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Dear Nick: 'I’m losing the will to live with a few clients'

Dealing with demanding clients is tough at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic when there are CJRS claims to submit, homeschooling and other clients to support. 

6th Jul 2020
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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AccountingWEB's resident agony uncle Nick Elston advises an AccountingWEB reader struggling to cope with demanding clients.

Dear Nick: I’m losing the will to live with a few clients at the moment. Records have been in for the year-end work for only a few weeks and [my clients] are already pestering for accounts and tax returns.

I've explained that things are taking longer at the moment due to time spent in CJRS claims, other help and support for clients, difficulty in getting to speak to HMRC for some checks, plus the fact that we are homeschooling our kids at the same time which is a massive distraction. We are only human, but some seem oblivious to that.

Nick’s response: “I know will resonate a lot with accountants right now.

People are acting from a position of fear right now. Money and tax can be a massive anxiety trigger in ‘normal’ times, let alone in these crazy days.

The Chancellor will come on TV and showcase the latest initiative, tax break or ‘solution’ and within seconds your phone will ring off the hook from clients demanding action or to find out how to claim when you have literally watched the same update as them.

The expectation is that you should know. It’s irrational, it makes no sense and it’s born out of fear – but that is the expectation you are dealing with as people can be highly anxious and sensitive right now.

What I have been working on with many clients and audiences is ‘managing expectations’.

  • What can they expect from you?
  • What can’t they expect from you?
  • What can you help them with?
  • What can’t you help them with?
  • Build a process which highlights the current roadmap as it stands right now – then show them.

Once you have done that, you may need to set even further boundaries to safeguard your sanity as well as ring-fence your family time, especially with home-schooling being on the ‘to do’ list at the moment.

  • Set your working hours.
  • Consider using a virtual assistant to act as a ‘landing place’ for callers and emails.
  • If not, set a voicemail which clearly states how you and when you are currently working.
  • Give timescales which have ‘buffer zones’ built in to allow for unplanned issues.
  • Review what ‘free stuff’ you are doing for them – as people do not value free.
  • Can you outsource the client or are they even worth keeping hold of?
  • Can you afford to level up the business by bringing in more people?

From my experiences in the corporate world, most of my client headaches came from the lowest spending but most high maintenance customers.

You have tried to keep it simple, keep it human and reason with them that for very valid reasons things are not ‘normal’ right now.

Their failure to recognise and acknowledge that is very much on them. If it wasn’t this that triggered them it would have been something else further down the line.

Your primary responsibility is to yourself. Like the old aeroplane adage, you need to put your oxygen mask on first to be able to help other people. Your next responsibility is to your family.

Of course, you need clients – but the right clients. Maybe this could be a filtering process for you to choose who you want to work with and just maybe, who you don’t want to work with.

Only you know the commercials of that decision, but in the meantime, keep being human, keep your self-care and sanity as a priority, put in place your boundaries and manage those expectations.

And as always, if you would like to talk more about this, do reach out to me: [email protected].

This month’s dilemma was taken the Any Answers thread ‘dealing with clients’ posted by AccountingWEB reader Busacrun.

Replies (5)

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Della Hudson FCA
By Della Hudson
07th Jul 2020 10:07

Excellent advice, Nick

We've been working on communication with weekly update webinars while we were in the thick of it.
-what we know
-what we don't know (very hard for experts to admit this as we're used to knowing more than our clients)
-we will be in touch as we know more (ie please don't call us, we'll call you!)
-more info next week and encouraging Qs through this webinar so we're not repeating the same things to clients individually
This meant that clients weren't chasing individually which saved a huge amount of our time

Triaging clients to analyse the support they need

Also acknowledging receipt of work (not waiting for the chaser) and that usual timescales are impacted because of xxx with a new estimate of turnaround time if possible

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By AndrewV12
07th Jul 2020 10:21

Great article, what always makes me think is that accountants who prepare accounts for £100 or £200, where is the slack when clients have queries, and remember all clients have a problem in them, so they have to deal with a query and they are only charging between £100 and £200, what do you do, there is no slack in the system, there is no time for looking up technical answers, I suppose they just have to say the first thing that comes into their head, and hope its right.

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By indomitable
07th Jul 2020 11:11

Nick It's called life!

There are always difficult people and not so difficult people. Coronavirus has just probably made difficult clients more difficult.

Good time to assess whether you really need these clients.

In my experience, you must set your red lines and make clients understand them and believe them. You will be much happier and you will find in 9 times out of 10 these difficult clients fall in line.

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By Ian McTernan CTA
07th Jul 2020 11:40

Manage expectations.
Set deadlines.
Explain when the accounts and returns must be in by.
Sometimes you have to tell a client 'it will be done in time, but answering constant queries will add to your bill and not progress matters any faster', and then make sure you bill them that time.
Know your clients and make sure they know you- so you can tell them when you don't know something. Then make sure they know you will tell them when the full rules are published. My clients never ring as soon as some announcement is made - as they know they will be contacted if something is applicable to them when we know how it operates and how to claim, etc.

One thing this crisis is teaching a lot of accountants is that treating people as numbers and things to be squeezed isn't reaping rewards and has created themselves a lot of problems. Reap what you sow.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
07th Jul 2020 14:25

From the outset when sending out a quote, we outline the expectations we have of the client each month. In terms of communication all of them know we will get back to them as soon as we can, most of the time it is very quickly at other times maybe an hour or two.

I notice something in the original text "records are in for the year-end", with MTD and cloud accounting to be honest this should be a thing of the past, the profession is / has moved to a more little and often service as opposed to one large chunk and see them next year (extreme example).

Any clients you identify as a pain, whether that be down to a fee not in line with what you give them, clash of personality etc, should be discussed and failing a change in whatever needs to happen the client let go, there may be instances where accountants don't let the client know what they actually do and how long things take to fix etc, this can lead to clients actually undervaluing the accountant and them being less inclined to pay a higher fee.

Whilst we all want to help clients hugely (we probably over delivered to our clients recently and were too helpful leading to both of us being burnt out) there needs to be lines / expectations set out from the start. As soon as a client falls more than 4 weeks behind on their cloud accounting then they are harassed by me, why? The more time I have to wait for things to be completed the less efficient I become, which means more time working and less time golfing!

We had one client through this turmoil who was me, me, me. Completely at odds with our other lovely, understanding clients. That person has been moved on.

It's all a balancing act, all you have to do is decide what your own goals are, then how can the business fit into what it is you are trying to achieve.

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