I have heard it suggested many times that some clients think that their accountants are not working in their best interests. The clients perceive that their accountants are working on behalf of the Revenue.
I suspect that this is more an issue of those accountants giving the wrong impression to their clients. But, as I have long maintained, ‘perception is reality’.
Yet again this comes down to a question of how well the accountant communicates with their client. Sadly not all accountants are good communicators. The same is true of course of many other professionals.
Let’s consider three key facts:
- The local office structure within HMRC has all but disappeared.
Whereas years ago local accountants might be on first name terms with local Inspectors of Taxes, this is rarely possible today. It also means that accountants need not be concerned that if they fight hard for one client that the local Inspector will get his/her own back. It is rarely going to be possible for one Revenue officer or Inspector to make life difficult for the accountant’s other clients. Whether this used to happen or not, it’s no longer feasible. If an accountant needs to speak to an Inspector about a client’s tax affairs he/she will generally only be able to speak to a call centre where an operator will call up the client’s information on a computer screen.
- Accountants have to focus on their clients
A recurring theme within my blogs is the need for accountants to focus on their clients’ needs otherwise they will vote with their feet. Anyone who really thinks their accountant is more interested in what HMRC thinks than in fighting unfair attacks etc will look to find a ‘better’ accountant. That is one who they perceive is more focused on giving good client service. The switch often takes longer to arrange than would be ideal, but it does happen.
- The customer is always right
Except when he/she wants to break the law. Professional accountants know the difference between what’s acceptable and legal and what’s unacceptable or illegal. A good accountant will ensure that clients appreciate the distinction and the consequences of choosing to do anything illegal.
I am reminded of a key point I used to stress with junior staff when I was in practice. Typically this would happen when the staff member was writing to the client after reviewing the client’s records or profit and loss account analyses.
When the staff wanted to write something like “I have disallowed [the £260 you spent at the XXX Restaurant]” I would encourage them to change the wording. “It is not for us, as the accountants, to disallow anything,” I would say. “The Revenue ‘disallows’ claims. We don’t and we mustn’t give clients the wrong impression. The precise words we use can have a big impact.” The offending line would then be amended to read something like “Sadly the Revenue will not allow you to claim tax relief for [the £260 you spent at the XXX Restaurant] so I have made the necessary adjustment.” Ideally we would also then identify another item, the tax treatment of which was not black and white, and seek the client’s confirmation that tax relief should be claimed, thus reducing their tax bill by £X.
If a client wants tips from their accountant on how to ‘cheat’ the taxman illegally, they will be disappointed.
If, having resisted any involvement in illegal activity, an accountant leaves their client thinking that they are working for the taxman, their communication skills are letting them down.
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