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Stick with Clients You Can be Grateful For

Thanksgiving_be_thankful

Now that last year’s tax returns are done, it is time to start getting ready for next tax season. This includes making sure you get enough CPE hours, plan engagement letters, review office processes and reconsider your fees.  It also is a great time to review your client list.  I attended a 1040 update seminar several years ago where the speaker made an interesting suggestion:  Let each person on your staff recommend (with justification) one client to be fired each year.  And be sure your receptionist weighs in!

He explained why and listed the benefits - I remember two that prompted me to give it a try.  First, it would improve morale to get rid of bad clients.   Consider this:  as a partner or owner, clients usually behave themselves around you.  For most clients, this extends to your staff.  For others, however, this isn’t necessarily true – they are curt, ignore requests for information, or bypass the staff and go to you, making it difficult for staff to do their job.   I also knew that when it came to identifying the “bad apples,” I was not objective enough and my staff could provide some additional insights.

Beyond staff morale, why else is this exercise important?  Too often, tax practitioners let clients get away with acting like the return is solely the CPA’s responsibility.  I didn’t want that.  I wanted clients to understand that we are in this together.   I felt like we needed to get to know our clients so we could properly analyze and review their situation – especially when we need to make interpretations so we can recommend a position or solution.  My attorney once said “everyone is happy so long as everyone is happy.” If something ever went wrong, without a relationship to fall back on, the client is more inclined to blame me than work with me to develop a solution.

So, I went back to the office and took a good look at my client list.  I wanted to work with my clients, not just for my clients.  Some clients drop off their information, then sit back and wait for the finished return.  They aren’t responsive if someone emails for additional information or calls to ask a question.  They might even be rude or impatient.  Clients need to respect (and behave around) everyone in the firm in order for you to run an efficient practice.  If you have a client that doesn’t get it, maybe they should not be a client at all.

I started having conversations with clients to make sure they understood our value, why our preparation system involved different staff in the firm, and their own role in the process.  If we couldn’t reform the client, they were eventually “fired.”  It took a while, but after two tax seasons, I ended up with clients who had a relationship with the whole firm, not just me, and paid higher fees for quality service.

So, as you prepare for tax season, consider doing the same.  Here is a tool you can use and an article reinforcing the idea.  Ask questions like:  Do they follow your advice?  Are they argumentative?  Do they make referrals?  Do you like them?  Do they pay their bills?  Do they complain about fees?  If you don’t like the answers and you don’t think you can rehabilitate them, consider firing them.  Your tax season may feel a lot better next year or at least run a little more smoothly, if you eliminate a few bumps from the road now!

Jina Etienne, CPA, Director of Taxation, American Institute of CPAs. Jina started her career in 1989 in the tax department of Touche Ross and, in 1993, started her own practice to focus on the needs of small businesses and their owners.  She recently joined the AICPA after 17 years in private practice.

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