When it comes to the complicated world of being an accountant in 2020, it would seem like there’s enough to have to deal with, with PPP loans, the ever changing Tax Code and economic uncertainty.  It doesn’t seem fair to also have to deal with difficult clients on top of everything else, but in a service based industry like accounting, there’s really no way to avoid it.

Unfortunately, no matter how well you screen potential clients or how long you’ve had a pleasant relationship with them, clients can be difficult at times.  It doesn’t matter how big or small your practice is, or what types of businesses you provide your services to, there is no guarantee that you’re not going to have to deal with difficult clients along the way.

But let’s face it, you naturally wouldn’t be in the business you’re in if all of your clients were challenging, but when you do have client issues, it can be very draining on you emotionally as well as on your time and effort.  No matter how good you are, dealing with a difficult client can take a toll on your productivity and increase your level of stress.

As we are all living in more challenging times than ever, those easy-going clients that may have never been an issue in the past, might start showing up as more problematic than before.  It’s important to be prepared because the more stress your clients are under, the more challenging they might become for you.

Since having a balanced life is probably important to you as well, learning the strategies for dealing with difficult clients can really bring more equilibrium to your work and personal life.  It can be hard to leave your work issues at work, which means difficult clients can often affect how you are at home as well.

As a working mom, when you feel overwhelmed, frustrated or angry with a client, that can often affect your level of stress when you’re with family.  Before you know it, you’re overwhelmed, frustrated and angry at your spouse or children, without seeing the connection between the two.

As an accountant, it’s even more important to learn how to successfully deal with difficult clients because when emotions get high, intelligence gets low.  Being able to manage your workload, your productivity and your technical competency is directly affected by how you feel towards your clients.

You can always pre qualify new clients or have clear engagement letters, but that doesn’t insulate you from having to deal with challenging clients.  Unfortunately there is no magic filtering system to guarantee you’ll always have cooperative, patient, or appreciative clients. 

Since it’s not always prudent or possible to fire difficult clients, it’s important to understand how to handle them in a way that supports your bottom line, as well as theirs.  With the tools I’m going to share, you’ll be able to manage all of your clients, difficult or not. 

This week I’m going to discuss the major categories of difficult clients, the main causes of stress around difficult clients and a tool to help you deal with them.

 
 

The major categories of difficult clients

If you attended an accounting conference and asked for a show of hands of how many accountants had difficult clients, I don’t think there would be many unraised hands.  There are so many ways that clients can get on your last nerve, but here are just a few of the major categories that you might have found:

  • Clients not happy with the work you produced – whether your client knows much about finance and accounting or not, these clients challenge things like the quarterly Financial Statements, the amounts you project for their quarterly estimates or the fact that you didn’t deduct the $50,000 season tickets to their favorite sports team as advertising.
  • Clients not happy with your pace – no matter what time of year it is, or how slowly they send you the information you need, these clients want you to wave a magic wand and have their work done as soon as they decide it should be done.
  • Clients not happy with your opinion – with these clients, there’s usually something they’re considering, they ask you for your opinion, you explain that in your professional opinion that they shouldn’t do or purchase that thing, and they wind up angry with your answer.
  • Clients who wait until the last minute – we all have clients that forget a thing or two every once in a while, but these difficult clients are the ones who are notoriously late and increasingly demanding on top of it.

Most accountants dealing with difficult clients would also describe them as stressful, wearisome, irritating or hard-won.  I’m sure there are plenty more categories and descriptors that you could come up with as well, but there’s no denying it – difficult clients are nothing new to accountants.

What might be new to you though, is a better understanding of what stresses you out about your clients and makes those clients feel so difficult.  If you have been following this podcast, you might already know the answer to “What makes my clients feel so difficult?”, but if not, let me explain.

 
 

The main causes of stress around difficult clients

The key to understanding what makes your clients feel so difficult, actually has nothing to do with the client, and everything to do with your thoughts about the client and how they should be different.  This can be a hard pill to swallow, but I assure you that it can make a huge difference for how you deal with difficult clients, especially the ones that aren’t going anywhere, any time soon.

First let me be clear that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t fire a client that’s being a jerk or one that’s not valuing you as their accountant; there are definitely times when walking away from a difficult client is in your best interest.  But what I am saying, and what I’ll share with you, is that whenever you are feeling stressed about another person, client or not, it’s because you are resisting the way that they are.

You’ll know this is what’s happening when you feel predominantly more anger or frustration towards that person.  It’s important to understand that the reason you feel anger and frustration is because you’re having thoughts about how this person needs to change their behavior and how they shouldn’t be the way they are.

When it comes to your difficult clients, basically you are resisting the way the client is and wishing they would talk, act or behave differently.  When they don’t, you probably have thoughts like:

  • It’s crazy that they want my permission to do something that is blatantly not allowed by the Tax Code!
  • Their impatience is ridiculous and is getting me more frustrated.
  • How rude that they ask for my opinion and then do the complete opposite.
  • It’s ridiculous that they wait until the last minute and then expect me to get it done right away.

I’m sure you could add a lot more to this list of possible thoughts about difficult clients, but the point is that thoughts like these are exactly what’s causing you anger, frustration and stress.  Thoughts about how the client should behave or how they should be different than they are is why you are frustrated, which then slows down your productivity, your ability to focus, and then why you wind up bringing that stress home to your family.

As I said before, sometimes it’s smart and feasible to fire a difficult client, but during this time of mental, emotional and economic stress, don’t be surprised when you are faced with more difficult clients than ever before.  Your easy-going, easy to please, favorite clients might be showing up completely different now that they’ve been dealing with the pandemic changes to their businesses and their home life.

To help you deal with any relationship conflict, I’m going to share a tool that can help you with anyone, especially with difficult clients.  When it’s just not possible to walk away, this tool will help you handle them better.

 
 

A tool to help you deal with difficult clients

This might be the first time you are really taking a look at how many difficult clients you have, what the challenges are, and how they make you feel, but that is a really great place to start because white-knuckling it with those clients probably hasn’t been working for you.  Thankfully, there is a much better way. 

The powerful tool I’m going to share with you is called The Manual, taught by The Life Coach School.  The idea behind The Manual is that we all have these unwritten instruction manuals for how other people should behave, in order for us to feel good.

If you think about it, you probably have Manuals for your children, partner, family members and friends, to name just a few.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of when you realize you have Manuals for people in your life; we all do.

My Manuals have included things my children should and shouldn’t do so I can feel like I’m a good mom, ways my ex-husband should behave so that we can co-parent, and things my boss should stop doing so I’m not frustrated with him.  My Manuals have also included how my clients should and shouldn’t behave so that I can service them in the best way possible and not be stressed out.

The key with this tool is knowing that your Manuals for your difficult clients are what make you feel angry and frustrated with them, because you want them to be different than they currently are.  But let’s be honest – it doesn’t matter what you think, because they’re going to think, act and behave the way they do, whether you resist it or not.

If you think about it, they also have their own Manual for you.  They’re Manual for their accountant probably has things like “My accountant should be okay with me handing in documents whenever I can”, “My accountant should agree with my brilliant ideas” or “The customer is always right and I’m a paying customer”.

What happens is that they’re acting out of their Manual for you and you’re angry and frustrated that they’re not acting out of your Manual for them.  The hard truth is that you can’t change the client, just like you can’t really change anyone else.

As with any relationship, you can make requests of the other person, but it’s really important to not put your emotional peace and happiness on someone else’s behavior.  With the awareness of the Manuals you have, you have the ability to take back your power and to feel less angry, frustrated and stressed.

To help clarify this, let’s just say that you had been told ahead of time that you’re going to do interesting work, get paid really well, work with great people, but you’ll also have some difficult clients – would you have taken the job?  The answer is almost always yes, but the difference is that you would have had an expectation that certain clients were going to act in a certain way.

With this awareness, you wouldn’t be upset when these difficult clients showed up acting the way you were told that they would.   The key though is in the expectation, and in thoughts like “This client always acts this way” or “This is just part of my job”.

One of the ways I learned to deal with difficult clients was to look at them as you would an innocent toddler.  You wouldn’t think it was wrong or take it personally when a toddler fell down as they were learning to walk, threw a tantrum when they wanted something, or was picky with their food; it would just be what toddlers do and it can be applied to your difficult clients as well.

With one of my notoriously late and difficult clients, I decided to think, “Dan always sends his tax information in late.  That’s just Dan being Dan.”  To be angry and frustrated at Dan, year in and year out, was a waste of my time and energy, and only came from the Manual I had for Dan.

I suggest that if you feel angry or frustrated with a client, notice that what’s upsetting you is your belief about how they should act, and acknowledge that you have zero control over changing that.  I recommend that you then practice thinking a thought that helps you to accept who they are like, “This is just Mary being Mary” or “Of course Joe didn’t listen to me”.

When you drop your Manuals for your difficult clients, you also open yourself up to the opportunity to evaluate your policies and procedures.  Maybe there are certain boundaries that need to be put in place or certain changes that need to be made on your end that you hadn’t considered.

With these difficult times, don’t be surprised if you are faced with having to deal with more and more difficult clients.  But with some awareness and some work you now have the tool to help you handle anyone, at any time.

 
 

Summary  

  • Unfortunately, no matter how well you screen potential clients or how long you’ve had a pleasant relationship with them, clients can be difficult at times.
  • It can be hard to leave your work issues at work, which means difficult clients can often affect how you are at home as well.
  • The key to understanding what makes your clients feel so difficult, actually has nothing to do with the client, and everything to do with your thoughts about the client and how they should be different.