My last blog, “The Customer Is Always Right,” alluded to some problems in not having the right client, so I wanted to write a blog about some ways you could identify the right client before you even let them in the door.
Good business is based on good relationships, and I can’t think of many other industries beyond accounting which has a stronger need for trust on which to build that relationship. Money is a highly personal issue, and believe me, financial issues are close to people’s hearts, and you can’t keep a lot of secrets from your accountants. We’re digging around in your underwear drawer for sure.
Because of this deep need for trust and transparency, it’s important that the accountant and client are a good match. It’s critical for success. And I don’t care how good of an accountant (or lawyer, marketing consultant, dentist, IT professional, etc.) you are, if you are mismatched with a client, nobody is coming out on top… particularly you.
Some of the best advice I ever got was when one of my colleagues (@Joey_B) told me that he determines whether or not to take on a customer based on whether or not he would enjoy going out and having a beer with him. I love that and take it to heart when we’re deciding with whom we want to work. (Coincidentally, I just read a great blog post from one of our Kiwi colleagues (RightWay) who recommends being able to go have a beer with your accountant as one of the top traits of what makes a good accountant.)
Here are some red flags I’ve picked up along the way that help determine that a customer may not be a good fit for your business:
Price Sensitivity - every service business has seen one of these. You get a call from someone who looked you up in the Yellow Pages (do the Yellow Pages still exist?), and the first question out of their mouth is “how much do you charge?” Now, don’t get me wrong, price is an important question, and it’s good to be price conscious. However, the right client’s first question should be, “Can you fix my problem?” If the first question they ask is how much you charge, they are looking at you like an easily replaceable commodity, and as soon as someone else offers a better deal, they’re jumping ship. Save your time and energy for the people who appreciate what you have to offer.
Track Record - how many professionals did the business burn through before they finally got to you? If one of the first things the business owner tells you is that they have had a dozen people just like you trying to help them in the past year or two, this can be a big red flag. Yes, it’s possible that they’ve had a run of bad luck in picking out the wrong people, but a track record like this typically tells me that the business 1) is extremely hard to please or 2) is extremely hard to work with. There may be an exception if they’ve historically been picking the wrong person for the job (i.e., they’ve had their Aunt Martha filing their taxes instead of a CPA), but I would still proceed with caution. Don’t let your ego lure you into believing you can solve all their problems. This is likely about them, not you, and no matter how good you are, you’ll probably come up short in their eyes.
Failing Business - in my industry, this is a double-edged sword. It’s not uncommon that failing businesses come to us looking for help. This tells me they’ve realized that tracking finances is critical to the business, so they’re at least on the right path. But the bigger problem is that they’ll often come too late, and they’re unable to pay for the services they need to fix the problem. The danger is that taking on a client such as this is that you end up doing a lot of work in the beginning (perhaps at discounted rates because you feel sorry for them) only to see the company go out of business before you have enough time to save the sinking ship. Don’t discount your rates, and consider the risks before taking on this type of a client.
Quick to Blame - it’s important to listen to how people talk about the businesses they own. If they take credit for their successes and kick around blame for their failures, run screaming. This is someone who will blame you when things go wrong in their business, and in extreme cases, may run up your legal fees in doing so.
We always take the time to interview our customers as much as they’re interviewing us before we agree to work together. We are looking for long, deep relationships, and in our opinion, if we find we’re not a good match, even if it’s just personality-wise, it’s best to discover that before the work begins instead of at the end. If your stomach hurts when you see your client calling, they’re not the right client.
But even with all that said, you will have errors in judgement from time to time. So if you do find that you’ve taken on the wrong client, don’t make your mistake worse by keeping them. It’s *your* business, and you get to choose who you let in the door. You likely started your own business so you could be in charge of your destiny, so why would you want to allow the wrong people or situations to invade your time? Cut bait and make space in your business to be filled up by the right clients, and you’ll have a happier and healthier business.