Retraining Clients When You’ve Taught Them to Abuse You

by | Dec 22, 2017 | Customer Experience, Growth & Profit, Pricing Strategies

Ah. The costly schedule disruption. Every CPA firm laments clients not being ready when work is supposed to start. For example, the firm’s audit team cannot proceed if PBC (Prepared-By-Client) documents haven’t been completed and tied out, as promised. It’s more than just inconsiderate and unprofessional, it creates a schedule disruption with big financial impact.

But, did you know it’s partly the firm’s own fault? I’ll explain. And I’ll discuss how to prevent this going forward by retraining your clients.

How we train customers to abuse us

I’ll use audit fieldwork as an example, but the concepts apply to any service. When a client isn’t ready, you’re unable to begin the work you specifically scheduled. When this happens, most firms take one of two approaches: 1) walk away and create an unexpected hole (unscheduled capacity) the middle of a jam-packed audit season with little room to add the shifted work in anywhere else, or 2) auditors feel compelled to pitch in to “help” the client get ready. But in doing #2 without a signed change request, the firm either ends up writing off some or all of the work. Or worse, the firm will later “bill and duck” for the work at high risk of angering the client.

If you took approach #2 and wrote off any of the work, you may have just trained your customer they can abuse you. You’ve shown them they can ignore the PBC list and your deadline but that you’ll handle it for them. And not even charge them for some or all of it. Then next year, when the client is not ready again, the firm is… surprised?!? Don’t be. The repeat of this behavior is largely the firm’s fault.

How to “retrain” and fix this

The best way to correct this is by teaching the client that their pre-work and schedule aren’t “wish for” they are “musts” as terms for the engagement price you’ve both agreed to. These specifications can be flexible but not without upfront communication. And at all times, THEY have complete control in how they proceed.

There are much better ways to set expectations and prevent such scheduling disruptions for 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

Feeling taken advantage of, some firms contemplate “policies” that are described as penalizing the client for not abiding by the schedule. But that’s not the best spirit in which to operate to solve this problem. It creates friction between buyer and seller.

I’m not the least bit against a monetary consequence for lack of readiness. In fact, I believe work timing should play a huge role in your prices. But there’s a good way to position this, and a bad way to position it.

It’s not hospitable to shove a 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. Project timing, or at least the delivery of it, is usually very important to customers, so it’s a great variable to use when you want to build choices into your proposals.

When it comes to the customer’s ability to do their prework in advance at the quality level you need, you can also build in variables for them that affect price. Educate them where it is helpful to both of you, and offer to do everything possible to help them be ready for you on the day you are going to show up to begin work.

The best tone to take with all of this is: “help us help you.”

1. Give exact dates

Be very, very clear about timing in your project quotes (or statements of work or customer-service agreements — whatever you call them). Many firms take a lazy approach and say things like “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 spell them out explicitly, why would your client will care enough to calculate them? Don’t ever make the customer calculate due dates! They won’t. Make it easy for them. Do the legwork. State what is needed, when, and in what condition and format.

Then include a visual to call attention to key dates like the example here. Don’t just bury deadlines in your document’s text.

Project Timeline




2. Teach them “how to”

Want to win points for being extra helpful? And do you want to make sure it’s done right? Of course you do! Frankly, while you could make a few extra bucks helping with this or that at the last minute, you’re probably bursting at the seams with work and would rather stay on the original schedule. So help them well in advance to be equipped to get their part 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 to offer as an option in your initial pricing. Perhaps at the right price level, new clients get to attend the first one “gratis” (meaning you’ve built it in to the price). Or the client gets one “complimentary” admission included and additional people are extra.

3. Provide reminders, early and often

Customers appreciate reminder phone calls, and emails. Reminders show you’re on top of things, care where they stand and want to help, and emphasize that you’re serious about timing and readiness.

Your admin team can handle all the reminders 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.”

Remind them that they will want to give sufficient notice if they would like to reschedule so there is no rescheduling charge—we want to help you stay on time and on budget. This puts all the control in their hands.

Of course there can and should be a consequence to not being ready after all the clarity above, the education or templates, and friendly reminders. But there’s no reason to make it sound punitive when we can present it as 100% their choice throughout selling and performing the work.

4. Be crystal clear

Be crystal clear, in advance, about any extra charges. Don’t just say “all extra stuff is $x an hour” or “TBD.” You know what the typical “extra projects” are when clients aren’t ready. List them along with exact dollar amounts (estimate on the outside/high— you can always lower it in the moment, but not raise it). If finite pre-prices make you very uncomfortable, at least indicate: “Bank reconciliations start at $x each, quotes on request.”

A huge reason to be specific is that vague amounts are easy for buyers to gloss over when signing your contract, but finite amounts inform them how much more they will be on the hook for if they ignore their responsibilities. This encourages them to make the right decision and do what they are supposed to. It also makes any change orders much faster and easier for you.

Lastly, this practice is a great CYA so you won’t be thrown under the bus by accounting managers/controllers who go over budget. It’s pretty hard to avoid blame and tell the boss “the accounting firm hit us with a bunch of extra charges” when your proposal says what wasn’t included in your price and how much extra it would be if they needed it.

You could 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 bad customer behavior. It takes courage and conviction to stick to our guns during the retraining process, but its the only way to correct the problems we have created and to be taken seriously in the future. 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 yourself as someone sitting on the same side of the table with them rather than an adversary, clients respect and appreciate your transparent approach to serving them.

This is modified from 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.


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