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Client Management and Relationships

Messaging matters: How to talk to CPA clients about their accountability

Jason Blumer  Blumer & Associates, CPAs

Jason Blumer  Blumer & Associates, CPAs

How accountable are your clients about meeting deadlines, or about their role in your working relationship? Messaging matters. You can help them understand their part in the process. We’ve been sharing tips about leadership communications with your team and clients throughout tax season in a three-part blog series.

Our pre-season leadership messaging post discussed how to ‘message’ to your team and clients in a way that prepares them for the busy season to make sure growth stays on track and no one experiences confusion. In the second post, we talked more specifically about how to communicate effectively during tax season. In the third and final installment of this series, we’ll review how to ‘message’ our clients to keep them accountable for their work during tax season.

Accountability in professional relationships

Just like any healthy relationship, there are always two sides to it. And both sides must collaborate to make any marriage, friendship, and professional relationship work. Firms are in relationships with people: humans you care about and serve. When you address your client relationship from that perspective, you can serve your clients with more value (and be paid more), and they are likely to respond in kind, participating more proactively. You, as the firm, are accountable for leading your clients, and your clients are accountable for participating in the relationship.

These are the two sides of the professional relationship:

  • The firm leads
  • The client participates

Both must happen for the relationship to drive a lot of value.

What does it mean for the firm to lead?

As the leader in this relationship, it means you are accountable for giving clients deadlines, setting expectations for what will happen if deadlines aren’t met, following up with clients on time, and sticking to your word if deadlines are not met. Let’s clear this up – you lead the client, and they follow your lead. That is how professional relationships work in a healthy way. Any time you find a client asking you to usurp your own firm’s processes, then the client has begun to run your firm. We’ve all had this happen and it truly hurts your relationship. Why? Because clients can’t run a professional accounting firm.

What is the job of the client?

As stated above, the client’s role is to participate in the relationship and be accountable for doing their part. A few key mistake firms make are: (a) not telling the client how to participate in a relationship with you (that is, what is expected of them), and (b) letting the client dictate the relationship due to the confusion and miscommunication from (a). Clients must read the information you provide them on the processes they must follow, provide you the information you ask of them, and do it within the timeframe that you stipulate. All of this sounds like drawing a hard line, but I’m trying to be clear in this article. We all make accommodations when it’s appropriate for our clients; I’m trying to make a point about what underlies all healthy professional relationships. The firm leads, the client participates in the relationship.

To make this relationship work, and everyone receive the value they are meant to receive, it takes a little planning. I’ll walk you through how we address the reality of the professional relationship in our own firm. Here’s what we are doing for the 2019 tax preparation season:

  1. Before February 20th, our team emails each individual client and provides them a list of all the things we need from them in order to prepare an accurate and timely return. We tell them in the email that the information is due back by March 3rd in order to not be extended. We are responsibly telling our clients what is expected of them and providing them everything they need to abide by the request we have made of them.
  2. On March 1st, we email any clients that have not responded by March 3rd to remind them of the previous email. This is a friendly reminder to help our clients. We are letting them know that we are serious about our request. If they do not abide by our request, then we are letting them know in advance that we will extend their return. They will have no excuse for not participating in a relationship with our firm.
  3. On March 3rd, we email the clients again and tell them that any returns not begun by March 20th will be automatically extended. We are keeping our clients accountable and doing our part to remind them of their responsibility. We are giving them a second chance to meet the deadline by first requesting everything by March 3rd, and then pushing the deadline back to March 20th. We’ve done our part, and now they have to do their part.
  4. On March 20th, our internal team meets and creates a final extension list. We take time to discuss our clients together and make final determinations who we will and will not extend. We all have to make sure we have done our part before we place a client on an automatic extension.
  5. On March 21st, our team notifies all clients who will be extended. Again, extensions are our decision at this point. The client does not get to participate in the decision to be extended at this point. Note above all of the communications and the responsibility we took on as a firm to lead our clients and let them know how a relationship with our firm works.

There are about 7 to 10 additional steps in our process after the five above, but those all relate to the prep and review process. In this article, I wanted to highlight only the steps that relate to our relationships with our clients. The main point here is to emphasize that proper messaging is the job of the professional firm. And as a result of proper messaging, the client becomes fully accountable as to their role in the relationship.

Now we can all be healthy together! It doesn’t mean everything goes smoothly. We all know tax season is a bumpy time of year. There are clients that get upset when they learn their returns are being put on extension. And even though some clients don’t meet our deadlines, we can still make commitments to finish their returns on time. The point is that we, as the firm, lead how the process and the relationship works, not the client.

I think many firms view tax season as a time to get as many returns done as possible. Rather, it’s an intense time to organize, plan, and communicate clearly, emphasizing the structure of the relationship. You need people dedicated to this process. It drives your value higher and allows you to price your returns higher just by committing to this valuable process. With better planning around the two parameters listed above (the firm leads, and the client participates in the relationship), we can grow our firms in more sustainable ways, and work with healthy clients willing to let us lead them. It’s a win-win.

 

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