Are nagging clients really that unreasonable?

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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

From indecipherable client communication to “that’s too expensive” emails, it’s fair to say clients have used these summer months to terrorise accountants.

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 Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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By DJKL
12th Aug 2019 18:14

Just tell the clients to GTF.

Constant pestering is not acceptable, fee grumbles are not acceptable, being late for meetings or constant last minute rescheduling is certainly not acceptable (Actually that annoys me more than nearly everything else).

The one great think about a part time practice where the income was not needed was that one could turn down at outset what were evidently (you can often tell at initial meeting) going to be high maintenance.

What is more needed is a list of the the warning signs, signals apparent at first meeting that ought to alert.

1. Sweetie Wives (do you have them down south), the gossip whose meetings will stretch to eternity.

2.Nitpickers- I like detail but if he/she raises the same point for a third time in the first meeting, with that degree of inflection in their voice ,that signals this is an obsessive type; run.

3. Mr/ Mrs Badmouth- last accountant was garbage, he did not do x, he did not tell me to do y, everything wrong in my life is his fault-again run, he/she is not good news.

4. Mr/Mrs Sun Shines out of Previous Accountant's ****- unless this is one of my former clients talking about me this can be nearly as bad as 3, you are never going to live up to their expectations until you also are dead/retired, at which juncture you put on the mantle of greatness. (A bit like my appreciation of some 1970s/1980s footballers- now they are gone they are gods)

5. Fee quibblers- you have to stamp very hard on these to make them good clients so if evident at first meeting avoid. I have only once had the , "your fees are expensive routine" (which they were not, they were cheap as chips) but this was not a new client but an established one. It was cured by putting down what I was reading, a long pause, a look over the glasses and a "you are welcome to find someone else who will give you this service with house calls included for this fee". Subject was dropped never to be mentioned again, but a certain "I do not care"attitude re keeping clients can actually result in a better outcome.

There a plenty more warning signs, others can no doubt add to my list- clients are slightly like puppies, there is only one person in charge, you are the top dog, and if you can get them to recognise that at the outset you can stop their poor behaviour.

(Maybe helps if you are older, I was not so self assured with them when I was younger)

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to DJKL
13th Aug 2019 10:16

That's such a great summary, thank you. I agree completely with it all - especially the late for meetings bit!

I now practise in my home town of Leicester, but I practised for 20 years in the south, in Hampshire, and, yes, we certainly had our fair share "Sweetie wives".

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to DJKL
13th Aug 2019 10:18

Oh my days, you have just described half of our client base!!!

However I am no longer phased by them. They get charged according to time they take up and either put up with it or move on. I have actually found most stay as we give a great service. The constant 'ditch bad clients' mantra does not sit well with me, as long as you pay for our time and are not abusive, we will look after you.

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13th Aug 2019 10:40

Absolutely agree with DJKL.

I am getting more militant with problem clients. Luckily I don't have many of them anymore and get rid of the ones that are too much trouble.

In the last year I gave two clients their marching orders. I was not prepared to put up with their constant moaning. One was about price and the other was just a 'pain in the xxxx' who treated us like the hired slaves he thought we were

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13th Aug 2019 11:11

We live in "angry" times populated by "angry" people who demand everything now and want it for nothing. Console yourself with fact that every practice has difficult clients who generally take advantage at every turn and dont value what we do and believe we are rolling in cash - the classic win-lose relationship - they often pay more per hour for the local tradesman! We adopt a policy of scoring on the attributes that make clients attractive to us including prompt payment, lifetime value, advocates and very importantly - nice to do business with!

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By wyoming
13th Aug 2019 12:05

No clients have my personal mobile number or are my contacts on social media (apart from one or two who are also personal friends) and I don't look at work emails on my personal devices. Then again, I'm a senior employee and not an owner/proprietor.

If a client's "crisis" can't be dealt with in "normal" office hours then do I want to be dealing with them anyway? BTW, I appreciate that, because I live close to the office, it's easier (but also more important) to keep work and non-work spheres apart - as I could end up chained to my desk otherwise. People with a longer commute can't just "nip to the office" to deal with any overlooked/unexpected matters in the way that I can, so perhaps they have to allow more infringement on their personal time.

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By nkwayne
13th Aug 2019 12:55

Interesting.

But there is an alternative / corollary to that headline which goes:

Is nagging clients really that unreasonable?

Dunno about you lot, but half the inefficiencies in my practice seem to come about from the delay in responses to my communications to clients. Having to repeat requests, resend queries, etc etc adds to the time and delays finalising. And then I get a raised eyebrow or terse reply as if I have no right to keep on at them.

I'm in the middle of a job that we prioritised *at the request of the client* back in early June, sent queries mid-June. Finally (after a couple of reminders) got a reply 7th August, and is now nagging for 'when will they be finished'.

Fee just went up 10%. Take it or leave it.

DJKL is bang on.

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13th Aug 2019 13:06

I will deal with client queries at odd hours when I feel like it- as I tend to be out of my office a lot during the week on the golf course when it's warm and sunny.

Some clients will send queries on Sunday nights as that is when they are looking at it- but that doesn't mean I will answer until sometime later in the week.

It's all about managing client expectations and then making sure you have the sort of clients you want...they do tend to reflect your personality!

All my clients know if I don't answer my mobile phone at 3pm on a weekday then I'm not going to answer and they send a quick email with the issue.

Easy solution for any clients who cancel meetings at the last minute- send them a bill for it after warning them the first time. Mind you, in general if they do it a third time they wouldn't be my sort of client anyway...

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13th Aug 2019 13:57

Here's a thing.

I answer emails at weekend, saves having am mountain Monday morning, the problem is that then frequently involves the start of a ping-pong email session that steals your weekend, so what you do is set them to not send until Monday morning, afternoon even. That way you have dealt with but don't get a raft of follow ups too!

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13th Aug 2019 14:13

You have to draw a line between giving a service and sticking strictly to the 'office hours' rules. If a client wanted to just have advice in office hours then there are many other accs they could go to. I do the same as Vallery Lee - I work on a Sat am because that means I dont feel so guilty at taking a day (or 2!) off in the week which is the joy of working for yourself also many clients are Sat workers. However, I do draw a line on Sundays.
As I've said under previous similar comments - it's the 'I need the accs for my (re)mortgage as in yesterday' clients who really get to me or the client who recently phoned every day for 4 days wanting his accounts - jumping the queue of those other clients who had dutifully sent their accs in ontime as he wanted to apply for a US grant.

Have a look at this article and see whether you can take on board any of the suggestions:
Practical tactics for dealing with difficult clients-
https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/practice/practice-strategy/practical-tac...

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13th Aug 2019 15:38

For years I put up with this sort of crap. A sudden death changed my perspective on life. Now it is one strike and you are out! To soften the blow I keep a list of local firms to hand and suggest to ejectees who they may like to contact from shysters to better practitioners. The result of this draconian policy? <> 40% smaller client bank, working four days and week (down from six) and an increased pre-tax income of <>£150k. I feel stupid - I should have done this years ago instead of trying to please the unpleasable.

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13th Aug 2019 19:07

The lack of respect from clients comes from charging too low a fee. It's a huge problem in the UK small firm accounting market. Our equivalents in most large EU countries are charging 2-4 times what we charge. We have completely spoilt clients and with all the technologies, clients just assume we will do it all for them and marketing from Quickbooks, Xero, etc all makes people think that they just need to press a few buttons and it will all happen. We get calls from people sucked in by this and that is exactly their assumption.

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By AJLang
14th Aug 2019 09:22

I agree with the 'expectation' part of this. I've been a sole practitioner for 12 years and I have found that, the more you give, the more people take. If you do something once for a client, they tend to expect that thing every time you do work for them.

After taking time off with ill health last year, I finally hit the 'sod it' button. I now stick to office hours and the office door is closed on a Friday and opened again on a Monday. Do you know how many clients complained , or how many I lost? None.

On a side note, I managed to get a landline attached to my mobile line with my phone provider so both numbers now come into my work mobile. That gets switched off at the weekend so I don't have the 'ping' of emails.

Yes to a degree you need to be made available to clients, but as I'm sure they wouldn't drop everything they are doing at a weekend to do a job, why should you?

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14th Aug 2019 11:11

Speaking as the client here, I am often working late at night or at the weekend just to fit everything in. If I need to send an email to our external accountants, I'll send it as it occurs to me, because otherwise I'll forget. It doesn't mean I expect a reply straight away. Perhaps I should end my email with "immediate reply not expected" or something like that?

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By DJKL
to alejandra
14th Aug 2019 12:48

Clients can be funny people.

Though not directly impacting me (I only recall being woken twice by these sorts of calls), and in an era (1960s and early 1970s ) when clients often knew where you lived (or just looked up the telephone directory- we have an uncommon surname, well certainly in Scotland ) on a few occasions there were calls to our house between say 11.00 pm and 6.00 am which might wake my parents, myself or one of my sisters.

It would be a client "kindly" phoning to inform my father that their great aunt x had just died and expecting my bleary eyed father to somehow recall from memory the terms of their will( all wills being stored in the office strongroom ,he was a solicitor, not in the house so not to hand), what was in her will, who were her executors , had she indicated a preference for cremation or burial etc etc.

Grief may make people behave strangely but with some clients there has always been a distinct lack of commonsense.

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14th Aug 2019 15:37

I think Alejandra has raised a valid point. There are people (accountants included), who, thanks to technology, when an idea pops in their head, will raise an e-mail to the appropriate person.

I suspect in the majority of cases, it is meant for review at the appropriate working hour (it's just sent at a weird time in case the thought is forgotten).

What would be interesting is to see the demographics of those who expect an instant response to queries regardless of when it is sent and those who send queries as and when they occur but are content with a response in the normal course of affairs.

With a 24 hour global society, there will be more of an expectation for some services to be accessible 24/365, but I don't think this applies to our profession (at the moment anyway).

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