Unreasonable requests and general unruliness from clients are often the main sources of despair for accountants. But what if accountants are actually the ones to blame for this behaviour?
For many accountants, the dreaded ping of a smartphone's email notification late on Sunday night can only mean one thing: more out-of-hours client queries.
Stories of these electronic night terrors are now commonplace on AccountingWEB's Any Answers forum. Is there no escape from clients?
Though some may grumble, accountants have responded to increased client expectations by checking emails up until the point their head hits the pillow.
The effect of client demands
A recent posting by AccountingWEB reader The Innkeeper encapsulated the instant responses clients now demand.
In this case, the client emailed Sunday night and by Monday morning were demanding answers as to why the accountant hadn’t responded. Needless to say, the AccountingWEB member was “spitting feathers”.
However, such client demands are having a serious effect on the profession’s mental health. This month, a sole practitioner’s cry from the heart on AccountingWEB’s agony uncle series resonated with many struggling with long hours and unappreciative clients.
AccountingWEB reader Vallery Lee, for example, admitted that they have often thought of jacking in the job and “applying for a job in supermarket filling shelves”.
A sign of the times?
So how did we get to this point? One school of thought is that this increased client expectation is just a reflection of the times, and accounting technology is only adding to this.
Ben Steele is an advocate of cloud accounting. But he soon realised that the very nature of having live data at your fingertips creates an environment where constant client communication is the norm.
Speaking on the No Accounting for Taste podcast (listen above), Steele said: “Once a year we’d have a shoebox or a plastic bag full of receipts and spend the day inputting it and deal with it then, but we are now seeing a lot of firms doing daily bookkeeping for clients… To enable them to do that you need regular communication. Almost daily communication.”
His concern is that as time goes by SME's understand cloud accounting expectations will soar, exerting more stress and strain on accountants’ shoulders.
“[SMEs] are going to look around for firms who can guarantee instant communication and who guarantee the live data. You ask most SMEs and they certainly don’t want to pay for that service.”
But as we’ve seen on AccountingWEB, it’s accountants who can’t help but get swept up in the always-on culture. Take the client email that pings through on a Sunday night. A common response is that businesses expect a reply here and now - even if it’s midnight.
Can we really blame clients?
There is customer service and then there is unhealthy anxiety over what you think people’s expectations are, rather than what the reality actually is.
Research from CABA captured how subservient accountants are to whims of their clients’ demands. It found that two-fifths of chartered accountants check their emails outside work every day - with a third even checking while sick or on annual leave.
Whether it’s driven by fear of losing a client or the need to keep up with competitors, accountants have set expectations akin to a 24-hour supermarket. So how can we really blame clients?
As AccountingWEB member Rich Brewin summed up: “In trying their best for their clients (some of whom don't deserve such devotion), too many accountants end up having a negative impact on their own lives.”
And so accountants have become the instigators of their clients’ expectations. Even the Innkeeper admitted to working weekends, especially during January. So, inadvertently, they may have created an expectation that they do this all the time.
Breaking the spell
So how can accountants snap out of this Groundhog Day-like Samsara cycle? The first step, according to AccountingWEB member Rich Brewin, is for accountants to stand up for their goals and priorities.
“It's okay for an accountant to say "Stop! This isn't working for me", to put themselves and their own lives first, or at the very least on the same footings as the needs of their clients,” Brewin said. “The right clients will understand.”
Another option is to use technology for good. At the proposal stage, AccountingWEB veteran Marks uses tech that gives clients the option to either choose a paid-for one-day email and phone call response service or a free 10-day service, where most enquiries are settled within a few days. Unsurprisingly, not a single client has opted for the paid-for service. “So it shows that they don’t really value it that much,” he said.
But you don’t have to rely on a fancy proposal gizmo to put your clients back in check. AccountingWEB columnist and But the Books founder Zoe Whitman simply uses her out of office. “I don't want people to think I am going to reply to them all the time,” she said. “You're training your clients”
“If you do respond out of hours, your clients learn that you're going to respond out of hours.”
But if you’re hellbent on working over the weekend, perhaps a happy medium could be like Vallery Lee and just keep schtum to clients. “I now refuse to look at emails Saturday afternoons or Sundays. I do some work at the weekends but not to the knowledge of the clients.”
And if the unreasonable questions and behaviour still persist, perhaps the only answer is to give them their marching orders and enjoy those Sunday evenings without the dread of the email ping.
As AccountingWEB reader Gainsborough advised: “It does tend to be the same few that cause the most stress and getting rid of them can really ease the burden if you can afford it financially.”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.