Retraining Clients When You’ve Taught Them to Abuse You (aka Preventing Costly Schedule Disruptions)
Many CPA firms lament 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 tax, consulting and a zillion other types of projects.) I can’t blame a firm for being frustrated when the team arrives for fieldwork 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 inconsiderate and unprofessional. But is it partly our own fault?
The auditors either leave unable to begin work creating an unexpected hole the middle of what is typically a jam-packed audit season, or the auditors feel compelled to pitch in and “help” the client get ready. But in doing so without a signed change request, the firm will likely end up writing off some if not all of 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… surprised?!? 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 fault, some firms contemplate “policies” that penalize a client for not abiding by the schedule. But is that the best spirit in which to operate to solve this problem? I think not.
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 about your customer’s exact needs and limitations, 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 due dates to specifically state them, why would you think your client will care enough to calculate them so they can honor them?
Don’t ever make the customer calculate 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.
Say what is needed, when, by whom, and in what condition or format.
2. Teach them how.
Do you want to win some points for being extra helpful? And do you want to make sure it’s done right? Of course you do! Frankly, while you could potentially make a few extra bucks helping with this or that, you are probably bursting at the seems over capacity and would rather stay on the original schedule. So proactively help them to get it done and done 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 reminder 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 if there are any issues with having your stuff ready.”
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 ways you can support them to 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 go over budget or delay their project, so that’s why you’re being 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.
One goal in all of this is to gain advance knowledge about any lack of readiness so you can properly manage and adjust your clients’ expectations about price and delivery. And, of course, manage your own scheduling.
Don’t budge on your extra charges for rescheduling or you’ll perpetuate the bad behavior. It takes courage and conviction 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., “we always want to help you stay on budget and on time … help us help you…we have your best interests at heart”) and present as someone sitting on the same side of the table with them rather than punitive, clients can respect and appreciate you in the process of following your approach to serving them.