Take a hike: Ending client relationships

By Daniel J. Gartland, CPA

Consider this scenario: A key deadline is nearing, and the client is just now returning your calls and emails. But instead of responding to the open issues, the client indicates there is no real problem and irately demands that services be completed immediately. It is clearly time to end this client relationship.

Many accountants confess to daydreams of uttering "Take a hike!" to a less-than-ideal client. While it may seem like a good idea in the moment, such phrasing is not the most desirable way to terminate a client relationship. However, the process of telling a client to take a hike provides a useful analogy to guide a more professional, less risky end to contentious and cooperative client relationships alike. Treat a client termination as if it were a hike through uncharted lands.

STEP 1: PREPARE FOR THE JOURNEY

Most journeys take expert planning and attention to detail. A client termination requires similar efforts. It is important to remember that both good and bad client relationships may need to end unexpectedly. No signpost indicates when a client relationship takes a wrong turn. The following are tools that may be useful in preparing for an unforeseen client termination:

  • Termination provisions: Including a clear termination provision in an engagement letter, indicating an engagement can be terminated without completion for any reason, can provide significant latitude, if termination becomes necessary. By including such a provision, the CPA firm may reduce the likelihood of a client asserting that the firm cannot withdraw from the engagement.
  • Deadline communication: Clients that are chronically noncompliant with terms of the engagement may need a gentle reminder of their responsibilities in the form of a written communication. Deadlines should be communicated in an engagement letter. A separate stand-alone letter or email may be appropriate if there are concerns about a client's ability to meet the identified timing. A properly timed communication could even prevent the need for a client termination.
  • Ideal client profile: CPA firms should establish an ideal client profile and regularly evaluate the existing client base against the profile to identify clients that are no longer a fit for the firm. This protocol helps identify potential problem clients before the relationship becomes tenuous.

STEP 2: BE AWARE OF THE DANGERS

Any journey will have its own set of pitfalls and obstacles. The same can be said of client relationships. Though no maps, GPS, or satellite imagery guide a termination, awareness can help CPAs through the dangers of a contentious client relationship. It can be easy to overlook negative indicators, especially if the fees are substantial, the relationship is long-standing, or new clients are hard to find. Even more difficult to overcome are strong interpersonal connections between the engagement team and the client. Recognizing a bias toward retaining a client and being mindful of already serious or mounting issues can be the difference between exiting a client relationship unharmed or falling into a conflict. Common indictors may include:

  • Concerns regarding client integrity.
  • Fee or service complaints.
  • Disputes within the client organization.
  • Untimely or incomplete responses to requests.
  • Negative responses to constructive suggestions.
  • Poor attitude toward internal controls.
  • High accounting or management turnover.
  • Dismissive treatment of engagement team members.
  • Disrespectful treatment of client employees.

While counterintuitive, a client's rapid success or expansion also could be an indicator that the relationship may need to be reevaluated. The client's successes may require services and expertise that are beyond the CPA firm's capabilities. However a proactive plan may prevent the CPA from making unintended errors that could result in professional liability claims, if services were to continue.

STEP 3: MAP OUT YOUR PATH

Whether the end of a client relationship is ambiguous or obvious, a client termination is not complete until it is formalized in a written communication to the client. Guidance on drafting the letter is as follows:

  • Omit the reason for the termination: A termination letter is not the time to win an argument with a client. The letter simply represents a method to inform the client that you are no longer providing services and identify the client's responsibilities going forward. Explaining why the firm is ending services may only upset the client further or create a problem that previously did not exist.
  • Items for client follow-up: After parting ways, your client will need to be pointed in the right direction to complete its journey. The letter should clearly map out the client's responsibilities going forward and issues that should be raised with a successor CPA. Matters of particular importance to include are deadlines (statutory, regulatory, or operational), internal control weaknesses or breakdowns, and indicators of potential fraud or violations of laws and regulations. If deadlines are missed or a theft occurs and the CPA had not informed the client of those in writing, the client may blame the CPA firm.
  • Fees: At times, clients assert that CPAs knew they did not provide proper services because they do not request outstanding fees. As a result, whether or not you expect to collect unpaid fees, a termination letter should state the outstanding balance of fees due. A final billing statement may resolve any confusion and could be included as an enclosure with the termination letter.
  • Send a hard copy: Advances in technology have made most interpersonal communications nearly instantaneous. Yet, the professionalism and permanence of an actual mailed letter cannot be ignored. Unless there is a looming deadline or other rare situation, a hard copy of the termination letter should always be sent by a method that will confirm receipt by the client. Further, the letter should be sent via a traceable method to demonstrate delivery and receipt.

STEP 4: FINISH THE JOURNEY

The client termination process is no walk in the park. It involves a commitment of will, time, and professionalism. It is not an easy choice or one that should be made on a whim. Once started, the process should be seen through to completion. The following tips will assist in managing this process:

  • Evaluate your mindset: While it is important to assess the client's actions in making a termination decision, it is equally important to assess your own mentality once the decision to terminate has been made. The goal of a termination is to lessen or avoid a conflict with a client. Failing to maintain a professional attitude throughout the termination could elicit a client response that results in unnecessary stress, reputational damage, or even a professional liability claim.
  • Stick to the path: Once your services have been officially terminated, do not continue to provide services or reengage with the client for additional services. Allowing a client to talk you into providing services is akin to traversing a bridge that you already know to be perilous. It may seem as though you are performing just one more task before concluding the engagement, but continuing to provide services lessens the likelihood that the client will ever accept that the relationship has ended. Just remember, when the relationship terminates, it is a final decision.

Daniel J. Gartland (daniel.gartland@cna.com) is a risk control consultant at CNA.


Continental Casualty Co., one of the CNA insurance companies, is the underwriter of the AICPA Professional Liability Insurance Program. Aon Insurance Services, the National Program Administrator for the AICPA Professional Liability Program, is available at 800-221-3023 or visit cpai.com.

This article provides information, rather than advice or opinion. It is accurate to the best of the authors' knowledge as of the article date. This article should not be viewed as a substitute for recommendations of a retained professional. Such consultation is recommended in applying this material in any particular factual situations.

Examples are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to establish any standards of care, serve as legal advice, or acknowledge any given factual situation is covered under any CNA insurance policy. The relevant insurance policy provides actual terms, coverages, amounts, conditions, and exclusions for an insured. All products and services may not be available in all states and may be subject to change without notice.

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