Art of Accounting: Selling Something Clients Must Have and Don’t Want to Buy

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IMGCAP(1)]I found out many years ago that I cannot spend my clients’ money.

I used to feel that if they did not want to “buy” a service I felt they must have, it meant I did not clearly convey the value to them. I do not feel this way anymore since value is relative and draws on many issues the client might have and that I am not privy to.

In my earlier days I used to do the work anyway, feeling a responsibility to the client. It took me quite a while to realize that the responsibility is the clients’ and if they did not want to spend their money for it, I should not spend part of my life doing it on a pro bono basis. There were also times I felt the work was so essential to the client that I did it expecting their recognition of the importance and willingness to pay me afterward. Stupid! My bad!

There are a number of ways to deal with this:

1. Introduce the service to the client and have them agree to engage you to do it.

2. Have the service declined and then I would forget about it. What I now do with some clients is to periodically reintroduce the engagement. A technique I also started with some clients who decline certain services such as estate planning or a cost segregation study is to have them sign a brief memo saying that I brought it up and they understand the importance but they decided to not engage us for it, are not willing to incur the cost or want time to think about it or to look elsewhere for that service.

3. Do it anyway. This makes no sense from a business standpoint. You are giving away something the client doesn’t value.

4. Drop the client if we feel it is such an important service and the client is in some sort of danger from not having it done. For example, the client may have very lax internal controls and you want to do a study and make recommendations to tighten it up; or you performed the study, identified the weaknesses, and the client does nothing to implement them and does not want to engage you to assist them on carrying the recommendations forward.

I have two exceptions. Clients who are on fixed fees with vaguely defined bounds can get those services as part of the overall relationship. (However, this is not good. The services should be clearly set forth and any extras should be subject to change orders, à la Ron Baker.) Doing something in that order once every three or four years is not so terrible and can serve as a relationship builder. I have done many such “extras” and more than occasionally found out they either weren’t appreciated or valued, or the client felt we were trying to do things to raise the future ongoing fee. When I realized this, on a client by client basis, it was very upsetting, especially when I knew we had performed a valuable service and firm resources had been committed. I am much more careful now in defining the scope of my regular services.

A second exception just occurred that gave me the idea to write this column. We have a long-term client who is not doing well at all, either health-wise or in business, who was also substantially past due in payments to us. She needed some special services and one of my partners told me he would be doing them, knowing it was unlikely we would be paid. He said she was a long-term client, paid us well over the years, and now that she had serious problems he said he felt we should help her. That is a mensch.

We all have these issues. These are some ways to deal with them.

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 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 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

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