Avoid this mistake when a client disputes your fee note

We’ve all had them. The client who sends a detailed letter/email listing a load of issues and problems.  Sadly I can recall having the odd one or two such missives when I was in practice.

I remember the feeling of indignation. The frustration at the unfairness of the accusations. The unreasonableness of the assertions and the one-sided nature of the complaint which totally ignored anyone’s perspective other than that of the client.

Yes, I know. The client is always right. Except they’re not. Sometimes they’re wrong, mistaken or liars.

I recall one occasion many years ago when I received a detailed list of issues from a client in response to the invoice issued by my tax manager. I went through the list and made a few notes. I gave these and the client’s letter to the tax manager to comment on. We crafted a point by point response. We were satisfied we had addressed all the points thoroughly and fairly. We sent our letter. This had the inevitable consequence.

We got another letter. With the benefit of hindsight I suspect the client was playing with us and playing for time. I don’t remember if there was another exchange of letters or not, but I do recall a meeting where we went through things line by line again.  Eventually the fee was paid and the final amount was not much different to the original bill.

I had made a fundamental mistake in replying to the complaint letter point by point.

What I should have done was to pick up the phone, apologise for any misunderstandings and ask what the client wanted. And then deliver that or discuss it in order to reach a fair result as quickly as possible.

Few clients WANT a line by line, point by point response to their letter of complaint. Your detailed reply simply invites another round of the same game. Perhaps the client is simply trying to buy some time before they will pay you in full, maybe they just want a small reduction in the fee or a change in the personnel dealing with their affairs. Maybe they want a big reduction in the fee. Maybe they are going to be so unreasonable that YOU should decide you don’t want them as a client any more.

Far better to reach one or other of those outcomes asap and get paid what you’re going to get paid asap. Don’t you agree?

By |2018-07-08T15:00:57+00:00January 14th, 2011|Accountants, Pricing, Productivity|

About the Author:

Mark Lee FCA is an accountancy focused futurist, influencer, speaker, mentor, author and debunker.


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  2. Helen 17th January 2011 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    There’s some really good advice in this post. It’s easy for an email to be taken the wrong way – for exampe, something that is meant to be humorous may be taken to be sarcastic. A phone call to a client can often take the wind out of their sails, meaning that you can reach an agreement much swifter.

  3. Bill 22nd February 2011 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    Fortunately I do not have those problems very often as I always give the client a full detailed timesheet with every invoice (writing off time if appropriate etc). If they query my bill (which is after all interim one always ) then I don’t want them as clients. The thing I bear in mind is that having to take the time to dissect matters and reply it all costs money and do I really want the hassle? Yes if they are Mark’s anecdotal liars but no if there is a genuine difficulty that they need help with.
    Phone calls are best to iron out those sort of problems I agree

    yes of course I do when the client

  4. nick goddard 11th July 2011 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    And there was me second guessing that the mistake would be to reduce the fee level to appease the disgruntled client.

    Good points Mark, the issue is that people don’t like talking about money, especially fee disputes, and a quick phone call can resolve any sticking points much quicker.

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