Managing client expectations begins with understanding your own limitations. That’s no small feat for accountants who are constantly under pressure to meet certain deadlines. Promises made at the beginning of a client relationship often get broken unintentionally as the work progresses. The key to avoiding that is to give yourself extra margin, but that’s not possible when you’re already overextended.
Step 1: Understand your own limitations
Every accountant or accounting firm should know how many clients they can handle, especially when it comes to small businesses. This can get sticky around tax time when the temptation is there to take on extra work. You can work more hours during your “busy season” to compensate for the added workload, but how much does that take away from existing clients? Losing a $50,000 client because you took on a $200 tax filing is probably not a sound business strategy. Know your limitations and learn to say “no” when you need to.
If you use accounting tools that help you save time, you might be able to expand your client base without overextending. For example, the Bluevine accountant dashboard allows you to manage all of your Bluevine clients from one convenient platform.
Step 2: Set realistic expectations with small business clients
There’s a difference between telling the client what they want to hear and telling them the truth. The former will invariably get you into hot water at some point. The latter could be unpleasant for them to listen to, but honesty is the foundation that long-term relationships are built on. Overpromising can land you the account in your first conversation. Under-delivering will surely cause you to lose it before the next billing cycle. Set realistic expectations with clients that you know you can follow through on.
Step 3: Establish clear boundaries with your clients
Phone calls in the middle of the night and impromptu office visits are not conducive to productivity. A discussion about boundaries should be part of the “expectations” conversation. Let your client know what your office hours are and when you’re available for a phone call. Emphasize the value of email communication and let them know that scheduling an appointment will give them your undivided attention. For best results, use an online scheduling tool that connects to your calendar.
Step 4: Set up a project-based timeline
Preparing financial statements for a business owner and doing his or her personal tax return are two separate projects. Combining them into a single timeline can cause unmanageability in an accounting firm. Treat them as two different tasks when meeting with the client, because that’s what they are. A project-based approach is easier to manage on a calendar and it’s simpler to bill. In the event of an audit, it also keeps personal and business records in separate files, so there’s no need to sort.
Step 5: Discuss milestones and deliverables
This is an important step that is too often overlooked in small business accounting. Simply taking on a job and agreeing to a final delivery date leaves a vast gap of time in which the client and accountant don’t communicate. There’s no relationship building when you do it that way. Setting up milestones and deliverables keeps your client in the loop and establishes regular communication that can lead to long-term business for your accounting firm. It also helps you avoid misunderstandings that can derail a client relationship if left to the end of the process.
Step 6: Ask the right questions in client meetings
Accounting may just be math to people in the outside world, but accounting professionals understand that the business is all about keeping the client happy. To do that, you need to know what they’re thinking, how they live their lives, how they operate their business, and what their long-term financial goals are. What’s considered “too personal” in other fields is essential information for an accountant. It’s perfectly normal to ask about family, job situation, and marital status. They’re all fields on a tax return.
Step 7: Always ask for referrals
This may seem a bit out of place in this article. Asking for referrals is part of meeting client expectations. First off, they expect you to do it. Accountants who don’t ask for referrals are either maxed out on the number of clients they can take on or concerned about what their current clients will say to friends and family. On the flip side of that, asking for a referral and getting one is a clear indication that you’re meeting client expectations. Congratulations on a job well done.