What do you count as a bad client?

I regularly encourage accountants to ditch their bad clients. There are two primary reasons for this.

– Following the Pareto (80/20) principle, you can be sure that your worst clients (however small the number) cause the bulk of the problems and hassle that you suffer. Conversely, 80% of your profits are probably generated by the top 20% of your clients.  I first commented on this concept last October.

– The complaints from and problems caused by your worst clients are more likely, than your best clients,  to end up as professional negligence claims or reports to your professional body for unprofessional conduct.

What counts as a bad client?

Let’s see if we can create a definitive list.  I’ll start with the examples I share during my talks for accountants.  Readers are encouraged to add their own  suggestions as comments.

On my list would go clients who display 2 or more of the following tendencies:

Before they become clients

  • Evidently expect free advice on the phone;
  • Reluctantly attend a meeting and seek further free advice;
  • Challenge elements of your standard terms and conditions;
  • Resist producing suitable identity verification evidence;
  • Delay signing your engagement letter whilst expecting you to start work;
  • Mentions that they have sued or reported one or more of your predecessors;
  • Resist making any form of up front payment (where this is part of your terms)

After being engaged:

  • Seeks further advice but is unwilling to accept that this will increase your fees;
  • Changes the scope of your work;
  • Resists any increase in your fee to reflect additional work they have requested [nb: I’m assuming that you would notify them of the increase before starting the extra work] ;
  • Appears not to value your time;
  • Insists on ‘gut feel’ advice rather than fully researched advice;
  • Uses buzz words and terms that they evidently don’t really understand;
  • Regularly needs to be chased up to provide information or other responses to your enquiries;
  • Delays production of key documents until the last minute;
  • Does not pay your fees in accordance with your payment terms.

Why you should never simply say: You’re welcome

In my last post I stressed the need to clarify expectations and to avoid over-promising the speed with which you will undertake work for a client.

Let’s take that a stage further. Assume for a moment that you’ve really put yourself out for a client (or indeed for anyone). You’ve pulled out all the stops and the client is really grateful. They tell you how pleased they are and what a great job you’ve done.

What do you say in response?

If you’re like most people you probably say something like: “You’re welcome”, “It’s a pleasure”, “All part of the service”. And in so doing you immediately diminish the VALUE of what you’ve done because you are underplaying the effort involved.  Is that what you want to do?

Next time this happens think about using one of these phrases instead of a simple “you’re welcome”:

  • How kind of you. I really appreciate that because I did work hard on it.
  • That really makes me feel good  as it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
  • That’s great to hear as I did work hard to meet the deadline you set.

In addition to reinforcing the level of service you have provided, responses along these lines also compliment the client (or whoever has thanked you).  So it can really create or enhance a win-win scenario.

What else can you say in such situations?


Why you should never fear asking for feedback

Last month I noted some thoughts about detailed fee quotes and bills for professional work.  The posting was inspired by the service I had received from my garage.  The same is true of today’s blog as the garage owner telephoned me yesterday.  Why?  Just a courtesy call, he said.  I know we did a lot of work on your car last month and I just wanted to check how everything is. 

How do you think that made me feel?  More to the point how would one of your clients feel if you called them just to see how everything is going some time after the completion of a big piece of work?

The worst that can happen is that they’ll say everything is fine. Yup.  That’s the worst that can happen.

What are the other possibilities?   There are only two variations I think:

  1. We’ve hit a snag, we’ve got a problem, we could do with some more help; or
  2. I’m not happy with what you did. 

The first of those is the one you probably want to hear. It means more paid work. You can provide further help to your client.

The ‘complaining’ type response is nothing like as bad as the ‘everything is fine’ reply.  No. I haven’t gone mad. I mean it.

Once you know there’s a problem you have an opportunity to sort it out, to provide further help and to generate some positive goodwill.  If you hadn’t made the call you would have been unaware of how the client felt. You might have mistakenly assumed  that the client was ‘satisfied’ because they hadn’t complained.  You would be unaware that they might well be bad-mouthing you to all and sundry.  Your call may have arrived just in time to avoid them formulating a complaint.

It’s upto you HOW to deal with the problem once you become aware of it.   Many advisers share storied of how they enhanced their reputation with a client because of the way they resolved a problem.    Please share your views by way of comments on this blog.


Some trusted advisers shouldn’t be trusted

In a recent posting I highlighted some of the scenarios that suggest that an adviser has not achieved the level of trust that we tend to seek from our clients. I have also written about what it means to be a ‘Trusted adviser’ and that just because an adviser is trusted by clients doesn’t automatically mean that the trust is justified.

The adviser may not have sufficient knowledge to give reliable advice on the matter at hand. If he or she goes ahead however the client may still feel able to rely on it as they are unaware that the accountant is either naïve, lazy or out to deceive.

  • Perhaps they give advice in good faith but have insufficient knowledge or expertise to realise that the advice is wrong, incomplete or inappropriate;
  • Perhaps they hope the advice is ok even though they haven’t checked; or
  • Perhaps they are out to deceive in that they know they don’t know the answer but seek to convince the client that they do and that their waffle is good advice.

In all 3 scenarios the client may be unaware that the adviser should not be trusted.

The motivations are different in each case. Which is worst do you think and which is the most common?

Some years back I recall discussing two tax managers with a fellow partner in the accountancy firm where I worked. He was a general practitioner and evidently favoured one manager over the other. He told me why:

‘Rosie’ never seemed confident of the tax advice she gave him. She always wanted to double check it with someone else. He preferred ‘Cathy’ as she always provided him with definitive advice and never insisted on ‘wasting time’ getting confirmation.

I told him that I would prefer to rely on ‘Rosie’ any day. She knew what she didn’t know. She was neither naïve, lazy or out to deceive. ‘Cathy’ on the other hand evidently wanted to please the partner but I knew she did not have the experience or expertise to always have the right answers.

Some months later my partner thanked me for opening his eyes. He had been checking up on ‘Cathy’ and found that her advice was not always reliable. Several mistakes and problems had come to light. She had attempted to explain them away but on reflection he knew that they were a function of her over eager attempts to give advice and to appear to be more knowledgeable than was the case.

If this had only happened once or twice he might have thought her simply naïve. She had attempted to cover her tracks – in a further effort to deceive.

She left the firm shortly afterwards.

If your colleagues can’t trust you why should your clients?

* Names changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty!)


How do you REALLY know if your clients are happy?

How many of us really know what our clients think about us? We might assume that clients like us although often when we say that we’re probably focussing more on our favourite clients and assuming that an absence of complaints evidences that clients like us and value the work we are doing. But is that enough? Indeed is it even a reasonable assumption?

In most professional firms success is based to one degree or another on the level of fees that you can generate. This is one of the reasons why a key part of my mentoring programme focuses on the skills required to be an effective ‘finder’ of work. But finding new clients is not the only way to generate more profits. It is also important to look after the relationship with existing clients – to be an effective ‘minder’. In the context of this article I would just highlight two of the four key elements of ‘minding’ clients:

  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals; and
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services.

Here are some of the tell-tale signs you might be looking for.   What proportion of your clients:

  • Know that they benefit from regular tax saving advice from you?
  • Receive any form of newsletter or emails from you or your firm that evidences your desire to help them pay less tax or to otherwise simplify their tax affairs?
  • Pay their fees promptly and without complaint about the quality of the service?
  • Accept that the level of your fees is fair – or even great value given the advice and service you provide?
  • Ask you for timely advice on related matters (beyond the recurring compliance work)?
  • Willingly pay a fair fee for that additional advice?
  • Praise you in their emails and letters?
  • Genuinely thank you when you speak to them?
  • Say positive things about you, your service and your fees when talking to their friends and associates?
  • Regularly refer you to their friends and associates?

I created this list quickly for an article I have just written. Can you think of anything else that should be there? Please add a comment to this blog or email me your thoughts: Mark*BookMarkLee.co.uk [replace * with @ – it’s my attempt to prevent automated spam]


Do you suffer from premature evaluation?

I’ve mentioned my friend Richard White before. I’ve just read a piece on his blog that reinforces the advice I give in my talk on How to make more profits from your smaller clients. It also relates very closely to this previous posting of mine along similar lines last August. Below I’ve taken Richard’s analogy and adapted it slightly for ambitious professionals.

Imagine being in pain and going to your doctor for some help. Within moments of your arrival the doctor starts telling you, very enthusiastically, how similar your pain is to the previous patient, what is wrong with you and what medicine you need to take.

How would you feel if that happened? Would you trust the doctor? The doctor could be right but you will be more likely to trust their advice if they spent a little time finding out more about your specific pain rather than just making assumptions and talking, talking, talking!

The same is true for ambitious professionals. You need to give your prospects some credit for intelligence. You need to assume that they can tell if you are listening to them or are just interested in flogging them your services.

People do not like being sold to, but they do like to buy. Successful ambitious professionals look to build trust and a long-term relationship by working with human nature rather than against it.

If a prospect feels that you are more interested in selling your services than solving their problems then you are unlikely to gain their confidence or to encourage them to engage you to do more than the bare minimum (if that). Your relationship with the new client will always be vulnerable no matter how likeable you are.

When you meet with a prospective new client they need to feel that your focus is 100% on them and that you are going to give them the right advice for their issues. They like the fact that you have experience but they want you to apply that experience to their specific issues rather than just making assumptions.

In my posting last August I took this idea a stage further and recommended that ambitious professionals could get more favourable feedback from their clients by taking a two-step approach rather than getting straight to the answer right away. This is very similar in concept to the idea of avoiding instant diagnosis. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who operated like that so why should we expect clients to appreciate such an approach?

There is a term for the condition where professionals (or indeed anyone trying to sell their services or products) get very excited and enthusiastically sell all over the place without bothering to take an interest in their prospect’s problems – It’s called ‘Premature Evaluation’ and there is a lot of it about!!!

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You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients

I was speaking at the LSCA Small Practitioners’ 36th annual conference in Cambridge yesterday. The subject matter of my talk was ‘How to make more profits from your smaller clients’. I included in the talk a number of items that have appeared in this blog. Others will follow.

Also on the programme was the founder of PracticeTrack and PracticeWEB, Mark Lloydbottom. I was delighted to meet Mark and to hear him speak for the first time. He particularly caught my attention when he announced from the platform “You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients or if you give your clients SEX”.

I’m sure this idea will resonate with all ambitious professionals so, with Mark’s permission I can explain, as he did, that S.E.X is an acronymn for:

Superior skills;



In essence what Mark was saying, and as I have also been advocating for some time, is that our fees should not be set merely by reference to how much time we have spent dealing with the client’s affairs.

In my talks on related topics I have long stressed that clients are buying our solutions to their problems. We provide our knowledge, skills, experience and service so as to gain our clients’ trust and confidence. If we can do this and help clients to like us too, we stand a good chance of charging more than we would otherwise be able to so do.

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What do your clients want?

Further to yesterday’s blog about Professor Richard Susskind I am keen to highlight another observation he made during his talk. It’s actually a point I have been making for at least five years myself when advising accountants and lawyers on business development related issues.

There is an apocryphal story about a group of newly recruited executives at Black & Decker in the days when they only sold one basic product. They were asked what it was that their customers wanted from them.The standard answer was ‘drills’. “No” they were told. “Our customers want HOLES.”

In a similar vein the great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Ambitious professionals need to ensure they focus on the hole in the wall that their clients want. Professor Susskind noted that KPMG’s global mission statement identifies its aim “is to turn knowledge into value for the benefit of its clients, its people and the community”.

The key point for all of us here is that what our clients want are results.They are often indifferent as to how we get them. They will rarely care much about our internal processes and systems.

The next time you meet with a prospective client take a moment to find out what result they are seeking and focus your comments more on how this can be achieved than on how you and your firm operate. You may be surprised at the positive impact this can have.

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How evolved are your professional services?

Listening to Professor Richard Susskind speaking after dinner at the APP AGM last week I was struck by the logic of his predictions for the future of professional services.  There are lessons here for all ambitious professionals.

The Professor, who has long been a highly respected guru as regards the future of the legal profession, outlined the five stages of evolution that professional services are moving through.

First stage: The original bespoke or tailored service that seeks to directly match a client’s circumstances.  The professional works like an artist starting with a blank canvas;

Second stage: This involves the standardisation of the substance and process of the services such that advisers can avoid reinventing the wheel;

Third stage: Involves systemisation through the application of technology which allows advisers to automate some processes;

Fourth stage: Packaging. This will allow clients to drive and access information directly and will reduce the costs of delivery;

Fifth stage: Commoditisation. This will allow clients to access commonplace information and services directly online.

Many older professional advisers attempt to provide all clients with a bespoke service. This is fine if it’s what the client wants but it is inevitably more expensive than any of the evolved approaches to the provision of professional services.

Ambitious professionals would be well advised to ensure that they do not automatically provide a bespoke service to all clients.  Unless you only act for wealthy clients you will find that many of them would be happier paying the lower fees they would associate with an off-the-peg approach.  Beware too of charging bespoke level fees when you provide a standardised, systemised, packaged or commoditised service.  Once the client perceives this is what you are doing you will lose credibility and the justification for your fee levels.

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Good, bad or indifferent?

How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

When I ask people to describe their relationship with their accountant I generally receive variations on only 3 basic answers. That is that the relationship is judged to be Good, bad or indifferent.  I would anticipate that the same is true across all professions.

What might we decide the different descriptions generally mean to ambitious professionals?

This implies that things couldn’t be better. Your clients believe that you do what they want, when they want it and for a fee that they consider to be excellent value for money. They are aware that they get pro-active advice and are very happy to recommend you to friends and family.

Your clients feel that they’re putting up with bad service, high fees and/or get little of value. They certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone they know to use you. [How often do your clients give you valuable referrals?]

This is how I would describe those clients who think their adviser is ‘okay’. This might be because you don’t wow the clients with great service nor do you charge high fees or upset the clients.

In my experience a very high proportion of people think their accountant is just ‘okay’. I think that’s sad and it’s one of the reasons that I look to help accountants provide better value to their clients.

How confident are you that your clients think that you are anything other than just ‘okay’?  The fact that they haven’t complained probably indicates that they they don’t think you’;re ‘bad’.  But equally you can’t assume that they think you’re good. Going back to the question I asked at the top of this item,  How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

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