Voices

Point with your thumb, not with your finger

Ahh, busy season. Chances are you’re lamenting how disorganized your clients are this time of year. You’re wondering how they can get through life when they’re such procrastinators about sending in the simple forms and statements you need to do your job.

Tax forms
Tax forms

Sure, most clients don’t enjoy the tax preparation process, but when you start pointing the finger at clients and blaming them for delays and frustrations, you’re not looking in the right direction. You need to look in the mirror.

As I pointed out in my last article, Adopting a Ritz Carlton mentality, our firm has a policy that you can only point at people with your thumb, not with your index finger. Why? Because when you point with your thumb, you’re really pointing at yourself. Essentially you’re asking yourself and your team, “How can we facilitate a better process that makes it easy for clients to get us what we need?”

You’re not an accountant; you’re a luxury service provider

Too many CPAs forget that clients hire them to take a burdensome task off their hands and to make their lives easier. You can’t criticize clients for being disorganized or for procrastinating about doing something that’s unpleasant. It’s not their fault they don’t like the tax prep process. Most people outside our profession don’t. What you can do is create a process for making it easier for clients to work with you and to facilitate better conversations and better outcomes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a CPA ask a client for information or documentation and expect it returned ASAP wrapped up in a bow. But if clients did that — and had highly ordered, meticulous personalities like yours — then they probably wouldn’t need you. Many of your clients are very successful. They’re not lazy or scatterbrained. They’re just very busy and your job is not to make them busier with stuff they hate to do.

Sending a tax organizer in January is not enough. You need to walk clients through the process without being condescending. It’s about patiently explaining the things they need to get you and why they are important. Some solutions will require you to be a teacher and to be more hands-on. Again, clients are paying you to make the tax season smoother and easier. Why not send a courier to your client’s house to pick up documents? How about creating a short instructional video that walks new (or tech challenged) clients through your portal? How about adding an administrative assistant whose job it is to help use the portal better? It’s about opening up the lines of communication between your team and your client to help them get you what you need.

Opportunities amid the chaos

When you think about it, busy season is an ideal time to be thinking about your clients. This is when clients are going to have the most questions about their financial lives. It’s when you and your team can isolate their hidden pain points and pick up opportunities for additional services. It’s when you pick up hints about what your firm could be doing better, and it’s when clients are most likely to mention friends or family members who are not happy with their current accounting firms. Most clients just want to talk through things — they don’t necessarily know what to do.

When you point with your thumbs and take ownership of the issue, it’s never going to be perfect. But, you can see improvement every year. Over time, you’ll see you’re having fewer clients filing late or filing for extension. Those are things you don’t necessarily control, but those are things you can influence.

For example, I work very closely with my team. We’re a close-knit group, but I have been told on more than one occasion that I tend to micromanage people. Here’s the thing: If four people in a row all say the same thing, that does not make them bad people. I need to point with my thumbs and tell myself, “Clearly the way I am communicating is conveying a negative vibe. How am I going to change my communication style?” By the same token, if you have 50 clients who aren’t giving you their information on time, you don’t have 50 lazy clients — you have a bad system!

Turn mistakes into opportunities

It’s inevitable mistakes will happen, especially during busy season. But mistakes can be a good thing. Regardless of where you are on the firm’s hierarchy, if you see a mistake, don’t be afraid to bring it to the attention of your firm’s leaders and explain what the error is. Explain why you think the error happened and how the firm can ensure it never happens again. In the right culture, mistakes induce you to create systems and processes that prevent errors from recurring. The mistake itself may not be an asset, but the learning you get from the mistake is an asset. That’s why taking ownership is a core value of our firm.

Don’t tell a client, “I’m sorry, my firm made a mistake.” You should be saying, “I made a mistake and here’s what we’re going to do to fix it. Are you OK with that, Mr. and Mrs. Smith?” By doing so, you will have a much better relationship with that client and a smoother-running firm the next time around.

If you keep hearing the same issues or complaints every year from the people who pay you money (i.e., clients), then it’s probably true. You may not always agree with your clients, but you’re not going to change their opinion or their expectations.

You need to look in the mirror, point with your thumbs and ask yourself, “What do I need to do to deliver more value?” First focus on things you can control and then focus on things you can influence. If it’s not something you can control or influence, then try to figure out another way to think about the issue. They’re your clients. They interface with you in a certain way. You are in control of these interactions and you know the limitations of what you’re dealing with.

As you’ve probably discovered, it’s a lot easier to give advice to others than to give advice to yourself. You can do surveys, focus groups, off-site retreats and mine your CRM system for clues about how to solve an issue. But, at the end of the day, it starts with the man (or woman) in the mirror.