[IMGCAP(1)]Who would ever think that the most important part of a shoebox with a client’s tax information was the shoebox? Not me, and I lost a client because of it.

Tillie used to come to my office each year with her tax information neatly organized in an oversized shoebox. I would meet with her, ask questions, chit chat, and when her return was completed she would come to the office to pick it up and get her information back. To ease the flow of working on her return, everything was kept in the shoebox.

One year when the return was completed, she could not come to the office and asked us to send her the return and her information, which we did. We took the stuff out of the large box and put it, along with the return, in a large envelope. When she got the package she called very excitedly wanting to know if we could return her shoebox, and we told her it had been discarded. She told me that she had all her tax information in particular shoeboxes all stored together in a closet. She liked the quality, sturdiness, and size of the box, so each year a few weeks before tax time she would go to the shoe store and buy a pair of shoes so she would get the box. We had now ruined her system and she would never use us again—and she didn’t.

To me it was a box. To her it was part of her “identity” and it also made her feel good that her records were neat and all lined up in a nice order. It was also an excuse to treat herself to a better pair of shoes. The takeaway here is that we are in a service business and deal in intangibles. We work hard to transmit good feelings. What I did not do here was to relate to what was important to the client. We need to be perceptive and try to understand what the client thinks is important and then deal with that. It is not hard; it just requires a conscious effort. In this case it was a shoebox.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by www.CPATrendlines.com and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or emendlowitz@withum.com.