What Clients Wish Their Accountants Would Do

what clients wish their accountantIt is a little frustrating when there’s something that you wish the product you’re using would do, and it doesn’t.   Worse than this is discovering that you’re not the only one who is wishing this…and yet the product doesn’t change.  And very worst of all is knowing there are many, many others who feel as you do…and still nothing happens.

I had two examples of this recently when speaking to accountants who were trying to use a particular product.  One was Logical Office (the entire team jokingly calls it “Illogical Office”), and the other is Thomson Reuters in the States, with their Mypay/File exchange login portals.  I mention these specifically because in both cases, the accounting firms who pay for, and use, the product, although they like many features of it and would love to continue using them, are prevented from using the product to its fullest capability because of something it doesn’t do.  Worse, they’ve been told that although many others have suggested the same thing, the product isn’t changing anytime soon.

There’s something very, very wrong there.

Now, I know as well as anyone that it’s not as easy as the flick of a button to sort out even a minor change in a product.  But if something isn’t quite right, as time goes on your clients will begin to mutter a little to themselves.  If time goes on further, they’ll mutter to their team or partner.  The next stage is muttering to others…and the final stage is when they’ll tell anybody who will listen that this product is just not working, and they’re looking for another.

The final stage can be a death blow for that supplier – for others, it’s great news.  If someone comes to me to say that their old-school website template isn’t working for them anymore, we will happily help them develop a new one.  But what if you are the one being muttered against, the one who will be losing the business in the end?

Think for a moment: is there any area within your accountancy practice that you’ve been meaning to address for a while, but just haven’t got round to?  Because if there is, you could end up with a few muttering clients…and you don’t want to get to the final stage in that process.

You may think you’re doing really well, and none of your clients have cause to complain.  Just on the off chance you’ve missed something, here are a few areas that I’ve seen people ‘mutter’ about in relation to their accountant:

It’s not clear what kind of clients they want.  I don’t know how many accountants I’ve asked about their desired audience, and they’ve said “Oh, we’ll work with anyone”, or “We work with all kinds of clients”.  First, that’s no use for your marketing.  Niche and industry areas are critical for accountants to maximise on, and online marketing provides an incredible opportunity to do that simply and easily.  Secondly, if a client (or anyone else) recommends you, don’t you want them to recommend the right kind of people to you?  I recommended recently that someone speak to an accountant I knew, because they were in the right region.  The person drove an hour through traffic to meet with the accountant, had a lovely visit, chatted away, signed up for their mailing list, and then when they phoned to arrange a more serious conversation were told, “We only work with business clients”.  Now, wouldn’t that have been a good fact to be shared before the meeting was set up, or at the meeting, or in the follow up to the meeting?  Now this person has to start all over looking for an accountant, and they’re also a bit frustrated (and so am I)!  Be very, very clear about the kind of business you want.  Put it on your website.  Mention it to clients.  Ask for referrals of a particular kind.  It will make your life and the life of your prospects so much easier.  Why are so many accountants afraid of turning away business, if it’s not the kind you want?

The accountant’s pricing isn’t clear.  Again, fear is the reason that many accountants don’t make their pricing clear.  They fear that clear pricing will result in all kinds of disasters.  Someone who was interested will walk away.  A competitor will know their pricing and will change theirs to match.  Again, if you have set pricing that is reasonable and profitable for you, don’t be ashamed of it.  One problem many accountancy firms have is that their ‘standard pricing’ really isn’t a standard, but is changed constantly if the new client is a friend, or a family member, or is struggling with budget, or just resists paying the full fee.  Those aren’t the kind of loyal clients who will stay with you for twenty or thirty years – just let them go.  Or have an agreed-upon discounting process so the client is clear as to what they should be charged, and why they’re being charged less.  I’m not saying you have to put all your prices on your website (although I don’t see why that’s a bad idea), but you could at least indicate a minimum fee, and stick to it.  I know a luxury wedding photographer who has “Starting at $10k” prominently on his home page.  If you’re not interested at that level, there’s no point getting in touch.  Whether you’re at the budget or luxury end, feel free to give some indication of your pricing, even if it’s after the first meeting.

Surprise fees appear.  Accountants as well as anyone in professional service will know that once you’ve quoted a price, it’s as though it’s been tattooed on their mind.  I’ve learned not to throw out price suggestions unless I’m willing to stand by them for years afterward – someone I rough-quoted six years ago will come back to me saying, “But you said it was about £1,000!”  If you have a minimum fee (and it’s wise to have one), quote that.  Or, better yet, go in the middle.  If your minimum fee is £4,000, and you know it could go as high as £10,000, tell them it could start at £4k, depending on a variety of factors.  If it’s lower, they’ll be thrilled; if it’s higher, you have good reason to explain why.  Also, once you’ve quoted it, make sure that you are crystal-clear on any additions to this.  Best to do this from the beginning.   If they’re only getting their year-end accounts, ask if they will need personal and corporate tax returns, payroll, VAT, bookkeeping, and on and on.  They may not need any of it now, but you’ve made sure that they understand those are not included in the fee.  (If they are included, make that very clear on the quote.)

My accountant doesn’t ring me back.  This is probably one of the most frustrating things for clients of accountancy firms.  When someone rings their accountant, it’s generally not to say hello and see how things are going and chat about the weather.  That might happen, but their reason for phoning is often critical to their business, and is probably urgent as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, what’s most important to clients is feeling that they have been heard, and having their expectations managed.  You don’t necessarily have to have an answer to their query when you ring back.  You might not be able to answer them for several days.  But you could phone back to say, “I got your message, I understand what you need [you might want to make sure this is the case and not presume], and we should have that for you in a few days. If not, we’ll let you know”.  That gives your client a great sense of rest, and increases the trust factor.  Their accountant is on the case.  They don’t have to worry.  Your clients operate on a high worry/fear/nervousness/nail-biting factor most days of their lives.  Ease that for them.

I don’t understand my accounts.  This one is massive.  I don’t have statistics for this, but if I were to make a wild guess, I’d say about 75-80% of business owners don’t really understand their accounts.  And that’s a very, very generous guess.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an accountant start talking about a set of accounts and within seconds the business owner’s eyes are glazing over, or they’ve tuned out because they think, “Well that’s my accountant’s job.  I don’t have to worry about it.  Tell me what the bottom line is.”  I have a friend who works as an administrative assistant for an extremely busy man, and when an email comes in that is several pages long and she hands the printout to him, he stares at it for a second and then hands it back asking, “What do they want me to do?”  This is the question most of your clients are asking.  When you give them their accounts, or their VAT estimation, or whatever it is you send, their burning question is, “What do I do?”  Sometimes they don’t even want to know what it means, they just want to know what action to take.  You could make a lot of clients extremely happy by including a letter or email with every set of accounts (or whatever else you’re sending) that is headed “This is what you need to do” and listing out the one, two, three, or however many actions they need to address.  Things like “You need to sign page 3 and send it back to us at [fill in address].”  Or, “You need to meet with us to talk about your tax liability.”  It’s amazing how much your clients want to be led.  Lead them!

Everything is done last minute.  Many clients are frustrated with their accountant because the firm is so busy that everything appears at the last minute.  The accounts are finished, but they’re done two days before the deadline.  The management accounts are provided the morning of the meeting.  Now, I know full well that much of this is due to client failure.  They don’t provide the books, the information that you need in order to provide what they’re asking for.  Again, the principles of managing expectations and communicating properly apply here.  How often have you asked for these things, with deadlines, and using which means of communication?  Have you tried emailing, texting, social media, sending a letter, phoning the office, phoning the mobile, etc?  And every single time have you expressed the fact that they will not receive what they need on time unless you have it by a particular time or date?  Of course, you don’t want to hound or annoy your clients.  But if they have a deadline, then you do too.

It’s difficult and complicated to get a quote.  Returning to our discussion on quoting for accounting services, of course you want to have a personal meeting with them if you possibly can.  But how do you make the process so simple that arranging the meeting is simply the next step, rather than a major hurdle for them to overcome in their mind?  One of the simplest things you can do is have a “Request A Quote” button on your website.  Link it to a very simple form that asks for name, company name, phone, and email address.  Then, have a standard reply that you send them when the enquiry comes in.  Something like, “Hi, thanks for enquiring, we’d love to get you a quote!  We do need to know a few things about your business to give you a detailed quote, but our standard [type of service] is available from [£cost].  If you’d like more information, let us know!”  Then put them on your mailing list so that they continue to hear from you, and leave it in their hands.  Don’t panic about whether you’ve turned them away, or wonder why they haven’t come back to you, or press them for a meeting immediately.  People are so tired of the “Free Consultation” offer, because in their mind it implies commitment.  They’re not ready to commit to a new accountant yet, or even leave their current one.  Perhaps they just want a little information – so give them a little.  And if they want more, go from there.

My accountant isn’t online.  This covers a variety of areas.  One is how easy it is for your clients to get in touch with you.  If they ring you and don’t get a return call, can they ring a mobile number?  Text?  Talk to someone on your team using online chat?  Send an email that will get a reply within a half an hour?  Tweet you?  What they’re looking for is to be heard.  They want to know that you are interested in what they have to say – positive or negative.  I don’t know how many accountants I’ve spoken to who are afraid of social media because they might get some negative comments.  First, if you’re that afraid of negative comments, you probably know what you ought to be doing in your accountancy practice and are not doing it.  And secondly, if your clients like you, which I’m sure most of them do, they’ll be using social media to talk to and about you in a positive way.  Which gives you more visibility online, where everyone is these days.  So one small thing you can do is increase even by one the ways people can get a hold of you or your team.  Set up a Twitter account.  Get a mobile number or a direct line that goes to someone who is always available (perhaps someone different each week).  Have an email address that is checked continually, and have a simple reply sent along the lines of, “Got your email – not sure, but we’ll check and come back to you!”

My accountant doesn’t use the accounts system I use (SAGE, Quickbooks, Kashflow, Xero, FreeAgent, etc).  This can definitely lose you business.  Again, that may be okay.  Maybe you don’t ever want to work with anyone who uses QuickBooks (or vice versa).  That’s up to you.  But be clear.  Make sure that clients know the score ahead of time, so they have options.  If you hate SAGE and want all your clients to use something else, tell them up front.  If you’re happy to work with any of these systems, but one of them is preferred, explain that clearly.  Most accountancy firms have one or two recommended online systems that they encourage their clients to use.  And that’s fine if your clients don’t have a system at all and don’t know where to start.  But give them some indication of what’s expected, and what’s possible, so there aren’t frustrations later.

My accountant tells me that my great idea won’t work.  Professional scepticism is a vital part of an accountant’s professional role.  But some accountants take that to the next level and are essentially sceptical of every new idea that business owners come up with.  Remember that most entrepreneurs have a remarkable ability to push past what everyone says they can’t do, and surprise the world by actually doing it.  So practice being excited with them, at least at first.  Feel free to say, “What a great idea! I’ll need to find out whether that will have tax implications – can I look into that for you?” or, “That could definitely make a big difference to your bottom line, if the cash is there.  Is it?”  or similar comments that don’t destroy the great idea before it has even blossomed.  And at the end of the day, they have to make their own decisions.  You’re there not just to give reasons why it can’t work, but also what might happen if it does.  (Remember my recent marketing tip on The Curse of Optimism.)

It’s difficult to get information to my accountant.  Many businesses still use the ‘shoebox’ method of delivering information to their accountant.  If that works for you (and for them), feel free to continue that.  But do you have an online secure portal your clients could use to upload documents swiftly and securely?  Or a large pre-addressed envelope with their return address in the corner that you provide to all your clients on a regular basis?  Make it really, really easy for them to do business with you.

We found out too late that we could have saved money this year.  Most often this is the result of the item noted below, that many people don’t talk to their accountant very often.  One of the accounting firms we work with tells his clients to contact him for any moderately important decision they’re about to make in their business.  Going to buy new equipment? A car? Develop a new product?  Sell to a few customers abroad?  Begin advertising in a particular magazine or journal?  Hire a few new team members?  Even decisions that a business owner thinks isn’t relevant, he encourages them to share – because it might have further-reaching repercussions that the business owner isn’t aware of.  Perhaps the car should be leased, not bought.  Or the ‘selling abroad’ idea might raise VAT issues.  Whatever it is, it’s worth a quick call or email.  And it has the additional benefit of keeping your clients in touch with you on a more regular basis.

I only see my accountant once a year (if that).  Some accountants seem to like it this way.  They don’t want to be bothered having meetings with all their clients, they just want to get the accounts produced and sent and off the to-do list.  But if you really want to help your clients grow their business, or reduce their tax liability, or anything else, then seeing them more than once a year is a great idea.  Or at least talk to them every few months.  You can use a variety of ways to do that.  Some of the firms we work with deliver monthly webinars to their clients, and by doing so have an excuse to get in touch with those who register for particular topics.  Someone registered for Succession Planning?  Are they thinking of retiring soon?  Perhaps I should give them a call.  This client registered for Credit Control – is there some way we can help them with this?  It alerts you as to what is important to your clients.  There are many other ways too – and the best ways are those which are low-pressure, low-effort.  Registering for a webinar takes perhaps thirty seconds, and if they don’t attend, it’s not the end of the world.  Downloading a free industry report provides some information without requiring full company details.  Remember, it’s all about education and content – that’s the new marketing.  (More on this soon.)

I’m not important because I’m small.  This is very, very sad to me when it happens.  If you have small clients, and you want to keep them, they should never feel that they are small to you.  I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten this impression from a business I’ve spoken to, and it’s not a nice feeling.  Once I emailed a graphic design company to request a file they’d developed for me several years ago.  They never replied, so I emailed a few more times.  Finally I rang them up, and they said they did remember seeing the email, sorry, and we’ll get that out.  I got an email with the file, and that was it.  If we’d gotten into conversation at all, I could have told them that I had two clients and my own company looking for graphic design services – branding, logo, and some new websites.  I would have asked them if they’d be willing to be a speaker at one of our upcoming webinars, giving their business more visibility.  There were loads of possibilities there, but because (at the time) I was viewed as a small person, a small company, I did well to get the time of day.  I knew that if I worked for a large corporation, I’d have gotten much different treatment (others I knew had been treated in a very VIP-manner).  Of course, I appreciate that you only have so much time: but remember that no matter what size of business someone has (or doesn’t have), it’s absolutely mind-boggling the connections they have.  I know someone who grew up with Jimmy Choo.  Another friend is great mates with Hugh Laurie’s son.  The six degrees of separation concept applies to the type of clients you want to have.  If you’re contacted by someone who needs personal taxes done, and you only work with businesses, you can tell them that you aren’t able to help.  But have a referral arrangement with someone who does help individuals, and make sure you keep that person on your own mailing list, too.  Who knows who they might be able to recommend to you?

And don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that one of these issues isn’t important enough to address.  Sometimes not having a phone call returned is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and you’ve lost twenty years of a good annual fee because of it.  Or having a Twitter account that you never check could prevent a prospect from becoming a client.

What do your clients wish YOU would do?