You didn’t open a tax practice to show business the door, but you know from minute one that some potential clients won’t work out. How to send these questionable folks away politely yet effectively?
“Sometimes you just get that feeling that this is not who you want to work with,” said Kerry Freeman, EA, of Freeman Income Tax Service in Anthem, Ariz. “I have just told some, ‘You are not the client I want to work with.’ Awkward, but needed.”
“One of the hardest things I do – who wants to turn down revenue?” said EA Jeffrey Schneider, of Port St. Lucie, Fla. “I usually just tell them that we are not a good fit for their business and wish them well.”
“I say that I don’t feel able at this time to provide them with the level of service to which they are entitled because my staff is sufficiently occupied with our current clients,” said EA Debra James, at Genesis Accounting & Management Services, in Lorain, Ohio.
“‘Sorry, can’t help,’” said San Antonio EA James Berardi. “‘Maybe the bozo down the street will … .’”
Should you refer?
Your first instinct – inspired by helpfulness and you hope not misguided – is to send unwanted clients to other preparers. Redirecting potential business so that the move doesn’t somehow backfire on you is “not as easy as you might think,” said Eva Rosenberg, EA, founder of and blogger at TaxMama. “I used to tell people that I wasn’t skilled in the areas of expertise they needed and I referred them to someone better equipped to help them. Often, they were happy with my recommendation.”
But if you don’t want the client for reasons beyond their not fitting your specialization or you simply lacking the time, do you really want to steer them to another preparer?
“I tell them that I do not have the capacity to take them on as a client and usually refer them to a colleague, if the colleague is interested,” said EA Stephen DeFilippis of DeFilippis Financial Group in Wheaton, Ill.
“Sometimes, when a client is uncooperative or I believe not forthcoming, I tell them exactly that,” Schneider added. “I do that as they sometimes ask for a recommendation. I would never recommend that type of client.”
It’s not them, it’s you
One solid tactic: Tell the potential client that their needs exceed your skills.
“If their situation is beyond our comfort level and we are unable to refer them to someone we know who can assist them, we politely tell the client we are unable to assist them because we don’t have the special skills it takes to provide the assistance,” said Delmar Gillette at Coastal Tax in Newport News, Va.
“I usually tell them it’s going to take a bigger time commitment than I have and that I don’t feel I could take care of their needs,” added Georgianna Adkins, an EA at Adkins Bookkeeping & Tax services in Van Wert, Ohio.
“If it’s one asking me to prepare their taxes improperly, it’s simple: I politely tell them I can’t do taxes that way and that they need to find another preparer,” said Becky Neilson of Neilson Bookkeeping in Sheridan, Calif. “In other cases, I may just tell them I don’t do their type of returns. For example, I used to do 990s, but I stopped because those clients often wanted a discount and rarely had their bookkeeping in order. I tell those potential clients that I don’t do those returns anymore; I’ve stopped purchasing the software for those returns and they were an unprofitable part of my business. That’s a truthful response.”
“You can say that at the present moment you’re too busy. Usually they get the idea and everyone saves face,” said Stephen Anderson, an EA in Carlsbad, Calif. “If they’re more pushy, I let them know that I appreciate them considering me but it wouldn’t be a good fit.”
Anderson said that despite the different reasons for not wanting a new client, one is most common: price. “They often want to pay me much less than my existing clients with similar tax situations,” he said. “Once they realize this isn’t a hobby [of mine] and that I can’t give everyone a deal, they may go to H&R Block or someplace similar – though often those places are more, with all their optional fees.”
“In my experience, many of the extremely price-sensitive clients don’t make the best clients,” Anderson added, “though there are always exceptions.”
A combination of approaches works, too. “Sometimes we just have to tell a person that they are not a fit for our firm,” said Timothy Oatney, a CPA in Lancaster, Ohio. “A suggested firm or person is then usually offered. Another way when this comment is ignored is to request a very high retainer, which usually works well.”
Some situations are tougher still. “This can be tricky if the unwanted client is an acquaintance,” admitted Jim Loperfido of JGL Management Consulting in Auburn, N.Y. “But mostly I assess if I can be of help; if not, it is easy to say no. The other folks [we can] usually send away by asking for a high retainer.”
For phoned questions beyond “yes” or “no” Adkins supplies no answers because of liability issues but does offer an appointment – usually for a charge. “Many want free advice, and if they have one question I probably have five back at them,” she said. “If it’s not worth something to them it’s not worth wasting my time.”
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