Practitioners drowning in never-ending client emails

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Keeping up with incessant client emails is without doubt one of the biggest banes of running a modern accountancy firm. There is no escaping the beep, as a new message pings into your inbox.

AccountingWEB members have more reason to fear this recurring thorn in their side, seeing as this stress will soon coincide with another: self-assessment season. A lively Any Answers thread started by Tickers acted as a support network for practitioners needing a boost before they are interrupted yet again by a client email. 

Tickers escaped their emails to explain: “This is a problem which I can't seem to find a solution to, other than significantly increase my fees. My emails and telephone never stops with never-ending questions about very basic client problems.”

Despite engagement letters with terms set out, the emails keep coming. “The problem is that each email has to be read and replied too which all takes time and energy,” the AccountingWEB member said.

Clients expect instant reply

Tickers is far from alone. Manchester Man reminisced about how changes such as client communication have drastically reshaped the profession over the last 15 years.

“Back then, I saw most clients once per year, did their year-end accounts and tax returns, had a meeting where we could discuss the accounts and where I could give any necessary advice, then hand them a bill,” the member said. “These days, it very much feels like the year-end accounts are a tiny part of what we do.”

Manchester Man said the problem with “voluminous” amount of emails is that client’s expect a reply on the same day, if not straight away. When an email is not followed up on the same day, the AccountingWEB regular knows he will receive a nudge from the client asking "did you get my email yesterday?" and "hope you're ok, we haven't heard from you".

How to break the routine

Breaking this routine is a hurdle but many AccountingWEB members have taken the leap. I’msorryIhaven’taclue believes this problem exists because practitioners have employed a free unlimited access model. “New entrants misunderstand that, and think they have to solve their clients' problems for free,” the member advised.

To help pluck others from this email burden, the AccountingWEB community shared their strategies. When emails affect your productivity like it has for Tickers, Andy Partridge says brevity could the ease the stress.  

“If you get emails that require a detailed answer either acknowledge it with a one liner to buy you time and/or give a brief outline answer and provide an estimated fee for a more detailed analysis.”

I really should know this but… agreed, saying: “I have a wide selection of two minute guides I have written which I send out to common questions, or cut and paste it in, and spend a lot of time on cover letters etc so can say "please see the cover letter I sent to you on XYZ" which explains the common questions such as "how much is my tax bill?" "how do I pay it?"

Set boundaries…or get software to do it for you

The key to ending the client email conveyor belt is to set boundaries. As AccountingWEB member Marks sets out, “Generally I just reply to emails between 1 and 2pm and 4 and 5pm each day (otherwise you would get nothing done during the rest of the day).”

And a detailed response should come with a cost. Marks added: “If it is quick response, can be dealt with in under 5 mins, then I just reply with the answer. If more than that I say it requires further research/investigation. Our cost for dealing with it is £x do you want me to proceed?” 

Software could also provide a solution. As Glennzy suggests, practice management software like Accountancy Manager and Senta splits client emails. The aforementioned software can separate the clients set up in your practice management system from everything else. “That way you could deal with clients first then maybe login into the other stuff once or twice per day,” he explained.

But as Matrix says, the constant stream of emails isn’t such a bad thing: it shows your value.Clients trust us and therefore end up asking us everything since they know we will reply competently. I like this and would not want to lose this.”

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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27th Nov 2017 20:47

We use slack to reduce internal email. I couldn’t praise it enough, it’s essential in our practice now .

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to stevo5678
28th Nov 2017 10:05

Thanks Steveo. Does the instant messaging aspect make Slack more of a distraction? Or does this make it easier to weed out the simple queries, which you can brush off in quick fashion?

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28th Nov 2017 10:32

I have developed a number of one page briefing notes that I send out to answer general enquiries, like "what expenses can I claim" or "what salary will I get with the new allowances and thresholds". Each one ends with "contact us if you want more detailed advice specific to your circumstances". This weeds out most of the general enquiries. If they do ask for further information, you can decide whether it is chargeable or included in their monthly fees and respond accordingly.

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28th Nov 2017 11:27

I believe that the clue is in the Letter of Engagement, which is clearly an important document for your financial relationship.
I used to make it very clear that my fee estimate was for standard work, eg accounts production, tax return preparation and filing, etc, and that any additional work was chargeable at my hourly rate. Detailed daily diaries and time records are necessary for that reason.
Clients came to value the additional advice, which meant an additional "one-off" fee, but for lasting benefits. It is of course, the way that you tell them that counts!

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29th Nov 2017 10:01

My favourite testimonial is one which states that we’re more expensive than X accountant but easier to deal with.

We encourage clients to contact us. Although any substantial work is chargeable the quick queries mean that their bookkeeping is in better order or they make better business decisions which add value to their organisation.

We include enough in our fees to cover the cost of this support.

If they’re asking a common question then I’ll produce a helpsheet for them and subsequent enquiries. This saves a lot of time.

If this is not the market that you’re in then I agree that you should make it clear to clients via engagement letter and subsequently that these calls aren’t included in their fee. I think most accountants would struggle to offer a proactive service for a compliance fee (I would) so decide which market you’re happier in and advertise and charge accordingly. Create the sort of practice that you want to work in.

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01st Dec 2017 08:36

Hi

To me the main problem is the trend in our business is to go faceless and this is driving certain clients nuts and they get frustrated . According to all the software companies all the clients love doing their own bookkeeping . Some do but the majority do not . If I hire someone to lay a carpet I don’t just want the carpet laid I want the underlay as well.

Accountants say they offer the full package but what they mean is after the client does all the bookkeeping. The majority of clients see it all as one. So in fact I think a lot of accountants oversell so it is down to the communication and understanding of LoE from the very beginning.

I have some clients that like a weekly or monthly meeting to go through things ask questions . Clients don’t send loads of emails if they are listen to. If they are sending the same email about the same thing then they are clearly struggling to understand what you are sending them and we need to find a way they understand it.

Clients are not accountants and it is amazing what a quick telephone and meeting can resolve. When pricing a job you need to take this into consideration.

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