[IMGCAP(1)][IMGCAP(2)]We all dream of the client who grins from ear to ear whenever they see or hear from their accountant. In our minds, we are held in high regard, as the person who helps craft a clear financial vision for their client’s business that will lead them on a path to success.

Then the mirage starts to fade away and reality sets in. We’re actually seen as overreaching, overbearing and the quintessential pain in the butt. Seldom are we genuinely thanked, other than out of mechanical politeness, or when we’ve managed to obtain a sizable refund. In the real world, we’re faced with tense conversations, curt e-mails and unresponsiveness.

Accountants are seen as the middlemen for the Internal Revenue Service and the bearers of bad news. It’s hard to shake that image — an obstacle that can prevent us from being viewed as anything more significant than the person to reach out to during tax time. How can the marketplace change?It starts with us, the service providers. The industry as a whole needs to challenge its clients, hold them accountable and avoid facilitating the status quo. Many accountants try to steer clear of tough conversations or hard-line recommendations. Why?So they don’t have to deal with conflict. Yet this cycle of no change can come back to bite the accountant, and it hurts the overall accounting profession.

 

WHAT THEY DON’T KNOW …

A client’s lack of formal financial education can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they will listen to your every word. On the other hand, they can be self-destructive. Business owners have a tendency to spend their money in the wrong places, or begin to buy extravagantly, simply to keep up with colleagues, friends or what they’ve seen on television. They take business, accounting or tax “advice” from other owners at social events, then expect you to incorporate it, no questions asked. Clients begin to grow a sense of entitlement and subsequently make bad choices. They ignore budget forecasts, cash flow, profitability and missed opportunities. And what happens when their business shows signs of a cash crunch or potential failure? They point to everyone but themselves. Clients must be taught that they should take ownership of their actions in order to make the changes necessary to improve their businesses.

Given that clients don’t have a full understanding of accounting, they do everything they can to avoid it, stemming from a misconception of its value. Accounting is something that clients are told they need; they did not ask for it, nor do they want it. In contrast, a one-hour massage (the cost of which may very well be commensurate with one of your service fees) may be personally perceived as of higher value because it provides a client with a warm, fuzzy feeling. They can take something positive away from it, so it was worth the money. Accounting does not make the average client feel good; it elicits a negative perception because it generally deals with negative issues. It all comes down to the psychological difference between how tangible and intangible services are processed in the mind of the consumer.

You would hope that clients want to sleep at night knowing their business is in good standing. In a perfect world, they would know how important it is to have accurate numbers, track results and make accounting a priority. While most clients enter the market without a financial background, they’re able to make up for their shortcomings by hiring a professional. Accountants are able to provide a third-party neutral point of view. Yet, even when clients are shown red flags and potentially harmful trends in their operations, they often either choose to ignore them or believe that the underlying problems will magically disappear. Year after year, clients find themselves in the same financial position and wonder why. Even though broaching the subject may be difficult, it is necessary.

Many clients view the expense of accounting as something that should be incurred only when absolutely necessary, so they tend to hold you at bay for as long as possible. However, to be proactive, rather than reactive, an accountant must be given a backstage VIP pass. But this comes at a cost, one that most clients do not want to bear. They want the help, but they prefer that it be free. If only we could all get services for free or pay our bills with “free.”Do clients expect to be paid fairly for their work?They certainly do — and so should you.

 

WITH WHIP AND CHAIR

Accountants must train their clients from the start about the expectation of acceptable candor and that anything falling short of respectful discourse will lead to disengagement. Clients may complain about a charge on their bill, the number of hours it takes to complete a task or the mistaken belief that they have a “simple” tax return. If everything is so easy, then why aren’t they handling it?Because it isn’t so easy. Yet, they’ve learned to get away with this type of behavior with other service providers, so why not try it out on you?It is unacceptable to allow a client to devalue or degrade the services you provide.

Clients have no problem sending a long-winded e-mail or calling you about a charge that they “can’t afford” or should not have to pay, but will immediately go out and spend the same amount or more on something that they definitely do not need. You must charge your worth and not feel bad about it.

Then there are clients who will do everything they can to avoid compliance. They claim that their previous accountant never asked them to produce this or that and will challenge you at every turn. Accountants should never let their clients bully their way around a practitioner’s ethical responsibilities. It isn’t worth it. You know what you need to get your work done and you deserve nothing less.

It’s time to educate clients on the complexities and specialties of the accounting profession. We have the ability to help our clients in a wide range of matters, from consulting to tax preparation and everything in between. Accountants also need to be educated on how to better manage client relations, without letting them spiral out of control. Being squarely grounded and tactfully persuasive goes a long way.

Thomas J. Williams operates Your Small Biz Accountant LLC, a virtual accounting practice that works with small-business clients. Iris K. Palma is a senior consultant.

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