Dealing With Difficult Clients
Do you have issues with establishing trust or understanding difficult clients? Are difficult clients making your job more stressful?
As accountants, we’ve all come across clients who are hard to handle, especially if you’re in public accounting. Some might not realize that their demands exceed their budget, while others expect us to work magic with incomplete information or jump at their every beck and call.
The issue is that, if we don’t handle these situations well, we risk losing clients, the referrals they may bring, and our sanity. It might seem unfair, but dealing with difficult clients is a common part of being an accountant, especially in a service-based industry like ours.
Even if you carefully choose your clients or have had good relationships with them in the past, you can still encounter challenging clients. It doesn’t matter if your accounting practice is big or small or serves different types of businesses – dealing with difficult clients is something many of us face in the accounting world.
Although not all clients are problematic, when issues arise, they can take a toll on your emotions, time, and effort. Handling difficult clients, regardless of how good you are at your job, can unfortunately affect your ability to get work done and increase your level of stress.
In today’s challenging times, even clients who were easy to work with before might become more problematic. That’s why it’s essential to be ready for dealing with difficult clients because if your clients are stressed, they might pose more challenges for you as their accountant.
Another important reason you need to learn how to deal with difficult clients is because when emotions run high, your intelligence gets low. The truth is that stress impacts your ability to manage your workload, stay productive, and maintain your technical skills.
While you can take steps like pre-qualifying new clients or having clear engagement letters, there’s no guaranteed way to filter out challenging clients. Unfortunately, there’s no magic system to ensure you always work with cooperative, patient, or appreciative clients.
Since it’s not always wise or possible to let go of difficult clients, it’s essential to learn how to handle them effectively. So stay tuned because I’ll be sharing tools that can help you manage all your clients, whether they’re challenging or not.
This way, you can support both your business’s success and theirs.
Understanding Different Types of Challenging Clients
I’ve been in public accounting for over 30 years so I’ve had my fair share of dealing with challenging clients. In my experience, there are generally four types of difficult clients:
Clients Dissatisfied with the Work Produced: Some clients might not be happy with the financial reports, statements, tax bill, or other work you provide. They could question projections, dispute numbers, or even challenge decisions, making it a bit tricky to meet their expectations. These clients also challenge their bill for services.
For example, despite sending preliminary financials to a client before preparing their tax return, I’ve had clients argue that their non-deductible entertainment expenses should be on their return. I’ve even had clients try to have me take their child’s tuition as a continuing education deduction. And I’ve had clients who doubled the scope of work but then argued why the bill was more than the year before.
Clients Dissatisfied with the Pace of Work: Certain clients always want things done quickly, regardless of the time of year or the information they provide. They might expect you to perform like a magician, completing tasks at their preferred speed, which can add pressure to your workflow.
For example, I’ve had clients make a request and expect immediate results. They’ve known about a refinance with a bank for a month, but then tell us about it at the last minute and expect us to work miracles.
Clients Dissatisfied with Professional Opinions: In some situations, clients seek your professional opinion on financial matters. However, when you provide advice that doesn’t align with their expectations, they might get upset or disagree. Handling such differences in opinion can be challenging.
For example, I’ve had clients who sought advice on various business decisions and their tax implications. Despite advising against it, they proceed anyway. However, when later faced with an undesirable outcome, they blame us for not stopping them from making the mistake.
Clients Who Wait Until the Last Minute: We all have those clients who consistently wait until the eleventh hour to submit crucial information. Dealing with these last-minute demands can be stressful, especially when they become increasingly demanding on top of their lateness.
For example, I’ve had clients who consistently submit crucial tax information at the eleventh hour. Their last-minute demands disrupt our workflow, causing stress and making it challenging to meet deadlines without compromising quality.
No matter which type of difficult client you’re dealing with – one dissatisfied with the work produced, with the pace of work, with your professional opinion or one who waits until the last minute – it’s important to recognize that facing difficult clients is a shared experience among accountants. Regardless of the size of your practice or the diversity of businesses you serve, challenging clients will always be a normal part of the journey.
In an ideal world, all clients would be easy to work with, appreciative, and patient. However, the reality is that various factors can contribute to clients becoming difficult.
Economic uncertainties, changes in their business, difficult personalities, or personal challenges can transform once easy-going clients into more problematic ones. But thankfully, understanding these major categories of difficult clients helps you prepare for potential challenges.
By being aware of these common scenarios, you can develop strategies to navigate through them more effectively. Stay tuned because in a minute I’m going to dive into the reasons behind the stress associated with difficult clients and explore a tool to help you manage these challenges and maintain a healthy balance in your professional and personal life.
Your Brain’s Role In Understanding Stress with Difficult Clients
No matter what the situation is with a difficult client, it’s crucial to understand your brain’s role when it comes to stress. The most important thing for you to understand is that it’s never the client’s behavior that creates the feeling of stress; it’s only ever your brain that is creating the feeling of stress.
It’s essential to recognize that the stress you experience isn’t directly caused by what your clients do; rather, it comes from your thoughts about what your clients do. In other words, if a client questions a financial report, the stress you feel is only coming from your thoughts about the fact that they questioned the financial report.
The client’s words are neutral and don’t mean anything until your brain makes them mean something. And thankfully, what you decide to make something mean is completely up to you.
The truth is that understanding why clients seem difficult really isn’t about the clients themselves; it’s about your thoughts about them and your desire for them to be different. It might be a tough idea to accept, but trust me, it can significantly change how you handle challenging clients, especially those who aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting you keep clients who are being difficult or disrespectful. There are times when walking away is absolutely the right move for your well-being. What I am saying is that when you feel stressed about someone, whether it’s a client or someone else, it’s because you’re resisting how they are.
How would you know if you’re resisting how they are? When you find yourself feeling more anger or frustration towards that person. It’s crucial to realize that your feelings of anger and frustration stem from thoughts about how that person should change their behavior; how they shouldn’t be the way they are.
The problem is that when you resist your clients’ behavior, it’s like pushing against a heavy door that refuses to open – it leads to stress, frustration and anger. Resisting how your clients act can create a feeling of being stuck, amplifying stress in the process.
And when you feel stressed, frustrated, or angry you cannot take effective action, especially when it comes to getting accounting work done. You end up wasting time and energy that could be put to better use.
If you’re not aware of the thoughts that your brain typically offers when it comes to dealing with difficult clients, see if any of these sound familiar:
“They should know better; this is basic accounting!”
“Why can’t they provide the information I need on time?”
“I’m the expert here, why don’t they listen to my advice?”
“Waiting until the last minute is so unprofessional!”
“What is wrong with them?”
Here’s the thing – these seemingly harmless thoughts act as stress triggers, setting off a chain reaction of emotional distress. In other words, your brain subtly suggests that things should be different, and when they aren’t, stress creeps in, affecting your emotional well-being and especially your productivity.
Recognizing that your thoughts play a pivotal role in shaping your emotional response to difficult clients is a crucial first step in managing stress effectively.
A Game-Changing Tool for Navigating Difficult Clients
Now I want to share a powerful tool that can transform the way you handle challenging clients. This might be the first time you’re really examining your interactions with difficult clients, and that’s an excellent starting point.
Complaining about these challenging clients probably hasn’t been working well for you. Luckily, there’s a much better approach.
In my studies to become a Professional Certified Coach for Accountants, I learned the valuable tool called “The Manual,” taught by The Life Coach School. The concept behind The Manual is simple: we all have these unwritten rules or instructions in our minds for how we believe others should behave.
We all have Manuals for our children, partner, family, and friends. There’s nothing to be ashamed of because every single one of us has them.
For example, my Manuals have covered what my children should and shouldn’t do to make me feel like a good mom, how my ex-husband should behave for co-parenting harmony, and even what my boss should stop doing to prevent my frustration. Naturally, my Manuals extended to how my clients should behave to ensure I can do their work without stress.
The key understanding here is that your unwritten rules for how difficult clients should behave is what’s contributing to feelings of anger and frustration because you wish they were different. But the truth is, no matter what you think, clients will act the way they do, whether you resist it or not.
As adults, we all have free will to behave however we want to behave. Wishing someone was different is arguing with reality.
Speaking of arguing with reality, one of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Byron Katie – “When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100% of the time.” The Manuals we have for other people are setting us up to lose.
It’s also important to point out that your clients also have their Manuals for you. Their Manual for their accountant might include expectations like “My accountant should be okay with me handing in documents whenever I can,” “My accountant should agree with my brilliant ideas,” or “My accountant shouldn’t charge me more.”
The reality is, they’re acting based on their Manual for you, while you’re frustrated that they’re not following your Manual for them.
The hard truth is you can’t change your clients, just like you can’t change anyone else. In any relationship, you can make requests, but it’s crucial not to tie your emotional peace to someone else’s behavior.
The main reason we all have unwritten instructions for how we believe other people should behave is because of how we think it would make us feel if they did what we wanted them to do. The problem is that we are then putting our emotions in someone else’s hands.
For example, if my son texts me back right away, I’ll feel connected. But if he doesn’t, I’ll feel frustrated or disappointed.
In other words, I’m making him responsible for my feelings based on my unwritten rules for him. The same thing goes for our relationship with our clients; if they follow our rules, we feel respected, but if they don’t, we feel stressed.
By becoming aware of your Manuals, you regain the power to feel less angry, frustrated, and stressed.
One effective strategy I adopted was to view difficult clients as innocent toddlers. You wouldn’t take it personally or see it as wrong when a toddler falls while learning to walk or throws a tantrum; it’s just part of their development.
Applying a similar perspective to difficult clients helped me navigate challenges.
For example, with a notoriously late and difficult client, I changed my mindset: “He always sends his tax information late. That’s just what he does.” Holding onto anger and frustration year after year was a waste of my time and energy, driven by the Manual I had for him.
It didn’t stop me from making requests that he hand in his information on time; I just didn’t hang my emotions on him being any different than he is. It also didn’t stop me from setting boundaries and letting him know that if his information was late, he would automatically go on extension.
I just didn’t have the mind drama that he should be any different than he is.
So, if you find yourself angry or frustrated with a client, recognize that what upsets you is not their behavior, it’s your belief about how they should act. Acknowledge that you have limited control over changing that, and practice thinking a thought that helps you accept who they are.
For example, “This is just Mary being Mary” or “Of course, Joe didn’t listen to me.” The less you blame difficult clients for how you feel, the easier it will be for you to feel how you want, no matter how anyone else behaves.
When you release your Manuals for difficult clients, you also open yourself up to evaluating your policies and procedures. Perhaps there are certain boundaries that need to be established or changes on your end that you hadn’t considered.
Setting effective boundaries with clear consequences might be something you need to consider.
Here’s the thing – in these challenging times, don’t be surprised if you encounter more difficult clients. However, armed with awareness and a willingness to work on how you think about them, you now have a valuable tool to navigate through anyone, at any time.
Becoming a Smarter Accountant: Effectively Dealing With Difficult Clients
As we wrap up this episode, let’s talk about what it means to become a smarter, more resilient accountant.
The truth is that difficult clients are not a rarity; they are a shared experience among accountants. Whether it’s a client who thinks you should be available 24/7 or one who notoriously argues about their bill, these challenges are inherent to the profession.
Accepting this reality is the first step toward developing effective coping strategies. There will always be difficult clients, but you do not have to let them derail your efforts to be an effective, successful professional.
Becoming a Smarter Accountant involves recognizing the role of emotional intelligence in client relationships. Understanding that the feeling of stress only ever comes from our thoughts about clients, rather than their actions, allows for a more composed and strategic approach to challenging situations.
Here’s what I tell my coaching clients – instead of handing your clients the remote control of your emotions, take your power back by learning how to be more intentional with your thoughts.
As I shared, the tool, “The Manual,” will enable you to identify and reshape the unwritten instructions you have for client behavior. By releasing these manuals, you liberate yourself from unnecessary emotional burdens, allowing more constructive interactions with clients.
The truth is that clients don’t have to change in order for you to feel how you want to feel. In fact nothing needs to change in order for you to feel how you want to feel.
A Smarter Accountant learns to view difficult clients through a lens of less frustration, like how you would understand an innocent toddler. Shifting perspectives and approaching challenges with understanding can lead to more meaningful and productive professional relationships.
Another part of becoming a Smarter Accountant is setting realistic expectations. Acknowledge that difficult clients are an inevitable part of the journey, allowing you to approach your work with a sense of preparedness and resilience.
This awareness will help prevent unnecessary disappointment and frustration. Why would you want to prevent unnecessary disappointment and frustration? Because those feelings lead to ineffective action as you’re trying to get your accounting work done.
And lastly, Smarter Accountants are committed to continuous learning and self-evaluation. Reflect on your interactions, especially with challenging clients.
Regularly evaluate your policies and procedures, making adjustments to enhance communication and establish clearer boundaries.
As you integrate some of these insights, you’re not just mastering the art of dealing with difficult clients; you’re fostering a more meaningful and productive approach to your accounting practice.
Navigating the complexities of client relationships is ongoing, and by embracing these strategies, you position yourself to thrive, no matter how many difficult clients you deal with.
Well, that’s what I have for you. Thank you for joining me as I shared how to deal with difficult clients. I hope you’ve gained valuable insights and practical tools.
If you are struggling with any aspect of being an accountant, you can simply go to www.thesmarteraccountant.com/calendar and book a free session with me.
I’ll explain The Smarter Accountant 6-week Program and how you can apply it to whatever you’re struggling with.
Make sure you check back each week as I help you go from being a stressed accountant to a Smarter Accountant.
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The truth is that you’re already smart, but this podcast will show you how to be smarter.