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Two businessmen confused AccountingWEB To trust or not to trust January clients
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Should you risk taking on new January clients?

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Difficult clients – they’re more of a headache than tax returns and can leave you regretting taking them on, but it wouldn’t be self assessment season without them. 

30th Jan 2024
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With the deadline only a day away, the final flurry of tax returns often boils down to those last-minute or new clients. The race to the finish line can often leave you wondering whether it was a good idea to onboard clients in January – especially if they’re ungrateful. 

This was the case for AccountingWEB member, AA90 who vented their frustration about a new January client who was anything but nice

“I spoke to the client over the phone last Thursday and they were as blunt on there as they were on email, interrupting me when answering a question they asked,” they wrote. 

AA90 continued, “I have drafted up the figures over the weekend and the tax bill is over £15k. I am certain they are not expecting this and I am worried there will be some backlash (leaving bad reviews or commenting on my socials).”

Another contributor, johnthegood reminded us that it’s not just the new clients that can be difficult

Johnthegood shared his experience with a four-year client who decided they wanted to do their own tax return this year and, after struggling, came running back for help. An extract from the email read, “I’m open to paying you to do it, if I need to and you have capacity in the few remaining days, but I had hoped to save myself the £200 by doing it myself.”

The dreaded tax returns can turn both new and old clients into a bit of a pain. 

Community advice 

The Any Answers community, with a lot of experience in dealing with difficult clients, offered their advice. 

AWEB reader, Roland195 wrote, “Only advice here is what you have already learned about the calibre of clients who wait until January to appoint an adviser.

“I’d doubt this client will listen to your explanations or take any responsibility themselves so I wouldn’t give it headspace. We are never going to be able to make people happy 100% of the time,” they continued. 

Regular commenter, Ireallyshouldknowthisbut echoed this idea and replied, “No good clients will ring you up in the middle of January.”

Other accountants agreed that it is important to be wary about taking on new January clients as they can sometimes be more hassle than they are worth. Wanderer advised AA90, “I wouldn’t even have taken on a new client two weeks from the deadline. A quick chat and call us back in February would have been my approach.”

AccountingWEB regular, Indomitable suggested not to forget that as the accountant you have the right to choose who you want to take on. “If you get a sense over the phone that this might be a difficult client, don’t take them on in the first place. I know it’s difficult to do, but you have to learn to do it.”

It’s your practice – you set the rules

For Heather Townsend, founder of the Accountants’ Growth Club, there are no rules when it comes to taking or not taking on a new client in January, as long as you hold the reins. 

“Ultimately, it’s your practice so you set the rules of the game – not what you see as the prevailing wind of opinion on social media about good client practices,” she said. 

Townsend noted that there are many reasons to take on a January client.

  • Great clients come about due to them being poorly treated by a previous accountant.
  • If your firm has the capacity it could be a good opportunity.
  • Clients who are last minute, with the right expectations set, can change their behaviour.

However, she also understood that sometimes onboarding a new client with the self assessment deadline looming may not be right if you do not have enough time or resources. 

Working with an unpleasant client, Townsend said, needs to be dealt with and not ignored. “If you ignore what has happened, you risk the client repeating this behaviour. You need to let the client know that their behaviour was unacceptable and not what you expect from them,” she said. 

“Depending on how contrite the client is during this conversation or how bad their unpleasantness was will determine whether you keep them as a client or not.”

Do you onboard new clients in January or leave it until the self assessment storm has passed? Let us know in the comments below. 

Replies (8)

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By FactChecker
30th Jan 2024 18:40

"Do you onboard new clients in January or leave it until the self assessment storm has passed?"

Leaving aside the 'red rag to a bull' effect that the phrase "self assessment season" has on some members here (see many past posts by others) ... I don't understand why anyone would take on a brand new client in January - other than out of desperation (which is not a good reason).

In simple terms ...
* if your practice is organised to the Nth degree and has whittled clients down to those who enjoy (or are at least tolerant of) the tight procedures under which you run - then why would you take on new clients who, by definition, have demonstrated that they are unlikely to be comfortable with your regime (and are therefore taking advantage of your existing clients)?
* if your practice stills contains a substantial (or even majority) number of clients who fall into the less-organised school of ad-hoc/random communications (with erratic supply or variable quality of data), then how are you going to find the resources to allocate to any last minute additions to your workload (which will again, if differently, impact on your existing clients)?

All these points are ones of basic principle - for which there'll always be an exception (the chance to get that specific client you've lusted after, in business terms, for years), but even the exceptions have risks. And usually any attempt to justify a particular decision has a strong sense of being post-hoc.

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Replying to FactChecker:
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By Self-Employed and Happy
31st Jan 2024 10:19

Disagree, we complete a good 85% of Tax returns by August, this means we have loads of time for these last minute new client TRs in January..

What then happens as part of the engagement letter is that they are to provide records by a certain date next year and if they don't they get disengaged.

I would say 95% of the people we pick up each January are now forming part of the "done by August" crew.

Your approach doesn't even give them an opportunity to change under the stewardship of an organised accountant, which to me is simply chucking money away before you even know whether it is good or not.

Good accountants are not always good at business.

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Replying to Self-Employed and Happy:
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By FactChecker
31st Jan 2024 13:00

"we complete a good 85% of Tax returns by August, this means we have loads of time for these last minute new client TRs in January.
What then happens as part of the engagement letter is that they are to provide records by a certain date next year and if they don't they get disengaged."

I'm with you on your 2nd point (which sounds consistent with the tight ship you're running for all your clients) - but less clear on your 1st point.

Are you saying you're happy to take on people (about whom you knew nothing previously) in January *and* to commit to all onboarding/clearance activities in time to prepare/file their return before the end-of-month deadline?
And, if so, this is on the basis that they deserve a second chance - even though some will spurn that next year (making your generosity seem a poor investment)?

Each to her or his own. Like all these articles there is a tendency to gross simplification of the 'options', but surely you're not lowering your usual criteria just because you're being approached in Jan?

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By mkowl
31st Jan 2024 11:11

I mean I was asked yesterday "could i help on 2 Trust tax returns"

The riposte that I had reached my client limit on Trusts (true) and that it would cost £500 (may not be true) to up my limit that they would have to pay on top of the fee made them scuttle away

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Replying to mkowl:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
31st Jan 2024 15:40

TaxCalc is cheaper, I think circa £45 a trust or something like that- I usually buy two licences but this year will need 3 due to a late addition.

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By Vallery Lee
31st Jan 2024 12:04

I always refuse new requests in January by saying that I am not taking on any more work. Might be losing out but then why are they leaving it to the last minute when HMRC sends out notifications in April that a self assessment return is due and the deadline is the following January?

Thanks (1)
paddle steamer
By DJKL
31st Jan 2024 15:38

If you price it right you can always prepare/submit return later in February with apologies to client for not making deadline- it is like negotiating rent free periods in commercial leases, allow in main terms for the rent free period they are bound to demand in the negotiations at the outset. So price right and cover client's penalty from your inflated fee, so say £1,000 fee, pay £100, net fee still £900.
(Ever feel car salesmen do similar with trade ins, they do)

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By AlgernonB
01st Mar 2024 15:51

I once worked for a firm which had a gung-ho attitude to new clients generally. Take them on no matter how bad they are at sending essential information in, meet every deadline, bill them a small premium to reflect this and do your best to educate them for the new year. We did all this, and only the last one failed. Once a client gets to know you can cope with tough deadlines, they will continue their tardy ways. Left up to me, I wouldn't have taken them on at all, but I wasn't the partner.

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