Client service lessons I learned from a terrible accountant

Years ago, when I went from freelancing on the side to working with clients full-time, I needed an accountant — someone with expertise in taxes and finance who could help incorporate my business and sort out my accounting.

Another freelancer recommended a local accountant, who at first seemed nice and knowledgeable. We met and I hired her.

It didn’t go well.

After years of working with my own clients, I was suddenly on the other side. I learned first-hand how it feels to work with someone who didn’t treat me well. I felt like I wasted my money and didn’t get the help I needed. And so, within a few months, I moved on for another accountant.

But the upside from this unpleasant experience was that it taught me some valuable lessons about how I should work with my own clients in the future.

Here are four lessons my bad accountant taught me:

1. Explain how things will work

After my accountant and I started working together, I started getting calls from her assistant — someone I’d never met — who made random requests for financial documents. I didn’t know what they were for or why my accountant needed them. They never bothered to explain.

What I realized then was that after our initial meeting, I never got a clear picture of what working together would be like. How often would we talk? What would they need from me every month? Who would I be working with most of the time? What was I expected to do to keep this professional relationship working smoothly?

I was in the dark, expected to understand how business accounting worked. My accountant never made an effort to walk me through what to expect and how we’d work together. I never felt a sense of confidence or comfort about how it was working.

And, I realized, I hoped I never left my clients feeling this way.

Lesson learned: Always take a few minutes to help explain your process to a client — walk them through how everything will work: expectations for both sides, timelines for getting things done, and how often to expect regular check-ins. It never hurts to over-communicate with clients and keep them up-to-date on what’s going on and what’s coming up.

2. No surprises

One of the big decisions my accountant walked me through in our first meeting was whether to keep my business as a sole proprietorship or create an S-Corporation. She recommended the latter, but neglected to warn me about some of the trade-offs for changing to an S-Corp in the middle of the year.

The following year, this decision came back to haunt me when we were looking to buy a house — the mid-year shift to an S-Corp created some major tax complications that jeopardized our ability to get a mortgage and almost lost us the chance to get a house we really wanted for our family. It worked out in the end, but only after a lot of stress. Had my accountant given me a complete picture of the pros and cons of the decision, I might have reconsidered.

Lesson learned: Your job is to help solve clients’ problems, not create new ones. Don’t let them discover, like I did, that there are significant potential downsides to one of your recommendations. Clients count on you for your experience and expertise, but always take time to explain to them the costs and benefits of different options. Don’t let them be surprised down the road when your recommendations lead to problems that might have been foreseeable.

3. Be responsive and available

Sometimes I’d email my accountant with questions and not hear back for days. More than once I emailed her twice before I got a response. I wasn’t sure if she’d received the emails or just hadn’t bothered to respond. Even if she couldn’t answer my question right away, I’d have felt better knowing she got my message and would be back in touch soon.

Lesson learned: Being responsive to clients is as basic as it gets when it comes to customer service. Always get back to clients within a day. Even if you can’t completely respond to their question or request, let them know you got their message and give them a clear idea about how soon you’ll be able to help.

4. Don’t make your client feel dumb

When my accountant was about to prepare my corporate tax return, she needed to use my Quickbooks account. She asked me how soon my books would be reconciled so she could get started.

I honestly had no idea what that meant. I had to Google “reconcile books” to try and understand what she needed me to do. And still had no clue.

Even when I explained to her that I wasn’t sure how to do reconciliation, she pointed me to a how-to page on the Quickbooks website. I was still lost and wasted hours trying to do it myself.

Her sense, it seemed, was that this process was so simple and obvious that she didn’t really need to go into it. In her mind, this was obviously something I was supposed to handle myself and she would take care of the rest. But I wound up feeling like an idiot who needed a second accountant to help me work with the first accountant. This was probably the last straw. I stopped working with her the next month.

Lesson learned: What’s easy or obvious for you may be hard or unintuitive for your client. Don’t treat them like a fool for not knowing what you know. We all have different skills. Be clear about what work you’re responsible for and what you’re not — but offer to help them with some of those other things, even if you have to charge them more.

My experience with my old accountant taught me, above all else, to have empathy for my clients. Keep in mind the stresses, worries, and pressures they’re facing, and treat them the way you’d want to be treated.

In the end, that’s just as important as anything else you’re doing for them. Maybe more.