It won't be long before tax season gets underway again, and before that I encourage you to reflect. Think about your clients because, after all, they're the people who contribute significantly to making your busy season what it is, in all its glory and misery.
My question for you is: Which three clients are you going to fire?
Wait a minute, you might say. What do you mean by "firing" a client, let alone three of them? Isn't it hard enough to get clients in this economy? And isn't it the goal of one's practice to have as many clients as one can squeeze in? Sure, those few troublesome clients might be consuming an inordinate amount of your time, energy, hope and sunshine. But how do you decide if - and when - to draw the line?
Allow me to offer a roadmap. Feel free to redraw it to suit your own practice, tolerance levels and ultimately your vision for what you are trying to build.
1. DEFINE 'FIRE-ABLE' OFFENSES
Walking away from a paying client (they were paying you, right?) can be scary. You probably won't feel completely secure about firing clients until you have a well-oiled marketing machine or referral network, bringing in bigger, faster, better clients at the push of a button.
Setting aside the scary factor, remember that the true performance standard in an organization is "whatever does not get you fired." The same could be said about the standard of your client roster. So, what will get your client fired? While specific criteria will vary from practitioner to practitioner, here are some ideas to get you started:
The client lied to you. It does not matter whether the lie was a big or a small one. The lack of integrity on the client's part opens you up to unanticipated risks and second-guessing. Do you want to be associated with a client you cannot trust?
The client is verbally or physically abusive. Nothing sucks the hope and sunshine out of the office faster than an abusive client. Negativity ripples through the office, potentially compromising your relationships with staff members, and the service delivered to other clients.
The client has unreasonable expectations and is never satisfied. Take it as a sign that this client is probably not a good fit for your practice. Perpetual complainers don't make the best referral resources, either.
2. IS RETRAINING AN OPTION?
You have worked hard to build this client relationship. Can it be saved? It depends. Remember that in training clients, as in parenting small children, being selective and consistent about rules is the single most important variable that you can control. Be crystal clear about where you draw the line and be prepared to defend it, politely and firmly, every single time it is crossed. As with parenting, setting a boundary that you are not committed to enforcing is worse than not setting one at all. However, persistence and patience have shown good results in the following areas of infraction.
Is the client habitually late? Do they delay their deliverables and then come up with last-minute requests, making your team scramble and work until midnight to get the return in on time? Perhaps this is the time to redefine the deadline. Set the deliverable due date 30 days early, and be clear that missing that deadline will mean that the return will be filed late. Be prepared to stand your ground: Clients can be just like toddlers in pushing the boundary to see whether you really meant it.
Is the client a habitual time thief? Do they cause a "caller ID cringe" across the office? Try opening the call with, "I only have a couple of minutes. How may I be of service?" to help them get to the point. If they fail to do so in a reasonable time (my threshold is 90 seconds), tell them that you have another client commitment, and ask them to summarize their question in an e-mail.
Does the client make uninformed judgment calls? These can often make your job harder. Consider ways to help them make better decisions. Encourage them to consult with you when in doubt.
Will some of your clients walk as a result of this game-changer? Maybe. However, look at them one by one as they leave, and ask yourself how hard you want to work to keep them. Because your next step is to get even better clients!
3. GET PERFECT CLIENTS
Keep your marketing and referral machine going no matter how busy you get, or what the economy is doing. Flow creates hope. Having too many qualified prospects is not a bad problem to have!
As a general rule, as much as possible, only keep the clients who are a good fit for you. They are the only ones that will stick with you for the long term and will be solid referral sources. Unless you have a great personality fit with a client and a genuine desire to serve them, friction, lack of care and disinterest will eventually result in things slipping through the cracks.
For larger, well-established practices that are running at or close to capacity, consider using the 80/20 rule. What are the characteristics and qualifications of the clients in your top 20 percent? Only hire the new clients who have those qualifications. And every time you do that, fire someone in your bottom 20 percent. As you do so, the inherent quality of your practice -- and your life -- will soar!
So, which three clients will you fire? And what does your perfect client look like?
Natalia Autenrieth has audited Fortune 500 clients as part of a Big Four team, built an accounting department as a controller of a large hospital, and served as a CPA consultant to municipalities. She continues to consult with and coach high-achieving CPAs for sustainable growth, helping them build highly profitable careers, avoid burn-out, and have more fun.
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