Got a few challenging clients?

Here are several tips for dealing with tricky situations.
By Cheryl Meyer

All CPAs have faced difficult clients: those who complain, wait until the last minute to provide information, treat people rudely, or don't pay their bills. These situations can turn into nightmares for accounting firms.

"Demanding clients and challenging situations are definitely par for the course," said Erin Avnet, CPA, tax director at Citrin Cooperman in Livingston, N.J. "It seems like every day, partners are putting out fires."

Managing and retaining clients is "not a perfect science and really is an art," she added. You can take steps to minimize conflict or tension that arises due to miscommunication or other issues. Avnet and other CPAs offer the following tips for dealing with challenging clients:

  • Communicate. Jody Grunden, CPA, the managing member of Summit CPA Group in Fort Wayne, Ind., said communication is key. "Your profession is people," he said. "If you're getting blindsided by a difficult client, it usually means you're not communicating often enough." His advice? "Make yourself available at all times and return calls promptly."
  • While firms differ in their client communication protocols, as a general rule CPAs should contact clients periodically throughout the year, take them to lunch, and build on the relationship through regular dialogue. "You will never become a trusted adviser in their eyes if the only time they hear from you is tax season," Avnet said.

    Frequent communication can also "open doors to provide value-add services and cross-sell within your firm," she said, adding that CPAs should also spend time getting to know their clients and their preferences for communication.

  • Make expectations clear. Early on and throughout the relationship, ask your clients to outline their expectations, timelines, and goals—and then do the same. "When you have mutual expectations on the table, just like a marriage, you will have a much clearer path to a happier relationship," said Allan Boress, CPA, owner of Allan Boress & Associates in Orlando, Fla.
  • Your firm's expectations should align with your clients', Grunden said, and you should also outline those expectations in marketing materials and during meetings with new clients.

  • Build relationships. Dealing with clients is clearly business, but successful firms that manage clients view them as people, too. "Somebody needs to be a cheerleader," Boress said. "We celebrate our clients' successes. We get to know who they are, who their children are, and when somebody has a baby, passes away, or is in the hospital." Such attention can lead to more harmonious connections and help prevent future conflicts.
  • Engage immediately. "If you've been made aware of a problem or sense a difficult conversation at some point in the not-too-distant future with one of your clients, take charge," Grunden said.
  • Don't avoid a situation that could be thorny. "Deal with the issue head on," Avnet said. "Have the conversation as soon as possible and provide suggestions on how to handle or resolve it."

    Choose the right communication medium when handling delicate situations. Grunden advised picking up the phone or scheduling a video chat or live meeting rather than emailing a client.

    In an email message, "the tone and feeling can be misread," he said. "And when it comes to tackling difficult situations, that tone and feeling and in-the-moment conversation is a huge part of getting to the solution."

  • Empathize. If you're speaking with a frustrated client, stop what you're doing and listen. Try to convey that you understand why the client is frustrated. "You can say something like, 'I acknowledge how frustrated you are. Let me see if I can help turn this situation around for you,'" Grunden said. Empathize with upset clients by raising a lot of questions, asking for specific examples, and looking for ways to solve the problem, he said. And, he noted, don't pass blame on to someone else; it is better to apologize and take responsibility for any issue that arises.
  • Switch things up. If a personality conflict has flared, bring in another team member, such as an accounting manager or partner, to change the dynamic. Certain individuals clash, and sometimes a fresh face can ease tensions and solve the problem. "Sometimes rejiggering your team and finding someone else to lead the account can be a good way to ask for a second chance," Grunden said. (Naturally, only try this technique if your firm has enough bandwidth to free up the necessary staff.)
  • Realize a challenging client isn't all bad. A client who questions your work has a vested interest in it and probably wants to learn, so keep things in perspective. "When we get somebody who really is challenging, constantly picking at our stuff, that keeps us 100% on our toes," Grunden said. "Our team is very ready for those meetings."
  • Let 'em go. Sometimes clients are too challenging and become a distraction to the firm. In those cases, cut the cord. "Focus on the 20% of your clients who offer the most productive relationships—the ones that make you and your team happy, the ones where you know you're providing value, the ones that bring in the most money," Grunden said. "Don't be afraid to cut your losses by letting a problem client go."

Do these problems sound familiar? The AICPA's Private Companies Practice Section sample client disengagement letter (available to AICPA/PCPS members) may prove helpful to you.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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