

Honestly, I didn't expect any different. Problem, not in my books.

Thanks (1)
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By Kieran Burns
08th Sep 2020 09:59

Hi Nick
You learn a lot more from people in bad times than in good times. As this accountant cannot change the past, he can learn from the experience and grade his clients into those that value his service and will pay for it, and those that do not.
In relation to the latter, they usually demand the most and pay the least, so unless they have future potential or some other redeeming feature, he should show them the red card. The end result is that he will have a smaller and more profitable business , with clients who appreciate him.

Thanks (1)
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By Kieran Burns
08th Sep 2020 09:59

Hi Nick
You learn a lot more from people in bad times than in good times. As this accountant cannot change the past, he can learn from the experience and grade his clients into those that value his service and will pay for it, and those that do not.
In relation to the latter, they usually demand the most and pay the least, so unless they have future potential or some other redeeming feature, he should show them the red card. The end result is that he will have a smaller and more profitable business , with clients who appreciate him.

Thanks (0)
David Ross
By davidross
08th Sep 2020 10:07

We have done this work for free - because it does seem the right thing to do and is in line with Martin Lewis' plea to his viewers to show forbearance. After all, we are the ones who continue to get paid (and are ahead on our work schedule this year so may get some time off out of lockdown later).

But we were exposed to an unexpected liability. Due to a communications error one 'director only' client claimed that we should have furloughed him when we believed that he was working. By this time the window had been missed and no claims could be lodged (including part-furlough and for August to October). We had our trousers down (lesson learned) because we remembered the conversations but the only physical evidence - an email - went against us.

This long-standing client got VERY nasty (I think he's off his meds), especially when I pointed out that examination of his bankings showed he HAD been working. At the moment it is a stand-off - I'm still willing to compensate him for what looks like my professional negligence (too small to claim on the PI policy, I would take it on the chin) but he won't answer the reasonable questions I have asked about his behaviour - such as sight of the sales invoices.

Thanks (0)
Replying to davidross:
By djn24
08th Sep 2020 10:42

davidross wrote:

We have done this work for free - because it does seem the right thing to do and is in line with Martin Lewis' plea to his viewers to show forbearance. After all, we are the ones who continue to get paid (and are ahead on our work schedule this year so may get some time off out of lockdown later).

But we were exposed to an unexpected liability. Due to a communications error one 'director only' client claimed that we should have furloughed him when we believed that he was working. By this time the window had been missed and no claims could be lodged (including part-furlough and for August to October). We had our trousers down (lesson learned) because we remembered the conversations but the only physical evidence - an email - went against us.

This long-standing client got VERY nasty (I think he's off his meds), especially when I pointed out that examination of his bankings showed he HAD been working. At the moment it is a stand-off - I'm still willing to compensate him for what looks like my professional negligence (too small to claim on the PI policy, I would take it on the chin) but he won't answer the reasonable questions I have asked about his behaviour - such as sight of the sales invoices.

It's very noble of you to offer to do this work for free.
I just couldn't see how we could commit to dealing with say 200 claims a month for free. Swallowing up huge resources for something so important to clients that they would happily pay a small fee for the work done. The risk of error is always a factor that means that in your case not only would I be working for weeks with no pay but actually paying for the privilege.
I'm assuming you only have a handful of furloughs to deal with?

Thanks (1)
Replying to davidross:
By turchyna582
08th Sep 2020 16:57

I was not aware that YOU make the decisions, you only implement the CLIENT's decisions.
The Director is responsible EVERY time

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By Rgab1947
08th Sep 2020 10:08

A free service is valued at nothing.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
08th Sep 2020 10:48

We did not charge for Furlough work, instead we were fortunately in a position to lower the DDs (we offered) to all businesses that were closed and on Furlough.

The BEST thing to do when doing a favour is to shout about it to the client and make sure they know you are not charging them for the extra one off service.

Just because they are a current client and continuously paying you don't think for a second that you should stop promoting to them, if you don't promote yourself to them then how can you expect them to

a) appreciate what you are doing (they probably don't know whats involved)
b) promote you to their friends

We grew significantly between March to May, mostly referrals because clients were delighted with the way we handled / guided them through.

Shout about yourself! Even if you take no fee for the extra deed at least give yourself an opportunity of gaining extra clients.

Accountants, it's probably down to personality as much as anything (generalisation I know) aren't very good at self promotion.

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By Crouchy
08th Sep 2020 13:16

there is also the expectation from accountants that our clients all value what we do and that there is a relationship betwen accountant and client, we've probably all been in a situation where we've felt we have misjuged the true nature of the relationship and been left disappointed by a client's actions

the sad truth is that to some clients we are nothing more than a commodity, 10 a penny, and whilst these clients may come across as friendly and nice, they only consider you to be helping them comply with their requirements, nothing more, nothing less

Thanks (2)
Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
08th Sep 2020 13:40

I did the same as 'selfemployedand happy'. I did the first one having spent time creating a 'cut and paste' schedule and sent the first months off.
I then had a right moan to all my clients (note: 'to' not' at'...they know me by now), telling them that I applied for them, that it had taken bl--dy ages and that they would be charged a very nominal amount. Not one has complained.
But then I didnt have to do 100+ submissions.
They will have a nominal amount added to their next bill.
this month I'm ringing them up and asking 'how's work' - two reasons.. one to keep in touch and the other to check whether they really should be claiming... they always fall into my trap if they are working.
I think that if I had done it for free they wouldnt have appreciated the sacrifice but doing as Self employed says and 'shouting' that I was, in fact doing them a favour by doing at a nominal amount more brownie points.

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
08th Sep 2020 13:38

PS... I loved Nick's comment
"Don’t forget the self-care: Check your diary to ensure you have some buffer time around meetings and calls to avoid that firefighting trap – also some time out, maybe even define your working hours."

'Firefighting' is my life... not sure I could cope with having 'time out'. although I do try to stop at 6pm for a G&T.
I will have a look at Canendly.

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
08th Sep 2020 13:43

Had a look at Canderly - not as good as Desktop reminder, also free but can do much much more

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Morph
By kevinringer
08th Sep 2020 14:05

As far as the client is concerned, the value of free work is £nil. You have received the due payment for work valued at £nil.

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By Survivor
08th Sep 2020 14:40

If you want gratitude get a pet and treat it. Give it a treat or a new toy and a dog will show you total gratitude and be your friend for life, do the same thing for a cat and it will snub you because the toy is the wrong colour or the treat is the wrong flavour. Some clients are dogs, others are cats.

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Replying to Survivor:
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By johnjenkins
08th Sep 2020 15:52

So our clients need to be rained in, then?

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By Mr J Andrews
08th Sep 2020 16:39

Unprecedented times in the world of tax is bound to be met with unprecedented reactions. Don't be too shocked ; just man up and consider the hell which the client has been going through.
Incidentally why didn't you ask for the books earlier - rather than simply wonder why the client should be the proactive party ?

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By Tosie
09th Sep 2020 08:54

A person came to me through my work as a church volunteer. He was in a desperate state financially. I wrote to his current accountants and explained why fees were not being paid. They were sympathetic and provided me with take over information. I supported client without charge for three years and enabled him to get new contracts. Gradually with my help his financial affairs were sorted and he had money in bank. I thought that we had become friends, I was invited to his home for dinner, received Christmas cards etc. Out of the blue I received a professional clearance letter from another accountant. Not his original accountant. I emailed client and asked if he agreed to me exchanging information. I received a single line , yes please. I now agree strongly with the point that clients do not value what they don't pay for.

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By paddy55
11th Sep 2020 12:52

It has oft been said of a business environment "If you want a friend, get a dog!".

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By indomitable
11th Sep 2020 16:00

The important thing to remember is you are in business.

Your clients are NOT your friends
You are not their banker
You charge fees for your work
Every client must be treated equally.
Your clients emotional problems are not yours.

Your responsibility is to make sure that you do your best professionally for your clients and nothing else, not worry about ungrateful or grateful clients (hopefully you have more grateful than ungrateful).

Once you knock off from work FORGET about your clients, NEVER answer the phone out of hours, NEVER give them your mobile number, NEVER answer emails. Do something enjoyable

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Replying to indomitable:
Morph
By kevinringer
13th Sep 2020 12:34

All good advise but sometimes difficult to keep to when you're in practice

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By indomitable
11th Sep 2020 16:01

The important thing to remember is you are in business.

Your clients are NOT your friends
You are not their banker
You charge fees for your work
Every client must be treated equally.
Your clients emotional problems are not yours.

Your responsibility is to make sure that you do your best professionally for your clients and nothing else, not worry about ungrateful or grateful clients (hopefully you have more grateful than ungrateful).

Once you knock off from work FORGET about your clients, NEVER answer the phone out of hours, NEVER give them your mobile number, NEVER answer emails. Do something enjoyable

Thanks (0)