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Just say no

When saying ‘no’ is the best thing


Is the customer always right? Ahead of her appearance at AccountingWEB Live Expo this week, Lucy Cohen explores how to say 'no' to clients.

29th Nov 2021
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Who else here is old enough to remember the start of the pandemic? Remember Tiger King, banana bread, and being kind?

Me too. And despite the fact that almost two years in, our appetite for sociopathic big-cat-botherers and baked goods remains constant, it seems that everyone has forgotten about being kind.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to what seems like a depressingly long list of my fellow practitioners whose clients have entirely forgotten the lengths we all went to for them during the peaks of the pandemic. The general consensus is that the return to rudeness is directly proportional to the increase in freedoms we’re experiencing. Ditch the masks, shout at an accountant - that’s the trend.

Should we have seen this coming? Could we have done anything about it? Over the course of the pandemic, the industry as a whole has woken up to the need to look after ourselves. We’ve understood the need to metaphorically put on our own oxygen masks first, we finally started setting boundaries and managing expectations.

And it seemed like it was going well for most people. Yet slowly but (maybe) surely, the old habits are creeping back in. Clients are becoming demanding again and the stresses and burnout of January feel almost prophetic.

Are we doomed to revisit the same old patterns? In a word, no. We still have the opportunity to implement changes for good if we take action now.

At AccountingWEB Live Expo I will be speaking with Jo Wood and James Ashford about taking back control of your working hours while still being responsive to your most demanding clients. As a preview for that session, here are some techniques you can bring into your practice to say no to clients and stay sane. 

Here’s the plan.

Don’t beat yourself up

It’s not your fault if things have taken a back-slide. Habits can famously take a long time to rewire and your clients are habitually used to dealing with you in a certain way. Even though the last couple of years have seen changes to the way we work, if people feel like we are going ‘back to normal’, then they’re going to revert to their old ways when they deal with you.

The important thing here is not to berate yourself for slipping back into old patterns of behaviour. What you must do though is recognise that you’re not willing to continue to work in this way and commit to making some changes.

Revisit your wants

Why is it that you’re working for yourself anyway? I bet it’s not because you love doing tax returns compiled from a dusty shoebox of receipts at 10pm on 31st January every year. I’d wager that your motivations lie somewhere around having more time, more money, and more job satisfaction.

However it is that you weight those goals (or whatever your goals are), write them down again, and see how your projected few months worth of work fit into those. This might mean that you decide to take on a limited number of new clients, or none at all. Perhaps you even ditch a few that have been giving you grief and raise your prices to better reflect the sort of service you want to provide.

Whatever it is, WRITE IT DOWN. Stick it on a post-it note on your screen so that you literally can’t lose sight of it. That little note will remind you what you’re doing this for and keep you focussed. 

Stop doing stuff

Unless what you are doing helps you achieve one of those goals on your little post-it note, stop doing it. You’ll need to be brutally honest with yourself here - it’s really easy to make a decision with our hearts and then justify it with our heads.

But in the same way that the Ferrari you covet won’t be suitable for the school run, so poor activity choices will impact your goals. If one of your goals is financial freedom, for example, you might be tempted to kid yourself that taking on extra work at the last minute will help you earn the cash towards that. And sure, you’ll have some extra money, but at what cost? I’d argue that becoming a slave to the behest of a last-minute request isn’t really freedom at all.

Call a spade a spade

(*whispers*) It’s okay to tell a client they’re being rude if they are being rude. Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. But it’s absolutely acceptable to call out rudeness when you encounter it. You just need to do it in such a way that doesn’t cause things to become heated.

It’s easy to forget that we deal with weird letters from HMRC and tax jargon every day, while our clients don’t. The unfamiliar can cause anxiety, especially for clients when it comes to their taxes. Just like us, they are running a business and facing all of the challenges that we do.

I’ve found that in most cases, clients are abrupt or downright rude when they are scared or stressed out themselves. And no, they shouldn’t take it out on you, but unfortunately, it does happen.

So before you put the phone down in frustration or feel like giving up, try a few of the following phrases to diffuse a tense situation:

  • “I can hear that you’re really concerned about this, and I’m going to help you. Let’s take a breath and start again.”
  • “I absolutely understand your frustration. Let’s take a moment and figure out what the best resolution for you will be.”

Or if someone is being really unreasonable:

  • “I know that you’re upset right now, but I don’t deserve your rudeness. I’m very willing to help if you can agree not to be rude to me.”

You’d be amazed at how calling someone out for being rude can turn things around. It can often lead to the ‘rude’ person opening up and expressing some vulnerability that will help you work with them. A lot of anger and rudeness stems from fear and frustration.

Of course, if someone is too rude to deal with, then you don’t have to. You are not obligated to keep them as a client! (*Yells “get out of my pub” in a Peggy Mitchell voice*)

Just say no

Sometimes, we have to say no to things. Whether you simply don’t have the capacity to take on anything else, or you’re making the active choice to only undertake work that drives you towards accomplishing your post-it note goals, this is your permission to say no to whatever you like.

You don’t owe anyone anything that doesn’t help you meet your own needs - that’s the whole point of working for yourself! Sometimes the best thing we can do is say ‘yes’ to our own goals and ‘no’ to anything else.

Lucy Cohen will be appearing alongside other leading experts in the profession at our AccountingWEB Live Expo in Coventry this 1-2 December. Click here to register for free and secure your spot now!

Replies (10)

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By Hugo Fair
29th Nov 2021 17:03

"You don’t owe anyone anything that doesn’t help you meet your own needs - that’s the whole point of working for yourself!"
That's a curiously idiosyncratic (one might almost say naïve) perspective.
It sounds dangerously akin to the worst reason I ever encounter from people explaining why they set-up a business ("I was fed up taking orders from other people") - without recognising that a business is not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world (you still have to cope with orders & requests from clients, suppliers, staff, bank manager, HMRC and on and on).
By all means learn to say "No" (although that's a pretty basic generic life skill) - but don't forget Yes and Maybe and Pretty please etc as you negotiate all the uncharted waters you'll encounter.

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Replying to Hugo Fair:
By birdman
30th Nov 2021 10:03

Hmmm - doing something for someone that *doesn't* help you meet your own needs, isn't that exactly the sort of person we need MORE of?

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paddle steamer
30th Nov 2021 10:05

If the client does not fit, dump them.

I worked for a firm where we virtually took anyone and the crap they put us through, I swore when again running my own firm I would not do this, I did not, if clients will not do what they are professionally advised to do and if they argue back/get stroppy, dump them.

(I will say as they were not my bread and butter easier for me to do, but there is one professional in the relationship, you can give them 2-3 chances depending upon your nature, but at the end of the day if you are not happy with them as your client bite the bullet and suggest they depart.)

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By JamesDS
30th Nov 2021 11:53

i'm reminded of my Mother who, when dealing with a screamer could be heard to very firmly state "you wouldn't speak to your Mother like that, kindly pay me the same courtesy". Apparently it stopped the majority of them in their tracks.

Another trick she had was to hang up the phone. Call them back immediately and say something along the lines of "sorry we got cut off, where were we?".

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By djtax
30th Nov 2021 12:34

In my experience the rudest comments I have ever received have been made by soon-to-be ex clients when I have (very politely) informed them that I no longer want them as clients!

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By Tornado
30th Nov 2021 13:14

"Ditch the masks, shout at an accountant - that’s the trend."

Not one of my clients has shouted at me or complained.

We all get along very well indeed.

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By indomitable
30th Nov 2021 13:25

My feeling is all this article wouldn't make a jot of difference. People bully or are rude to other people if they are that type of person and they perceive that you will accept it.

I luckily have had very few of such rude people, because they were probably aware from the outset what the outcome would be.

You can usually judge at the discovery meeting what the client will be like, or if they have gone through a different accountant every year.

We haven't suffered any rude clients in a long time.

I know if you are starting out it's tempting to take on everyone, but in the long run this may not be wise.

Rudeness, bullying should not be tolerated period. If a client is rude to one of my staff, that client is out of the door, no second chances

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By Mr J Andrews
30th Nov 2021 15:38

Perhaps I'm a different animal to the columnist but I don't have a problem with client rudeness. They know I won't tolerate any such nonsense. Rather than eviction from Peggy Mitchell's pub , I wouldn't have allowed them in at the outset. Perhaps a little more experience at the Engagement level is called for rather than face the negativity and dominant pathos running throughout this article.
You simply need common sense and a strong will to say 'NO''. As for exploring other avenues for something as simple as stating the bleeding obvious , I think my time is better spent elsewhere.

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By Catherine Newman
01st Dec 2021 10:30

I don't get much rudeness but I am getting it from a client who kept being told it was mental not to be a limited company. His profits were shaping up so I finally agreed to it but am regretting it and so is he now after trying it for a month. I can put anything through my company can't I? I just add Ltd to my bank account don't I. How am I going to pay my mortgage with just £797.33. The manager at the wholesaler said it was OK for them to invoice in the name of the company. I pointed out that me might be a flexible manager but what about Head Office? He was going to leave me but he has now learned he would get told wherever he went. The limited company is now on hold!

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By Pamelae
09th Dec 2021 10:32

It's important to be able to say no so you feel empowered while still maintaining your relationships with others. Saying no helps you establish healthy boundaries and enables others to have clarity about what they can expect from you.

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