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A naughty dog chews a hole in the bathroom door AccountingWEB Badly behaved clients
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Time to send bad clients to the naughty step

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Clients have become increasingly more difficult to deal with and more entitled since the end of the pandemic. Is now the time to put badly behaved clients on the naughty step?

24th Jul 2023
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Whether it’s sending information late, threatening to post one-star reviews or expecting extra advice or services outside the agreed contract, accountants are coming up against frequent examples of poor client behaviour. 

This is becoming increasingly frequent on AccountingWEB’s Any Answers forum, where recent examples have included a client pressurising an accountant to change their fee structure and another client not sticking to their terms of contract

So what’s causing this? In a recent edition of AccountingWEB’s Any Answers Live show, 37% of viewers said that client behaviour has worsened since the pandemic. 

The accountancy profession is not alone in noticing a change in the behaviour of their clients/customers/patients since the end of the pandemic: Theatres have struggled with unruly audiences while doctors had had to deal with patients unwilling to listen.

Panellist Lucy Cohen, the co-founder of Mazuma, has seen an increase in some clients' sense of entitlement post-Covid. She puts this down to accountants making themselves “super accessible” during lockdown and now they’re finding it challenging to return to their boundaries. 

Fellow panellist Sharon Baker, the owner of Kinder Digital Accountants, agreed. “We found we did a lot of stuff for free without communicating to clients how much we were doing and how much the team was doing. But you get to a point where you haven't got the energy to do that anymore.”

Covid hangover

It seems that firms are dealing with a form of Covid hangover, where poor client behaviour that was maybe excused during the pandemic is continuing to this day and is causing nothing but headaches for the accountants who tried to help these small businesses in their hours of need. 

Baker has had to constantly chase for information, trying everything from automated tasks, phone calls, emails and WhatsApp messages, but the poor behaviour continues. While others have shown a lack of respect for Baker’s professional expertise and time by not turning up for Zoom calls. 

The founder of Kinder Digital Accountants shared a story about a client her firm took on during lockdown. Usually, the firm is quite careful when deciding which clients to work with, but Baker admitted that during Covid she was not as strict with her boundaries and was “a bit soft”. 

“The minute we took them on, everything was urgent,” she said.” There were so many red flags. If it wasn't for Covid, we wouldn't have taken them on. I was in a ‘we need to help everybody’ mode.”

Client entitlement

Cohen said that one consequence of this “urgency entitlement” is clients will leave one-star reviews if they are not happy with the turnaround time of work. “We live in a polarised world where everything's either amazing or terrible,” said Cohen. “There's no three-and-a-half star reviews anymore, there's no four-star reviews, it's either one star or five stars.” 

Cohen had a client that left a lengthy one-star Google review, even though the firm had done everything it was contracted to do and filed weeks ahead of schedule. But it still wasn’t enough. 

The client came to the firm late with a backlog of two and a half years’ of work and the same amount of fines. Lucy’s firm explained that they would need to split the catch-up payments and set out that they wouldn't be able to complete the work until they were paid in full, but they agreed to do it in phases.  

However, the red flags started when the firm was about two-thirds through the work and with the last payment still not cleared, the client started asking ‘When’s it going to be finished?’. Cohen and the team finished the work ahead of schedule - despite a little more drama from the client - and then a one-star review came in. 

The client didn’t contact the firm beforehand, or even give any suggestions that they were going to stop working with them. Their approach left Cohen perplexed: “What sort of ongoing relationship did they think they were going to have with us [after leaving the review]?”

Cohen emphasised the importance of publicly addressing the review: “We always reach out to the person who's left a [bad review] because that's customer service,” she said. “Whether it's justified or not, you still have to have that conversation because there might be something there that you've missed. And it's important then to learn from it.”

The same goes for those emails that land in the inbox on a Friday afternoon. Cohen and the team prioritise these ‘angry’ emails and at least reply with a holding message rather than letting the client stew over the weekend and risk leaving them to let loose on the review sites. 

Set boundaries

Practitioners can try to put a stop to poor client behaviour by setting clear boundaries. The letter of engagement is an effective resource in ensuring the client tows the line, but for Baker, the boundaries are set at the start of the relationship. “I think it's too easy when you're taking on a new client to almost tell them what you think they want to hear,” she said.

If you avoid going into the details on what would increase their fee or what extra service looks like or what they need to do for you during the onboarding process, then you’re setting yourself up to fail. “It's harder, in the long run, to then have that conversation, especially when they don't give you stuff or they end up leaving because now you're trying to put the fees up,” said Baker.  

Failing to enforce proper boundaries may come down to not truly valuing your expertise, your time, or yourself. Cohen sympathised with those that may suffer from imposter syndrome. 

“We forget that we're the experts,” she said. “I think it's really easy to forget that you've done the training, you’re doing the CPD, and you definitely know more than your client. So you've got to back yourself.

“As a profession, we're not always great at having the confidence to back ourselves. We let clients get under our skin. That's why we don't price properly. That's why we're nervous about putting prices up or selling extra services.” 

But to stand your ground is not something that comes naturally to most people -  you have to learn how to do that. Cohen said that it's really uncomfortable but reminded viewers that you can professionally disagree with the client because you’re doing what you have to do professionally to protect them.

“I love it when we get clients who will argue the toss over an actual accounting or tax rule…  My favourite one is I should be able to claim for my dog as a business expense. That’s the one we always get. Please, no” 

Conclusion

Whatever coping mechanism you try, the key is not to let a bad client get you down. 

Badly behaved clients can be a headache, but the panellists encouraged viewers not to let the engagements with grumpy clients get them down. One way to stay positive, as Baker recommended, is to pick up the phone to a lovely client if you've had any kind of engagement with a grumpy client. 

And if it’s the end of the line for a badly behaved client, Cohen encouraged viewers not to feel bad about ending the relationship: “An awful client might be awful for you, but they might be perfect for someone else.”

You can watch this episode of Any Answers Live on demand

Replies (2)

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By Guilford Accounting
25th Jul 2023 10:16

I recently did a review of our portfolio and identified 8 clients for whom we no longer wanted to act; I agree with another practitioner, who is a long standing friend, to give them his details. Six moved to his firm and eveyone is happy.

It is never worth acting for clients who don't meet your performance standards.

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By rockallj
25th Jul 2023 13:29

Don’t be afraid to sack any client that gives you that “sinking feeling” when they telephone / email / WhatsApp you.

Also, any that get in touch when they need something but ignore you when you need to speak to them or seek their approval for work done.

Then, those who give you everything (which turns out to be be 2 or 3 x more data than the previous year) at the last minute so that you have to work the weekend to meet a filing deadline.

Plus, those who then insist that they have hundreds or thousands more expenses they didn’t give you the first time.

Then complain about your costs increasing

AND

Finally, take an age to pay you.

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