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Why you should set healthy boundaries with clients

How do you establish healthy boundaries with needy clients? Practice owner and founder of Mazuma Lucy Cohen gives her advice on sustaining successful client relationships.

24th Mar 2021
Community Assistant AccountingWEB
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Client boundaries
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A growing number of clients have been leaning on their accountants for support over the course of the pandemic. At a certain point, this can become unhealthy and lead to a decline in the client relationship.

Blurring the edges

Over the past year, home and remote working have made maintaining a healthy work/life balance a struggle. 

This increasing disparity between work and play has made people infinitely more accessible, meaning clients are more likely to be calling at all hours of the day. Clocking off can be difficult to navigate when you never actually leave the ‘office’, so inevitably many are encountering challenges with keeping up with round-the-clock client demands.

This accessibility also has a damaging effect on the way we perceive work – the blurred lines of remote working have exacerbated the issue of separating mentally from …

“You used to leave your office and even if you were still thinking about work, it wasn’t physically there in your living room – you had at least some degree of physical separation from what you were doing, and that's not the case anymore,” said Cohen.

She compared this to not having chocolate in the cupboard or keeping work emails off your personal phone – with your entire workspace there in front of you, you’re more likely to give in to the temptation when you know you shouldn’t.

Implementing certain strategies to deal with the urge to work after-hours will help to create better mental and physical distance between you and your clients, she said. 

Cohen always maintained a healthy work-life balance prior to the pandemic, but said the past year challenged this balance: “I started inflicting this weird presenteeism on myself  I was telling myself I needed to be sat at my desk, even if I didn't have anything that particularly needed doing at my desk.”

To combat this with her team at Mazuma, Cohen has made sure to tell staff to properly map out their workspace at home; answering emails on the edge of your bed in a dressing gown, for example, is only going to blur those lines further (even if we’ve all been there).

She stressed that communication has been a key part in maintaining this balance across the team: “We’ve had to teach people how to make their communication more effective without increasing the noise around it, like endless emails for example.”

The pre-pandemic profession

Although the pandemic has understandably exacerbated the work-life balance issue, the accounting profession has always taken on larger workloads.

“There's always been this culture of overworking, and of not having those boundaries in place. Then because those boundaries aren't there, [accountants] are not finding ways to be more efficient, because you're just willing to put the extra hours in instead of asking ‘how am I going to improve this?’”, Cohen commented.

At the start of the pandemic, this attitude was actually beneficial to a large number of people as accountants were able to rise to the challenge of supporting their clients who desperately needed help.

However, throughout the past year, this has been more commonly accepted as normality.

“Clients started off for the most part being quite empathetic. And as time has gone on, after a relatively short amount of time, they’ve forgotten that accountants are also going through a pandemic,” said Cohen.

This has exacerbated what was already a pressing need for accountants to set healthier boundaries with clients.

Communicating with clients

As with her team, Cohen advised that effective communication with clients is the best way to make sure your boundaries aren’t being breached.

Making sure you inform clients that you only answer emails until 4pm, for example, will prevent any contention if you don’t reply to an email after your allotted office hours. Their email can wait till you clock back in tomorrow morning. 

Sticking to your word is crucial here. If you then answered an email at 5pm, you’ve just taught that client that your boundaries are blurred - you’ll still do what they want.

“It’s all about being really clear – under promise and over deliver,” advised Cohen.

Under promising allows you leeway - if you inform a client that a certain task will be completed in ten days but then you happen to finish it in five, rather than vice versa, both parties will be satisfied and the client will be less inclined to hassle you.

This is also a key factor in ensuring your self-value in your services as an accountant.

Creating confidence

“Accountants are not brilliant as an industry at telling clients what they’re actually doing,” said Cohen.

She compared simply giving a client their reports to actually going through everything you had to do in order to produce those reports. The client might not be aware of the value of what they’re receiving, and as a result might not respect those services as much as they should.

Having the confidence in yourself to properly communicate your services to clients will help them to understand the value of your work, which will establish stronger boundaries when it comes to their demands.

“If people don't see what you do as being super high value, they don't respect the boundaries around it,” explained Cohen. 

She suggested proposing this to clients as a service overhaul - let them know of your new service level agreements, and ask them to take note because you will be sticking only to these from now on.

“You can then do it as a really pleasant nice PR friendly announcement to your clients - it doesn’t have to be ‘you’ve all done my head in, I’m not doing this anymore’,” said Cohen.

However you put it forward, the important thing is to communicate it clearly and reiterate it. Cohen suggested having certain agreements in the footer of your emails, for example your response times, so that clients will always be aware when they can and can’t reach you.

Not only will this help them to maintain their boundaries with leaning on you for support, but it will benefit you in maintaining your boundaries with switching off from work.

Disengaging with problem clients

After experiencing verbal abuse from a client of theirs, an anonymous AccountingWEB member asked whether they should disengage from the client completely or just try their best to help.

“Get rid of it,” advised Cohen. “What is the point of running your own business if you're dealing with people who make you miserable?”

If you find yourself dreading calling a client or stressing about them off-hours, then that client probably isn’t right for you.

There will always be difficulties and misunderstandings, but disengaging is a must if you find your client is continuously not respecting your boundaries.

“There will be an accountant out there where they fit,” said Cohen, “and if there isn't an accountant that they really fit, then they don't deserve an accountant.”

Catch up on our Any Answers Live Webinar 'Client service in the Covid era' to learn more about tackling client relationships.

Replies (6)

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By Calculatorboy
24th Mar 2021 19:09

Definately get rid of the abusive ones ...I had one who verbally abused his partner in front of me by putting her down

" excuse me , I am talking ! " , her said to her in a condescending manner

I felt so uncomfortable, I later disengaged due to " practice reorganisation "

He replied, " thats a pity , I thought we got on really well"

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Stepurhan
By stepurhan
25th Mar 2021 07:42

Good article. We all need to be sure that we set boundaries for our own mental health.

I sometimes write replies for e-mails outside normal office hours (the exception rather than the norm). This is normally for my own peace of mind to know that the issue raised has been dealt with. Even then I will schedule them to be sent within normal office hours so the client doesn't get the wrong impression.

As an aside, I'm not sure that the photo at the top of the article sends the right impression. I know that the elbow greeting has been embraced by our PM. However, it flies in the face of the advice to maintain social distancing, even when wearing masks. You are brought in much closer proximity by an elbow tap than for a handshake. It is possible to greet someone without any physical contact at all.

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By paul.benny
26th Mar 2021 09:37

Quote:
Under promising allows you leeway - if you inform a client that a certain task will be completed in ten days but then you happen to finish it in five, rather than vice versa, both parties will be satisfied...

Disagree

If a parcel company notifies you that your delivery will be made between 10:00 and 11:00, you wouldn't the courier ringing your doorbell with your parcel while you're in the shower at 9:30.

The author quoted isn't even consistent in her own advice. A couple of lines earlier, she counsels against responding to emails after a curfew time and then advocates over-delivery. There's nothing wrong with being slightly early from time to time. But repeated under-promising and over delivering trains clients/customers to expect more than your promise.

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Replying to paul.benny:
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By killer33
26th Mar 2021 10:47

You are have been inconvenienced by the early delivery whereas that is not the case by the accounts example in the article.

The parcel company have not over delivered.

The author would have only contradicted herself if the accounts had been emailed after 4pm.

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By indomitable
30th Mar 2021 11:22

All a bit obvious! and if you haven't been setting boundaries from the outset really how have you managed to run a practise?

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By Mr J Andrews
30th Mar 2021 15:37

On the other hand , at a certain point during the pandemic the ''leaning'' can be healthy and lead to an improvement in the client relationship.
And common sense dictates whether to get rid of waster clients irrespective.

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