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How to break up with difficult clients

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Have you got a client who makes your heart sink whenever you have to meet or speak with them? In the latest Any Answers Live, Mark Lee and David Frederick explained how you can deal with difficult clients. 

2nd Aug 2022
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Tax may cause a lot of headaches, but none compare to that of dealing with difficult clients. Yet, no matter how much sole practitioners dread working with certain people, some can’t face letting them go. 

Grappling with this issue, a sole practitioner turned to Any Answers: “I have had a couple of clients for a while now that have been on the ‘watch list’ to go, I just never seem to have the time or energy to deal with it,” said MRA.  

After a “brutal” few years and “little relief on the horizon”, the AccountingWEB user admitted that they’re feeling “fragile” and have reached the end of their tether in putting up with clients that are challenging or just won’t listen or engage. 

The first step

On a recent episode of Any Answers Live, speaker and debunker Mark Lee and David Frederick, the managing director of Marcus Bishop and a past president of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), explained how techniques like drafting a break-up email and “relegating” clients can help sole practitioners such as AccountingWEB reader MRA finally let go of those who make their heart sink. 

The first problem for many accountants with difficult clients is distinguishing between awful clients and those that are not paying a fair fee. “One is a question of how we communicate the need to increase fees and the other is a question of how we avoid allowing clients to abuse us in the widest sense,” explained Lee.

Frederick said the financial issue can be easily rectified, but if the client issue is a behavioural one he reminded accountants that they have a tool to navigate those tricky conversations. 

“We can go back to the letter of engagement to see what the terms set for the client were,” he said. From there Frederick said accountants can adopt an approach where they give out warnings to clients or a “one strike and they’re out” policy if the issue is gross misconduct. 

Take control of the relationship

But ultimately, the decision is down to the accountant. “We’re the ones who allow the clients through our door. We are not obliged to accept every and any client. We allow people to treat us how we want to be treated. And we need to be clear about that,” said Frederick.

We are not obliged to accept every and any client. We allow people to treat us how we want to be treated

There is clearly a defined relationship between an accountant and the client, but sometimes that relationship can easily become unbalanced. 

“When we start in practice, we take on work that involves bookkeeping, preparing accounts, filing tax returns,” said Lee. “But we do that on condition that clients provide us with the data and information and respond to our inquiries on the terms that we set. 

“And one of the challenges that is sometimes faced by accountants with difficult clients is they were never clear about what those terms are, that the client agrees to, when we take them on.” 

Lee added that it is no different to a dentist continuingly setting out their expectations to their patients. At least patients know that they have to clean their teeth every day, floss and not eat too many sugary foods. “And that means not just telling them at an initial meeting, but having it set out somewhere,” added Lee.  

Write your break-up email

Returning back to that Any Answers question, Lee said the right time to get rid of clients depends on the ambitions of your firm. “If you’re trying to grow a big practice, then you want to weed out the worst-performing clients as you go. And if you’re very busy, then maybe you [clear out clients] on a quarterly basis.” 

However, if you’re a sole practitioner who has got to a stage where you’re comfortable with your income and workload, but are struggling with one or two nasty clients, he encouraged viewers to think about their worst client – the one that makes their heart sink – and draft your break-up email. 

Don’t put their name in the “to box” just yet, but this will be the message that you will send to those difficult clients when you feel comfortable to do so. “Just explain that your practice is evolving and going in a different direction – or you can say you are fed up and you can put all your feelings down – but you’re not sending it at this stage,” said Lee. “You may dwell on it and come back to it and tone it down before you send it.”

But he added, “Promise yourself that you will send that break-up email, after you’ve got a new client with comparable fees.” 

Two things will happen: you will keep going back and tweaking the email and you will also feel more motivated to gain a new client rather than waiting for another referral. 

Relegate clients

Frederick has drafted those emails in the past, but he also frequently – every 18 months or so, or before any new changes – goes through his clients and looks at those who are at risk of “relegation” and they are sent to “another division”.

If you’re effective in how you market your practice, you will replace the client with a better one

These clients’ behaviour is benchmarked against the letter of engagement, and once his firm has decided to cull the difficult client, he has no qualms in sending out an email or having a discussion with the client before moving on.  

“I work on a premise that I can’t let my heart rule my head,” he said. “Although you might lose a client, around the corner – if you’re effective in how you market your practice – you will replace the client with a better one in terms of complying with your ways of working and – surprise, surprise – better in terms of fees.” 

But, ultimately, both concluded that breaking up with clients is down to confidence. “If you’re confident enough to say what your fees are and stand by it, it is definitely the case that as you lose one, you’ll get more.” 

You can catch up with this episode of Any Answers Live now on demand. Mark and David also revealed ways to attract new clients.

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Replies (7)

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By indomitable
02nd Aug 2022 15:41

An article about nothing!

This topic has been talked to death and really accountants should not need advice on whether to get rid of a client or not. This is pretty basic stuff.

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
03rd Aug 2022 10:00

Cheers Richard. Nice summary. I see one anonymous but otherwise self-confident accountant has commented that he considers this is all obvious stuff. Good for him. I might have thought so too but for the number of times it comes up in online forums, in conversations at conferences and in 1-2-1 discussions with my mentoring clients.

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By indomitable
03rd Aug 2022 11:59

I'm not anonymous. You can read my profile if you wish. It says who I am

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By Paul Crowley
03rd Aug 2022 15:57

Nice one
Do you do mentoring and could you provide a link?

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By indomitable
03rd Aug 2022 16:37

You are joking right?

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By Paul Crowley
04th Aug 2022 02:32

Yes

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By indomitable
04th Aug 2022 12:36

Thought so, but sometimes difficult to tell on blogs

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