How to stop letting dilatory clients bully you

Feb 8, 2022 | Client service, Sole practitioners

Every February I hear tales of woe from accountants who have worked late into the night during the days and weeks leading up to the tax return filing deadline.

Many are resigned to this and some even seem to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Most though resent the late hours and the pressure they feel as the deadline approaches.

When I ask why they work such crazy hours many accountants tell me they have no choice. Apparently their clients routinely ignore requests to submit tax return data earlier in the year. And the accountant doesn’t want to let their clients down. This is admirable but it doesn’t change the facts.

I’m sorry to be the one to reveal this to you. You only have yourself to blame if you have loads of client tax returns to complete and file in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline.

In mid-December I posted a poll on Linkedin asking accountants: “How many client tax returns will you be completing and filing between now and 31 January?” With almost 150 responses I was shocked by, yet again, how many accountants had a majority of theirs outstanding. So I dug further into the responses….

The headlines:

– A third had no tax returns left or just a handful. Excellent!

– A quarter had up to 20% of their returns left. Not too shabby.

– A quarter had between 20% and 50% of their returns left. Wow!

– And the remainder admitted to having a majority of their returns left to complete. What??!!

I am a bit of nerd when it comes to surveys and stats as so often we aren’t given enough details beyond the headlines.

So I checked. 24 people voted to admit they had a majority of their returns outstanding. BUT the profiles of these people suggest that they are not all in practice or that they only file a few returns for clients each year.

And as one comment on the poll implied (quite reasonably) – the poll was a little simplistic:

“Percentages are pretty meaningless if you don’t know the actual total numbers. The figures also do not seem to reflect tax returns 95% complete and just awaiting that last snippet of information to be completed and filed correctly”

I totally agree. This is why I didn’t want anyone with loads of returns yet to be completed and filed by mid-December to take comfort from the poll results.

The key takeaway, as I routinely point out to accountants I work with, is that plenty of accountants no longer have a January problem.

48 respondents to the poll had no tax returns left, or just a handful, in mid-December.

Most of the accountants I have mentored in the past now routinely complete all or almost all of their clients’ tax returns well before Christmas.

What this means is that YOU do not have to continue struggling and accepting the inevitability of a January rush.

I’m sorry. But it’s true. You have a choice. No one is forcing you to continue acting for dilatory clients. Though I appreciate you may be scared that you might struggle to replace thew fees these clients (eventually) pay. No one is forcing you to work late into the night. And no one is forcing you to keep your fees low. And yes, your fees are too low if dilatory clients pay no more than the prompt ones despite the extra hassle and problems they cause for you. Accountants tell me that late submitted data causes more stress and strain – and probably also lowers the quality of service you can provide.

Have you done all that you can to persuade clients to supply their data on a more timely basis? Really? And yet they are not responding positively? If that’s the case then, it seems to me that they are, effectively, bullying you. And you are letting them do this. Would you accept that bullying is an acceptable form of behaviour in any other aspect of your life? I hope not.

You can choose whether to continue acting for bullies, for those clients who take advantage of your good nature and of your desire to please. Or you can adopt a more confident stance. And take control. Be professional and firm. Set down the conditions that apply to your service during 2022. At the very least you can insist on  higher fees from those clients who insist on leaving things to the last minute. It’s their choice whether to incur such extra fees.

In 2022 it’s time to clarify what level of service your clients can expect from you and also you expect of them. Your fees and terms should be clear and transparent. Equally so are the additional fees paid only by dilatory clients. And these additional fees need to be paid before you will do last minute work for them next December and January.

You don’t have to change anything of course. You’ve never had to. It’s always been an option though. The alternative is to look ahead to next year and to know that it will be the same as the last one. Again. If you want things to be different, YOU need to take action and to communicate effectively what will change. Stop letting clients bully you!

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