Greathead, Damien, Vice President, Receipt Bank
In a perfect world, clients would be happy all the time. But every firm we talk to has clients who don’t appreciate their accountant and choose to complain. This past year we’ve been collecting information from 2020 members on this phenomenon, and have come up with some answers to the question, “Why do clients complain?”
ANSWER NUMBER 1 – THE EXPECTATION GAP
You think you know what the client needs and you do your level best to deliver that service on time and for a reasonable fee. Problems arise if the client doesn’t get what they want, even though you have delivered what they need. So before you start it makes sense to confirm the order, as when you order room service in a fine hotel. Furthermore, since clients tend not to read letters of engagement (even though they routinely sign them), it’s important to discuss what you’re going to do on a face-to-face basis or at least over the 'phone. Otherwise you may end up solving a problem, which may well be critical, but one to which the client attaches little significance or value.
ANSWER NUMBER 2 – IT’S GENETIC
There are some clients, we are convinced, who are born to complain. They may also be in a trade or profession where complaining and haggling are an accepted part of the business and in fact it may be one of the attributes that make these clients successful. Some clients, for example, consider the rendering of a fee note not as a demand for payment but merely a routine opening of negotiations, such as one might expect if one were buying a carpet in a bazaar. Unless you enjoy dealing with these perpetual complainers, it’s best to see them on their way. A simple letter along the lines of:
"We work hard to maintain cordial and productive relationships with our clients. I note that you have complained about the last three invoices we have sent you and since we are shortly intending to increase our fees, this is a good time to suggest that you find another accountant to act for you. Be assured that we will do everything necessary to provide your new accountant with all the records he or she will need."
The other thing to avoid is taking on complainer clients in the first place, especially since there is plenty of good work around. Ask these 4 questions before you accept a new appointment:
• Were you satisfied with the services of your prior accountant?
• Did he/she complete your work on a timely basis?
• Do you have any specific comments about this individual?
• Do you mind if we call your previous accountant?
ANSWER NUMBER 3 – PERCEIVED INDIFFERENCE
Accountants often get totally focused on the task at hand, whether it is getting a tax return completed or finalizing a set of accounts, and neglect to communicate sufficiently with the client along the way. Alternatively, the main communication the client receives is 'super-technical' and over their heads. Either way, the perception the client has is one of indifference. Obviously, we’re not actually indifferent to the client’s needs but if the client perceives that that is what is occurring, the difference is academic, since perception is reality! In fact, we believe that the most common reason for losing a client is perceived indifference. Think about the last time you took over a client from another practitioner and remind yourself about what the client said about that person. Remarks like, “they just didn’t seem to care” and “we felt like we were too small for them” are remarkably common. It is fairly straightforward to set up tracking systems to make sure that you communicate effectively and regularly with all your clients.
ANSWER NUMBER FOUR - ATTITUDE
Clients have a right to expect that the people who work in your firm have a positive, enthusiastic, “can do” attitude. If you have any member of staff, or a partner for that matter, who doesn’t display this kind of attitude, it can be disastrous in terms of client relations. Overwork, lack of training and a remuneration scheme that is perceived as inadequate or unfair can all contribute to poor attitudes among your staff. As consultants to a number of firms, we observe that discord among the partners; poor management systems and/or a lack of leadership are the most common conditions that de-motivate members of the team. And if the team members aren’t motivated, it will impact your clients and their behavior.
Use these common reasons why clients complain to challenge your client service standards and performance.
Damien Greathead is COO of 2020 Group USA. 2020 Group trains and advises accounting firms on best practices for growth and profitability, including management, strategy, marketing and business development. You can learn more about their services by visiting their website at www.2020groupusa.com.