Top tips for dealing with clients from hell

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Last week AAT member in practice Jenni Frost urged readers to bin clients from hell. Rebecca Wilber, partner at accountancy firm RJ Wilber, offers her top tips for ensuring you don’t ever have to

During my 20 years in the business, I’ve only come across two clients who believe they are above the law. Those clients are, of course, difficult because they think the law doesn’t apply to them and that they don’t have to pay tax.

But more often, when things go wrong between accountant and client, it’s down to something much less dramatic – and it can be fixed.

Why you should manage expectations

The first mistake people make is not managing expectations properly. When we have the initial meeting with a new client, if we don’t supply the information clearly and concisely and only focus on the money we can save them, how can we expect them to do the right thing?

There is an assumption that what is obvious to you as an accountant will be as clear-cut to the client. This is not the case. It is our job to work out a system that works for both sides and to lay down the terms clearly at the beginning.

Use a Prepared By Client list

In general, my clients have responded positively to this. There is no messing about and I’m straight to the point and clear about what I need from them. I give them a PBC (Prepared By Client) list of things they have to give me at the end of the year. Some clients do, of course, complain that it’s too much hard work.

What I do then is explain to them that they don’t have to do it, we can do it instead, but that will cost them more. For most people, this is incentive enough to do what I ask. This way, I manage expectations from the beginning, I tell them where they can save and how, and then it’s their choice to actually do it.

Establish better communication

The second issue is that, as accountants, we have to understand that to most businesses, doing the books is just a problem that has to be solved. They want an easy way to do this and they need guidance. It’s our role to provide that. Often, they’ve had bad experiences in the past with accountants, not necessarily because of faults of their own or the accountant, but because there’s been no communication between them.

Understanding your niche

Finally, many accountancy firms are niche. They specialise in certain sectors and keep clients within the same. Sometimes, when things go wrong, it’s because the client doesn’t fit the practice. In that case it is simply about the firm realising its limits and its niche, and not taking on clients that fall outside of that, as it is bound to bring complications.

Simply, managing bad clients doesn’t have to be that hard. Know what you need from them and know what they need from you. Communicate early, clearly, manage expectations and be open. Then it’s their decision whether or not to accept it.

Rebecca Wilber is a partner at accountancy firm RJ Wilber.

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