Retraining Clients When You’ve Taught Them to Abuse You (aka Preventing Costly Schedule Disruptions)

Retraining Clients When You’ve Taught Them to Abuse You (aka Preventing Costly Schedule Disruptions)

Rogue 24 is a new DC restaurant that is apparently so worried about no-shows that it has a two-page contract for would-be patrons. Their terms require payment for cancellations within 72 hours among other (obnoxious) things. For some, the sense of exclusivity (and jerkiness) might actually be a draw, but last time I checked, restaurants were considered part of the “hospitality” industry and there is nothing hospitable about their approach.

I know a lot of CPA firms who are sick to death of clients not being ready for them when they show up for audit fieldwork. (This post uses audit as an example, but the concepts apply to consulting, website development, and a zillion other types of projects.)

I can’t blame a firm for being frustrated when the audit team arrives for fieldwork day one and the advance PBC (prepared-by-client) list has not been completed. It’s expensive and it’s disruptive. And let’s face it, it’s pretty inconsiderate of you and your time which is unprofessional.

The auditors either leave with unanticipated open time in the middle of what is typically a jam-packed audit season, or they simply begin to “help” the client get ready. But in doing so without a signed change request, the firm will likely end up writing off the work. Or worse, the firm will later “bill and duck” for this work at high risk of angering the client.

And next year, when the client is not ready again, the firm is … wait for it … surprised. And annoyed.

Congrats to this firm—they have successfully trained the client that the PBC list and the work schedule aren’t important enough to be respected or adhered to.

Feeling taken advantage of, and still not realizing it’s partly their own fault, some firms contemplate “policies” that penalize a client for not abiding by the schedule. Perhaps they resemble Rogue 24’s policy, and seem just as welcoming?

There are much better ways to set expectations and prevent such scheduling disruptions whether for audits or any work that needs to be organized well in advance with appropriately skilled people during very specific time periods.

Sit on the same side of the table as your customer.

I’m not the least bit against a monetary penalty for lack of readiness. In fact, I believe timing of work should play a huge role in determining your prices. Timing is usually critical to the client and duration (a maximum) is nearly always going to be essential to your profitability.

But it’s not hospitable to shove an ugly contract in your current or prospective customer’s face demanding compliance with your terms. Doing so creates an adversarial relationship with the customer. (Sorta like billing and ducking does.)

Instead, put some energy into learning details about your customer’s exact needs, educating them where it is helpful to both of you, and doing everything possible to help them be ready for you on the day you are going to show up to begin that work.

The best tone to take is “help us help you.”

1. Give exact dates.

Be very, very clear about timing in your project quotes (or proposals or statements of work or customer-service agreements — whatever you choose to call them). Many firms take a lazy approach and simply say “30 days before the reporting date” or “30 days after fiscal year end.”

Egads, if you don’t care enough about the dates to list them, why would you think your client will care enough to honor them?

Don’t ever make the customer calculate any “PBC” due dates! They won’t.

Do the legwork and tell them the actual dates. Better yet, include a visual. Show them key dates, don’t just bury them in text.

Project Timeline




Say what is needed, when, by whom, and delivered to whom.

2. Teach them how.

Do you want to win some points for being extra helpful? And do have you have an ulterior motive to make sure it’s done right? Of course you do! And that’s all right.

Informally talk with them. Show them samples. Provide templates.

Maybe you can offer some formal classes on preparing PBC list items. Education is a terrific complimentary service that you could offer as part of the engagement or charge extra for it. Perhaps new clients get to attend the first one free. Or every client gets one admission included and additional people are extra.

3. Provide reminders. Early and often.

Customers appreciate your reminder postcards, phone calls, and emails. They show you care and they emphasize that you’re serious about timing and readiness.

This can be done by your admin team on a systematic schedule: a week before fieldwork, two weeks before, 30 days before, 60 days before, etc.

“How’s your PBC list coming along?” “Do you have any questions for us?” “Don’t forget, we’ll be there Monday the 23rd.” “Call us right away if you have any concerns about being ready two weeks from tomorrow. Now’s the time to let us know!”

4. Show you’re serious.

Of course there can and should be a stated consequence to lack of readiness if that should occur after all the education and reminders.

In your project quotes, describe how you’ll do everything in your power to help them be ready. Show you are committed to helping them help you help them (did you follow that?). Tell them you share their goal for a successful project and that in order to meet their desired delivery timing, these [list] things need to happen on these [list] dates.

Tell them that in the unfortunate event that you don’t get adequate notice about a date change (two weeks might be reasonable for adjusting an audit schedule) that there will be a $1,000 (or $5,000 or $10,000) rescheduling charge and that their audit would then need to be bumped back to the end of the month (or quarter or year).

And be very clear, in advance, about extra charges (state how much they’ll pay for commonly delayed items) for assisting onsite with incomplete PBC work if you even have the time available to perform the work and still meet the agreed-upon delivery timing. This makes obtaining approved change requests a lot easier because the pricing was already spelled out.

When you provide your reminders, remind them that you don’t want them to incur these charges or delay their audit and that’s why you’re being such a stickler about timing.

You can also consider offering rewards for readiness such as “customers who are ready for us will get priority scheduling next year” with first pick of dates which, of course, implies the opposite as a consequence for lack of readiness.

Training is hard and retraining is harder.

What you are trying to do with all of this is to gain advance knowledge about lack of readiness so you can properly manage and adjust your clients’ expectations about price and delivery. And, of course, manage your own scheduling (second to managing client expectations).

Don’t budge on your extra charges or rescheduling. Just like parenting, it takes confidence and guts to stick to our guns during the retraining process, but we have to do it to correct the problems we have created and to be taken seriously. The very first time you are inconsistent, you defeat your purpose and have to start all over again.

If you apply these principles with “love” and care (e.g., “it’s for your benefit … we don’t want you to go over budget … help us help you”) by sitting on the same side of the table rather than coming across as though they work for you, clients can respect and appreciate you in the process of following your approach to serving them.

And they might even prefer to dine with you.


This is a repeat of a popular article from my Golden Practices blog (originally posted in 2011) which has many other articles on customer servicepricing and lots of other CPA-firm topics.

Firms’ Reasons for Changing Pricing Models have Shifted from Years Past

My friend and colleague Gale Crosley kindly featured an article I wrote in her excellent Crosley+Company Business Discipline of Practice Growth newsletter last week.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

In the early days of new-model exploration, CPAs saw “value pricing” as an opportunity to lift the artificial revenue ceiling “hours X rates” creates. Others defaulted to fixed prices because they detested timekeeping or did it so poorly their bills were just guesses, anyway. Some felt it was a more ethical or appropriate way to price—that a seller should be able to answer a buyer asking “how much will this cost?”—not expecting clients to hand them blank checks. And others figured up-front pricing would be a competitive differentiator. These motivators still exist, but we have new factors at play now, as well.

I also highlight some outcomes from those early adopters and then talk about what it is that partners are telling me this year that’s quite different from before. I don’t want to give a spoiler but it has a lot to do with creating a business advisor culture.

Check out the full article on Gale’s site here: Are You Ready to Change Your Pricing Model Yet?
Or view PDF if you’re having trouble with the link.

Accounting Today Podcast Featuring Michelle Golden on Pricing in Advance

This week’s Accounting Today podcast is a 19-minute interview of yours truly by editor-in-chief, Dan Hood.

We cover:

  • the 4 elements of Advanced Pricing (also reference this blog post: What Exactly Are Advanced Pricing Methods)
  • how you benefit from giving multiple price options
  • the difference between billing and pricing
  • why the word “value” has baggage
  • some problems with traditional pricing methods
  • why it feels so bad to “bill and duck” & how to stop
  • some ways to get started pricing in advance
  • what 3 skills to build to be ready to use these methods
  • what I’ve learned working “inside” at KCoe Isom and with other large firms about institutionalizing pricing in advance
  • what led me to start Fore LLC

Check out Accounting Today’sA primer on the new pricing” podcast.

What Exactly are Advanced Pricing Methods?

What Exactly are Advanced Pricing Methods?

Advanced Pricing Methods℠ (APM) is a term I coined to encompass techniques that I teach professionals to use to price knowledge work before the work is performed. Key is presenting the work in such a way that the focus is on the worth of outcomes and results of the sellers’ solutions, rather than a list of activities and tasks the seller will undertake. My methods include learning how to incorporate options into offerings, significant attention to defining scope, and ways to engage in deeper dialogue with the buyer about what’s important to them, and discovering why or why not.

With APM, the buyer has certainty in price and a welcomed sense of control in the initial purchase as well as when accepting additional work that is also pre-priced. And with APM, once both buyer and seller have a strong sense of WHY the work is going to be done; they can agree on the worth. The buyer agrees to a price worth paying for their defined outcomes, and the firm agrees it’s worth doing the work for that price associated with their thoughtfully defined scope.

When would you rather know the buyer is happy with your price, before you do the work, or after?

Pricing in advance is not a foreign concept to CPAs who have pre-priced audit and certain other work for years, but it’s usually with the caveat that the price is just an estimate and will be adjusted if “actual” work took longer than the CPA firm originally thought. Long-term fallout from having this built-in “cushion” potential, firms simply aren’t careful about overages. But with that comes a handful of consequences that include having to choose between suffering unchecked profit-margin erosion or risking damage to customer relationships from hitting them up to pay “surprise” bills after work was already performed. I call this “billing and ducking.” As someone who did it, too (once upon a time when I used to charge hourly rates), billing and ducking was exactly what it felt like to send that bill and hope beyond hope that they wouldn’t be upset, they’d just pay it. What a terrible way to feel (on both ends). And I knew it was a lousy way to do business and that it compromised my buyers’ trust in me when I did that.

The biggest difference between pseudo pre-pricing (with after-the-fact adjustments) and Advanced Pricing Methods℠ is that APM eliminates surprises. When price certainty is adhered to, customer trust is not only preserved, it increases.

I suspect that the ability to rely on a back-up plan of billing overages after the fact has led to an unfortunate skill deficit: most firms lack people with highly developed project-management skills—skills that start with really good project definition—which is the number one way to prevent scope creep. Great project management corrects much of that margin-erosion problem even if work isn’t priced in advance. And it becomes essential when the firm commits to absorbing overage risks instead of transferring the risk onto the buyer. It also improves communications for managing expectations, both with the customer and among your team members. APM will enhance your project management skills, too.

My Advanced Pricing Methods℠ teach:

  • How to ascertain the most valuable part of what you do
  • How to identify scope risks and head them off at the pass (leading to better project definition for better project management)
  • How and why to offer multiple price options instead of a single price
  • How to use your options as a key scope-management tool
  • How to anticipate and easily capture extra revenue for the additional work that arises
  • Why it’s advantageous to put your customers in control of their purchases


Is your firm ready for Advanced Pricing Methods℠? Some firms institutionalize it, and others pilot with an industry group or two. No two firms are the same. And lots of CPAs just want to learn the methods and “go rogue” practicing the techniques one proposal at a time.

Either way, let’s talk.