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The four nightmare clients - and how to sack them

8th May 2015
Freelance journalist
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Problem clients. All accountants have them, but how do you spot and get rid of them without damaging your business?

AccountingWEB's US sister web site has some tips. It interviewed certified public accountants, Fred Slater and Ellen Minkow, partners in MS 1040 LLC in New York. They reckon that there are four main types of problem client:

The Do-It-Yourselfers

Those who don't want to pay for a professionally done tax return, so they try it themselves, get partially into it, and bring in the rest to you. Tell these would-be clients that they only take new clients on a referral basis. 

The Quibblers

All ask for a price at the very beginning. One possible way to get rid of them is to increase your fee. 

“Sometimes, all you have to do is explain to the client the amount of work we have to do on [a certain type of tax work]," says Slater. Sometimes, clients understand. And sometimes they don’t, he adds.

The Fudgers

You know they’re falsifying business expenses by padding and fudging.

These clients probably don’t realize that good accountants can do that, he adds. They may not understand the position that they are putting themselves in.

“ ... You sit down and explain the dangers of what they are doing,” Slater says. “You end it with, ‘I have a license and I can’t do that without losing my license.’ You can explain to them how many millions of dollars that license gets you over your lifetime and when you add up working for 40 to 50 years, it’s a lot of money ... ”

The Criminals

Trust your instincts. But if you end up with a client with a criminal history, you’ll want to see plenty of documentation. “One reason is to protect our rear ends and theirs,” Slater says. “There’s no doubt they’ll be scrutinized for a number of years for whatever they did.”

Minkow and Slater said clients have agreed to a settlement of charges against them even though they vowed innocence because they were persuaded by the partners. 


Replies (30)

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By mabzden
08th May 2015 13:24

Another Category - The Lack of Respecters

For me, the worst type of client is someone who feels they know everything about accounts and tax (and probably everything else too) and can't quite understand why they're paying an accountant who knows far less than they know. They tend to be argumentative and hostile, and REALLY can't understand why you would send them a bill when they've been helping you learn about tax (because you're such an idiot...)

They spend a lot of time arguing and showing you who's the boss, and not much time actually providing the information you need. Often they work in the City of London....

The good news is it tends to be easy to spot these people early on because they wear their contempt on their sleeve. They may tell you about how useless their previous five accountants were, at which point you really need to put any thoughts about fee income aside and make your excuses.

In reality people in this category know nothing about tax. I once took one of our heroic City bankers to Court over unpaid fees, and she told that Judge that I was completely wrong in saying the deadline for filing tax returns is January 31st - it is, in fact, February 28th (apparently). Tax is a complicated area, but the one fact most people know is the deadline for completing tax returns!

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Replying to SXGuy:
By nigelr
12th May 2015 11:01

I agree with your comments. 

I agree with your comments.  I once had a client who would research tax and company law on Google and tell me I was wrong.  I got fed up of arguing the point and showing him the legislation so I asked him to show me where he was getting his information from.  It turned out he was looking at USA Tax not UK Tax.  He still thought he was right so we parted company.  These people are not worth the effort it takes to deal with them.

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Replying to SXGuy:
By Rosalinda Taylor
12th May 2015 11:25

Another Category - The Lack of Respecters

You are right Mabzden. If a potential client comes to us, saying how useless thier previous accountants were, we always reply to them that we are fully book and not taking on any new client. I have a client who recently got married to a so called accountant, his new wife blatantly asked me not to declare some income to reduce tax. I told her to find an accountant who would do illegal act of tax evasion.

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By KPEM online
08th May 2015 14:31

The Time Vampires..............

.......................enough said!

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By johnjenkins
08th May 2015 15:23

If you ask

the right questions at initial interview you can stop most of them becoming clients.

I have found that those that do become clients have a bee in their bonnet about something, so I just come out with it. You will find either the bond is greater and you will get no more crap, or the gap is too wide to bridge, but at least you both know where you are. Pussyfooting takes up valuable time.

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Red Leader
By Red Leader
09th May 2015 12:19

I disagree with the article

Just say no to all these prospective clients. Don't take them on at any price.

My experience is that I met a prospect who I sensed would be trouble (awkward, cold individual). So I added 33% to my quote. He accepted it. Two years and two tax returns later, he threatened to lodge a complaint against me. The 24 hours of stress wasn't worth the extra fee.

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By wilcoskip
08th May 2015 19:36

Needy clients

One of the best moves I made was to fire a needy client within two weeks of taking them on.  Every time a question crossed their mind they were on the phone to me to get an answer ASAP.  And despite my patient explanations they couldn't get some things into their heads so the same queries popped up again and again.

They also became very hostile if they weren't called back almost immediately.

Complete nightmare.  Would have driven me mad if I'd have kept them.


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By countrygirl
08th May 2015 20:17

Needy Clients

Unfortunately, time vampires and needy clients are quite difficult to weed out at the initial interview.  Although I am getting better at it!!

I have just resigned from one extremely needy (verging on the completely neurotic) client today, and the utter relief........

The last straw was an email complaining that she had phoned me and I was engaged for 30 minutes and she needed to speak to me and she felt that this was unacceptable that she had to wait 30 minutes.  (BTW she needed to speak to me as she had had a letter from HMRC as she had not paid her CT.  She had apparently not paid it as I had not told her to, which I had already spoken to her about 4 times that morning.  Funny thing is that I had a read receipt to the email that she hadn't had which informed her of how much CT was due, and a read receipt and a reply to the reminder that I had sent 2 weeks before it was due.  Plus when I checked her online CT account she had paid it but without the reference suffix so HMRC had coded it to the wrong year. But quite how she knew how much to pay when I had never told her I am not sure!!!)  I had fowarded her the emails, the read receipts, her reply to the email that she hadn't had, the online ct printout that morning.  But she still needed to speak to me in person a fifth time to confirm again how much she had to pay and it had to be immediately.  

But she did proceed to phone me after she got the resignation letter and threaten me for having the audacity to resign, apparently she is coming round my house.  So no doubts that I made the right decision!

I wish I had had the sense to do it in 2 weeks and not after years of hassle lol

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By wilcoskip
09th May 2015 16:08

Strange reactions to being sacked

I've often found it odd how ex-clients react to being (gently) sacked.

They seem to take it as a personal insult - how dare someone decide not to work with them? - and become quite aggressive.  More times than not this attitude was the reason they were dumped in the first place.

You'd think they'd just go away and find another accountant, no doubt whingeing a bit about the whole thing, but it's like they're demanding to be taken back and worked with again.  Why would you want to continue to work with someone who clearly doesn't want to work with you anymore?

I'm looking forward, in the next couple of weeks, to ditching another problem client.  Always grumpy, always telling me about these great schemes his mate down the pub has told him about that I'm not keeping him up to date on, slow payer, wants extra work without extra fees, etc etc.

I'm going to be so happy when he's gone.....

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Replying to johngroganjga:
By countrygirl
09th May 2015 21:05

I totally agree wilcoskip.

I politely said that I felt that I was obviously not providing her with the level of service that she required and felt that she deserved.  That I really was unable to be more accommodating or helpful than I had been, that unfortunately I cannot offer any future guarantee that sometimes she may have to wait 30 minutes or maybe even more to speak to me.   That I am unable to be available from 6am on the morning to 11pm at night 7 days a week 52 weeks of the year as she requires and expects, & suggested that she should be able to find someone else who met her needs and as everything was now completed and up to date and she has 11 months before the next set of accounts are due I was providing all the handover information that she would need so there was no delay and I wished her well for the future.

For this I have been verbally abused and threatened and now she is coming round my house, as she knows where I live, and is going to apparently bang on the door until I explain myself as I have no right to withdraw my services, she has clearly stated what she wants and as I am in a service industry I should comply.  Really!!!!

Completely bonkers.  But to be fair it is my fault as I should never have put up with it as long as I have (plus I wish that I only had to wait 30 minutes for her to pay the bill, which she also apparently doesn't get sent!!).

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Replying to Tim Vane:
By smullan
12th May 2015 11:38

This client is an emotional [***]. If she does turn up to your house uninvited, you could point out that she is harassing you and if the police were called, they could charge her with harassment and stalking.

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By wilcoskip
09th May 2015 21:12

Good grief

You've obviously been working for a nutter.

If I were in your position I'd ask a friendly solicitor (even if a fee had to be paid) for a stern letter to her warning about potential ramifications of turning up at your home in the manner that she's suggesting.

You've got to nip this in the bud right now.  No way you should have to put up with it.


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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
10th May 2015 11:49

To add this article and comments .....

Mark Lee has written a couple of interesting and informative articles under this heading..

see here:

and here:

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11th May 2015 09:13

I received an email from a client on Friday demanding I fix his Sage line 50 because he emails his sales invoices to his customers and, since changing his computer 2 weeks ago, the emails are now sent from his email address, not the general accounts email address. I am going to enjoy telling him the problem is not with Sage but his Outlook settings! How much do IT consultants charge these days??!


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By jvenegas16
11th May 2015 09:22

Another type

There is another type of clients: those who behave properly and correctly at the beginning, making information available, paying on time, etc, but for some reason at some point they start changing and behaving as bad clients, forgetting the information, excuses, not keeping records properly, delays in producing information, and also in paying, etc.

I agree that increasing the fees in order to discourage certain clients will not always work or it will not be worth the hassle.

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By Kaylee100
11th May 2015 12:29

I had to get rid of a client once who was extremely rude and borderline aggressive for no obvious reason. I'm female and he was a big chap and that added to my feeling of lack of control. I resigned from acting for him as soon as there was no deadline looming. He took it as an affront and duly spammed me regularly with tax advice from newspaper columns - I got to the stage I thought I could start claiming it as CPD!  I thought those actions made it clear I had made the right decision. I can't imagine what sort of attitude he would have had if a tax matter had arisen that he didn't like! 

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By WallyGandy
11th May 2015 12:44

Like attracts like......

No need for idiotic clients- after practice life for nearly 40 years I've seen the lot (and the light)

True that seemingly decent clients can evolve into bad ones- but steps must be taken as described above- and immediately.

Three simple questions:-

(1)  Does the client accept responsibilities exist and they are their own to deal with

(2)  Do we get along well and with mutual respect

(3)  Do they pay

Two from three isn't bad!

Every practitioner relies on organic growth.  The "Z" Grade clients will send you more of the same, and ere long you're infested with them.  For sure these people know they are pulling strokes/taking liberties etc. 

One of my own methods with most clients (and who don't like paying tax) was to remind them that I am not HMRC and if they wanted to get abusive about UK Tax Law, the address to use was No 11 Downing Street, certainly not my office. If they realised/apologised, that was fine.  Move on.

Life's bad enough with HMRC- client abuse can be removed much more easily. Do it!

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By Tom 7000
12th May 2015 10:51

smile and nod

Stop being soft dont let them wind you up, look at it philosophically or play a few mind games

take the cash or take more cash

make sure that all is legal and theres no comeback

No one said running a business was easy, but thats all it is they are not your friends.

Just make sure you get paid, thats the only reason to get rid of them

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By Manek Affilica
12th May 2015 11:10

of references from being in a group

Doing professional work is just business. If the client pays and is tough but fair, that is ok. So, take the money, deliver the work and carry on a profitable business life.

Taking any and every client is where it turns into a risk. Being a member of a group like AFFILICA International results in a better type of new client enquiries.

If the client is abusive, it is not business but is subservience or therapy. It is best to declare you are unable to do their work due to the circumstances. Tell it straight in front of colleagues, no need to be shy. Inform your introducer immeiately and ask them to intervene.

Most unwanted clients take the hint and go away with grace. If not, it is essential to contact the person that provided a reference upon engaging the client. That is why references are worth taking. It is even better to be part of a group of professionals. However, you pays your money and takes your choice because joining a group costs membership to get a better quality of professional life. Who was it that said that is how the cookie crumbles?

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By smullan
12th May 2015 11:30

I terminated a client relationship last week by getting in my car and dropping 2 boxes of client books to outside their front door. This was the result of phone calls and emails warning me that I worked for them and not HMRC. This client had instructed me in January how much tax he was willing to pay. I then refused to file his tax return as he refused to sign it with the correct amount of tax.

He eventually calmed down in February and came in and signed his tax return wiht the correct tax. Then last 2 weeks he started again warning me about my position with him and what tax he would pay. He would send text messages outside work full of emotional garbage combined with threats and warnings.

I have learned that there are lots of emotional shipwrecks running their own business and when they are angry they have to find some way to distort their anger onto someone else. There is always some else to blame for their negative emotions. I have also learned there are some very highly narcissistic people in business. The only way to deal with these people is to shut off the energy, return their books, close their account, and get rid of them as quickly as possible.

Otherwise they will damage you and/or your staff, your emotional well-being, which can lead on to stress and illness. We need to be aware of the personality disorders in and out of the workplace and deal with them by setting good personal boundaries. Don't be bullied by other people. No one should suffer working with or for people who are emotionally retarded.  


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By Flustered
12th May 2015 11:47

Lucky escape

I had a lucky escape recently. A woman who purported to be a self-employed optician, but was in my view, in a series of part-time employments, wanted to claim home to work travel. At initial interview I put her straight on both. I then received an email "Several friends have accountants who have also advised them they can claim. The Hmrc website states that necessary business miles can be claimed. If you are unsure about this l would like to seek further advice before going ahead with my tax submissions."


After I had calmed down a little I wrote her a shortish, polite, note setting out my reasoning & quoting  the Newsom case. I suggested she should take it with her for her "further advice" and they could comment upon it. I hoped this would help any other accountant avoid taking her on - or at least to be forewarned. There was no way I wanted her! I soon received  another email  " I have found an accountant service available through my professional body now so hopefully will be using that." Phew!

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By Kaylee100
12th May 2015 12:54

Lucky them!!!!

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By grf1426
12th May 2015 14:09

So right

There were two of them,  husband and wife, in a little partnership.  Both graduates and perfectly nice people, but they wanted to know the ins and outs of everything and sat for more than an hour one day asking questions about what's an accrual and why is this this way and that that way and why can't we do the other and at the end of it I needed a nap.  I felt as if the life had been drained from me.

There there was a phone call during which I explained it all again to one of them and at the end of another session,  I can't remember how long that one was but eventually the call ended.  Shortly after that the other one rang and asked the same questions.  I seems the first one had tried to explain what I said but couldn't,  so I was invited to do it all again.

All the time I was thinking I am not an educator.  If you want to know all the ins and outs go back to university and do a degree in accountancy.

They fell out with me and I was so happy I let them.  I'm too old and tired for nonsense now.



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By billionaire
12th May 2015 18:08

Awkward client


 I have experienced one or two of these type of client.  I do not bend for any body and most certainly would not jeopardise my reputation by deviating from the rules for any client.   So I always explain why certain things have to be done in certain ways and the condition in which I will deal.  Let's face it,  in life some  of us are intrinsically reasonably fair and some of us are intrinscially unreasonably selfish and manipulative.  An awkward client would never reason with you and will continue to stress you to a point of damaging your business, with an aim to have his or her way because that's just the way they want to deal, so the best thing to do is to tell them that unless they observe and conform to the conditions in your terms, you will no longer continue to act for them. 

The above may seemed hash,but have both  advantages and disadvantages too. One of the disadvantage is that you will loose that client fee. The advantages outweighs as: 

a) the  awkward client might eventually change for being rejected and to observe the request with the next agent.

b) one of the awkward client in my past recommended me  to a new client for best service.    








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By Tickers
21st May 2015 22:28

You forgot family

Possibly the worst clients of all... Family! Unpaid and always on call. 

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Replying to killer33:
By mabzden
11th Jun 2015 14:43

More sage advice - never act for your hairdresser

Tickers wrote:

Possibly the worst clients of all... Family! Unpaid and always on call. 

On a similar point, one of my clients is also my hairdresser. He saves up all his tax questions until I get my hair cut. He knows I can't really charge him for the time he spends cutting my hair!

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Replying to meadowsaw227:
By WallyGandy
11th Jun 2015 14:55

You know what to do mabzden!

mabzden wrote:

Tickers wrote:

Possibly the worst clients of all... Family! Unpaid and always on call. 

On a similar point, one of my clients is also my hairdresser. He saves up all his tax questions until I get my hair cut. He knows I can't really charge him for the time he spends cutting my hair!


Take yourself, friends and family and "Ooops" I've left my wallet at home.  Even better- all wait a good few months and wander in wearing David Beckham's old alice bands!

Seriously, it's an ongoing story- clients just don't appreciate that time and expertise are the main products we sell, but heaven forbid they sell likewise to us for free!

You'll never get away from it- pretend to be in a rush or "I'll have to research it".  Even my own hairdresser picks my brains, and he's never been a client!

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By Ellie Skinner
04th Jun 2015 08:54

Our worst clients are: I want it fast, I want in perfect, I want it cheap and I can do it myself, but I`m too lazy. But we have to respect customers, right?

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By I'msorryIhaven'taclue
05th Jun 2015 12:45

Pepper Spray

Get yourself a can of pepper spray in case your ex-client comes a-knocking. Aim for the eyes.

It's my belief that there are only two types of people - those who see themselves as the centre of the universe, with everyone from accountants to waitresses to opticians orbiting around them; and those who see the service-provider as the central body around which they themselves must orbit.

Some industries do a good job of promoting themselves as the central point around which their customers must orbit: solicitors, dentists, BT, train companies, and Easyjet to name but a few. Accountants don't seem able to manage that, which is why clients have come to expect a free service on tap: quick, quick, hurry, hurry, me me me!


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By exceljockey
05th Jun 2015 22:49

I had a client

1. That told me when he asked me for tax advice on an family business issue, 'you're just an accountant, we're business men and tend to know more about these things' He didn't take my advice and was slapped with a £400k bill from the taxman.

2. Asked for my advice again, didn't take it and was hammered by Revenue in Ireland for €13K

3. Most recently asked why I wasted my time and his with Xero when excel did a better job as an accounting tool.

Told him to take his money elsewhere which he didn't like. Problem is he is was bestman at my wedding and I at his. Awkward but he was the one who brought the disrespect into the relationship.

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