Chairman of the Tax Advice Network and BookMarkLee
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Spotting and avoiding troublesome clients

18th Aug 2014
Chairman of the Tax Advice Network and BookMarkLee
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Mark Lee follows up his recent piece about threatening clients with a look at how such situations might be avoided.

Hindsight is a wonderful tool. So is your gut. How often have you had to deal with a troublesome client out of the blue? I’d bet that in most cases there were warning signs and that your instinct or gut picked up on these. But, nevertheless, you chose to take on the new client or to continue working for them.

A recent article on AccountingWEB was titled: What to do when a client threatens you? The advice it contained and many of the follow up comments related to real-life cases involving members of AccountingWEB. This article will be too late for many who have been threatened by clients. But I hope it will also attract comments as to what others have done when faced with potentially troublesome clients.


I don’t know when your gut starts to respond to potential problems. Perhaps it depends on previous client experiences. Or perhaps it’s simply a function of the difficult people you have encountered in life. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

If you have limited client experience you may feel that your brain knows better than your gut. You want to be logical and rational. In the absence of overt evidence you have no reason to turn down a prospective client just because something doesn’t feel right. When you have more experience you will probably find this easier to do. You will be less concerned about missing out on some fees and more keen to avoid the hassle and frustration of resolving problems. Your instinct or gut may well be responding to stimuli of which you are not consciously aware.

Equally there will be times when what someone says or how they behave makes it all too easy to anticipate that a prospective client will become troublesome.

Factors to consider

The more of the following ‘PACK’ points that are exhibited when you first speak or meet with a prospective client, the more likely you will want to avoid taking them on:

  • Past experiences: They tell you they have made negligence claims against more than one previous accountant; or they reference fee disputes with or poor performance by previous accountants
  • Attitude: Are they rude, angry and disrespectful of your time and expertise? Are they edgy when you reference the anti-money laundering regulations; do they tell stories as to how they have cheated the system or otherwise undermine their own integrity and honesty
  • Cash flow issues: Are they unwilling to pay anything upfront or to accept your normal terms? Do they have an excessive number of creditors in their business accounts?
  • Know-all: They make clear they don’t want any advice. They claim to understand all salient tax rules so just want you to do exactly what they say with their information and expenses

There will also be occasions when it is after your first meeting or conversation that you realise someone is likely to become a troublesome client. They may not keep their word regarding making a payment on account; they may resist returning your formal engagement letter; or they may be unwilling to supply sufficient verification of their identity.

Once again, none of these by themselves is evidence that someone will be a problem. But if your gut puts two and two together and gets to five then you know what you should do.

Avoiding them

Depending on the type of practice you are building you may want to avoid taking on anyone who exhibits any of the PACK qualities. Equally there is merit in taking on as clients those people who need help to get back on their feet. Their past experiences and cash flow issues may be a consequence of their behaviour or they may simply have been very unlucky.

If possible you want to remain objective so that you don’t get conned and only sympathise with those who deserve your support, not those who are to blame for their own misfortune.  Of course it’s not easy to distinguish these issues, which is why I suggested the PACK acronym. The more boxes someone ticks, the more likely they are to become troublesome. If you reach this conclusion you are entitled to resist taking them on as clients.

Free initial meeting

Most accountants offer a free initial meeting. Some call it a consultation and some imply that they will give free actionable advice during this meet. I believe that’s a mistake. It’s just a meeting with two objectives. It should allow the prospect to decide whether they want to engage you; and, crucially it is also your opportunity to decide whether you want them as a client.

It’s a mistake to imply you will be giving free advice at this meeting, for at least two reasons:

1. It undervalues your advice. Giving free advice to someone before they become a client sends the wrong signals. Most accountants expect to be paid for advice given to clients. This becomes more difficult after you have given it away for free

2. It can lead to difficult confrontations if you are then unwilling to give the (implied) promised advice. You may have insufficient information, it may be too valuable to give away for free or you may have concluded that it would help the new client to commit an offence

So one way to avoid troublesome clients is to avoid promising to give anyone advice until after they have become clients. In this regard the anti-money laundering legislation can be your friend. You can point out that you are precluded from giving advice until you have complied with the related legislation.


The idea that we could trust our gut was poularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink. Gladwell asserted that snap decisions could be better than decisions made slowly and with considered analysis.

Since the book was published in 2005, plenty of contrary views have been shared suggesting, for example, that only some (usually trivial) categories of decision are suited to being made without much thought. That may well be the case. But few people disagree that we have an innate ability to judge people by reference to our past experiences. For example, I have heard it said that interviews and appraisals often end up being nothing more than attempts by the interviewer to rearrange their prejudices.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between employment-related meetings and your initial meeting with a prospective client. Your decisions in the former can be questioned by reference to employment and equality legislation. So far as I am aware however there is no law that obliges any of us to accept someone as a client if we would prefer not to do so.

Thanks but no thanks

Assuming you do not feel physically intimidated you could be honest with the person you have decided not to take on as a client.

Perhaps something like: “Thanks for calling/coming to see me but I’m not sure I will be able to do everything you need. It’s probably better that I pass on this occasion. Would you like me to recommend someone else who may be better placed to help you?”

In extreme cases you may fear for your safety if you ‘reject’ the prospective client. In such cases I would recommend you put a very high price on your services or resist saying anything likely to inflame the situation. After they have left you should then contact the police. You have the right to feel safe and no one has the right to intimidate you.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB. He also facilitates The Inner Circle group for accountants, entertains as a conference speaker and is chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists providing help and support to smaller practices.


Replies (15)

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By dropoutguy
18th Aug 2014 13:38

Would I be a nightmare client?

If I were I client rather than a practitioner, I guess I might be "rejected" on the basis of some of the above criteria:

(1) I don't sign generalised and semi-relevant engagement letters.  Some are utter rubbish.

(2) I don't make upfront payments for time-costs before I know someone. You've not done any work for me yet.

(3) I complain about poor performance.  Why not?

(4) I expect some advice at an initial meeting and might infer that the absence of advice meant an absence of hard-wired practitioner knowledge. There's some out there who can't do the job you know!

(5) I reject firms' standard terms of business if I believe them to be unfair, complacent or obsolete.  Some of you haven't bothered to change them since you started in practice anyway.

By all means avoid me.  But, as my tailor says, any fool can do the easy ones.

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Replying to atleastisoundknowledgable...:
By stepurhan
18th Aug 2014 17:32

How specific?

dropoutguy wrote:
(4) I expect some advice at an initial meeting and might infer that the absence of advice meant an absence of hard-wired practitioner knowledge. There's some out there who can't do the job you know!
General advice at an initial meeting is one thing. It is not unreasonable to want reassurance that they know what they are talking about. If you are wanting specific advice at a FREE initial meeting then that is a different matter.

As for not paying up-front, have you never dealt with any business that takes deposits? Most tailors would for bespoke clothing for example.

Any fool can take on the impossible ones by mistake. :-)

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Replying to atleastisoundknowledgable...:
By Roland195
19th Aug 2014 16:30

A good point

dropoutguy wrote:

I reject firms' standard terms of business if I believe them to be unfair, complacent or obsolete.  Some of you haven't bothered to change them since you started in practice anyway.


Now you mention it, I tend to do the same however have always marked down the clients who do the same to me as pedants or trouble makers. Food for thought.

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
18th Aug 2014 14:30


Some accountants may indeed prefer not to deal with clients who adopt your viewpoint. That's their prerogative.  

On the flipside I did suggest that: "none of these by themselves is evidence that someone will be a problem."


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By dropoutguy
19th Aug 2014 10:07

Seriously, I do accept many of the points.

But I do suspect that many of us would be quite hard to please were we on the other side of he fence.

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By whithys
19th Aug 2014 10:55

Gut Instinct

I would go with good old gut instinct.  3 times it has told me not to take on a client, all 3 of these clients wanted top advice but at the end of the day wouldn't pay for it, leaving me £8,000 out of pocket for work completed.

Apologies if it offends but they all had your attitude. We work hard spend years in training and study, why should we give it away for free?

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By trotters
19th Aug 2014 11:17

Free advice?

On the subject of free advice at the initial meeting I usually use terms like " I don't know your full circumstances yet, but you might consider doing XXX or what do you do about this issue". I believe its important to let them know you are up to date without letting the cat out of the bag.

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By Corinnee13
19th Aug 2014 11:57

Professional Letter

A good guide to use is the response by the previous accountant to your professional letter.  In the small number of cases where I later found the client is 'difficult' there has usually been some indication in this letter - for example, 'client is slow to pay', 'client is not timely in providing information', or there has been a list of outstanding matters.  I would encourage all accountants to be factual in this professional letter without obviously slandering the client!!  It is also a good idea to ask in the initial meeting if they have had a previous accountant and what are their reasons for seeking someone else.

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By Tom 7000
19th Aug 2014 12:01


If you think they are going to be a pain double their fees if its a big pain treble them. if you think they will sue you...well dont do anything wrong and charge them 10x as much

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By dropoutguy
19th Aug 2014 12:03

Gut instinct

I totally agree and use this myself as a basis to reject prospective clients.

But I don't agree that expertise is something to be hidden until you see the client's money. Expertise should be utilised in the initial meeting to win the prospective client's trust in one's ability.

I also don't agree that my top post is the attitude of a troublesome client. Exacting perhaps, but then as a rule clients ought to be more demanding of their professional advisers.



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Replying to moneymanager:
By Stewie Griffin
19th Aug 2014 13:30

Demonstrating expertise v giving away the gold

dropoutguy wrote:

But I don't agree that expertise is something to be hidden until you see the client's money. Expertise should be utilised in the initial meeting to win the prospective client's trust in one's ability.

There's a difference between demonstrating expertise and solving all the clients "pain" for free in the initial meeting. For example....

" I understand your problem and we solved a similar issue recently, in that Blah Blah.  The client ended up with (insert result), if that's the type of result you're after, here's our TOB's and DD mandate - sign them and we'll get cracking!"

No solution/ gold given away, but expertise demonstrated!

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
19th Aug 2014 13:35


I am curious how you can win a client WITHOUT demonstrating expertise. 

I find if you have nothing much to offer in the initial contact (I don't do meetings, only on the phone) then you don't get the client. 

On the other hand you give good solid answers to their issues (with all the cavets etc of course!) then you tend to win the day.

I convert about 60% of leads that I want to take on, so I must be doing something right. 

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
19th Aug 2014 17:52

Maybe I wasn't clear

I didn't suggest accountants shouldn't demonstrate expertise or give (caveated) advice at initial meetings.

I simply suggested that there are good reasons for thinking carefully before advertising the facility that non-clients can secure free advice during an initial meeting.

Absolutely you will need to evidence your experience and expertise.  Solicitors do this all the time. But you won't get much in the way of free advice from them at an initial meeting ;-) (Nor do they advertise the fact that you should expect to either)

I'd advocate the same approach outlined by @StewieGriffin


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By AndrewV12
20th Aug 2014 09:02

Ground hog day

As mentioned on a previous post, most clients are pests, be prepared to work around them, though retain them as clients.................. as long as they pay.

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By Jekyll and Hyde
26th Aug 2014 16:38

Think I have spotted and avoided one today

Client just phoned and his comments were that he would like to find an accountant as his is on holiday and he need a set of company accounts producing by the end of August 2014. Would I like to act as his accountant until his accountant returns from holiday and produce the accounts and tax return?

As you may have imagined, I told him that I would not be able to produce the accounts and tax return by the end of this month as I would need to write to the outgoing accountant.

I am not entirely sure if this was a wind up call or a genuine call, but either way I don't think this type of client fits with me as an accountant.

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