Art of Accounting: Dealing with unpleasant clients

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Unpleasant clients don’t go away…unless you drop them. If you don’t want to drop them, then I suggest you try giving them priority care so they won’t pester you so much. Sounds like a stupid thing to do: giving them better attention than your nice clients. Here is what I have done and do, and it works well for me.

For starters unpleasant does not mean nasty. There is no room in our lives for nasty people—so I extricate myself from those. But unpleasant has different degrees and reasons. Here are some of the reasons I identified that makes people unpleasant.

• Repetitive phone calls: Clients who call every few days wanting results on their tax return.

• Serial callers: People who call every hour until they speak with you (this borders on nasty).

• Tag, you’re it: People who compulsively return your call as soon as they get the message, even though you gave a time you would be available and it is hours later (this starts a call chain).

• Clients who tell your staff, not you, that the bill they just received is way too high.

Actually, a pattern is developing in this list and it is the reverse of the checklist I have about what makes a good client, so I am stopping the list here. But I have a comment about the repetitive caller. I found that most of these calls are from clients who wait until either the date you said you would call them or have their work completed, or clients whose calls you did not return or emails or texts you did not respond to. On some level they are not being unreasonable, and they are unpleasant to us, but it is because of us not keeping the promise we made of the completion date, or who we disregarded their message or “forgot” to call. Here is how I handled this:

• I now give realistic or extended delivery dates or callback times, and then work to get their project completed before then. I resist the temptation to give them a date or time that they will easily accept, even though it is usually unrealistic and the promise likely will not be kept.

• If I find I cannot meet a deadline and I call before the due date to give another date or time, that usually assuages any disappointment. All it takes is a quick call a day or two beforehand to provide a revised date—and then make sure you not only meet that new date, but beat it. YOU set the completion time, not the client. YOU are the one who puts the pressure on yourself. Be realistic and give some wiggle room so you can get the job done sooner.

One of the particular problems with tax season is that I might meet too early with a client to get their information. An example is when a client has her information ready by the end of February and I meet with her at the beginning of March. Realistically this return won’t even get scheduled to be worked on until after March 15 because we want to get the business and partnership returns out by then before we start the heavy work on individual tax returns. This client would have made at least three or four follow-up calls before we even think of working on it.

The calls are unpleasant, but she isn’t. She is very reasonable, knowing that we have her information and she is anxious to get the completed return. I solved this by calling her in February before she would usually call me and told her that I wanted to schedule an appointment now to make sure we can get her work done on time. I make the appointment, say, for March 18. I also tell her I will have the person who will work on her return scheduled for the next day and he will call her no later than one week later—March 25 with any questions or missing information, if any—and then she will get her return three days after that, by March 28.

I not only schedule the preparer, but the reviewer for when I think the preparer will be finished, usually the next day. I also make sure the preparer is scheduled to work in the office when the reviewer gets the return so he is available to make any changes. Then it can be re-reviewed then and there, and the return can be sent out the day after that. If there are questions, the client will be called earlier than she is expecting the call. I now not only kept my promise, but beat it, and eliminated her calls to me. Instead of my normal 5 percent fee increase, I bumped it up to 10 percent, and it was paid by return mail from a very happy client.

There are other instances, as I am sure you have your own stories. The takeaway is that managing the practice is more than making sure the work gets done properly. It involves client handling, managing relationships, coordinating the review with the preparation, looking to eliminate bottlenecks, delays, and unnecessary touches and just plain using your head.

Some other issues that generate excessive client calls are:

• Clients wanting to know their SEP or solo 401(k) contribution so it could be deposited and the client could “get it over with.” On those returns, we do the Schedule C work first and separate from the entire return so we could get the client that number, and eliminate the extra phone calls.

• Clients who are anxious for the net result are told that we do not release that amount until the return is fully completed since it goes through multiple review steps, and we do not want to release an amount that might later prove to be incorrect. Eureka! Those calls are eliminated.

There are always some clients who call us to “look up” something in the records they have sent us. It is always the same people. For them I am careful to avoid retaining any nonessential information needed to get the return prepared and I return anything of that nature immediately. I do not want the calls, handling and having it in our office if we don’t need it.

Many clients call to get a ballpark estimate of the cash they will need by April 15. I call them soon after I get their information with an estimate, and I always give it on the high side. I include an estimate of the balance due, the first-quarter estimated payment and the retirement plan payment amount. I caution that this is an estimate to give them around the amount of what they should be prepared to pay.

When I see the completed return, or a return in process where we can estimate the result, and if it appears to be a surprise, I call the clients immediately to give them a heads up. I also give a reason for the surprise and tell them this is preliminary, but I didn’t want to wait until the client received the return and didn’t understand what happened. I tell them that after they get the return and review it, they can call me and we will go over it again. My first call was at a time convenient to me, and it was a calm call. If I did not make the call and the client saw the net result, they would become anxious and/or irate and call me immediately—and I would have to take the call likely at a time inconvenient to me. Making the first call makes a lot of sense to me.

The bottom line is that we are in a service business and need to be service oriented. A little thinking by us can eliminate a lot of unpleasant client experiences.

A final word is that clients tend to blab about unpleasant experiences…and you don’t know who knows who. Anticipating and then heading off the potential for unpleasantness goes a long way in making our work much more pleasant.

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, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements.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.

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Client relations Client retention Client strategies Client communications Tax practice Ed Mendlowitz