Everyone loves a good rant on social media about a client who’s been a complete pain in the a$$ (aka a PITA client). But if you’re dealing with a difficult client, rather than jumping straight on social media, it might be time to take a different approach…
I’ve had PITA clients too
First of all, I want to say that I know how you feel. I’ve had PITA clients too. And I’ve probably ranted about them on more than one occasion myself.
So, as you can see, I'm not writing this to tell you off or judge you, but to help you.
Reality check! I would have hated it if someone made me feel judged for expressing my frustrations. That’s not how I want you to feel. But, as much as it would have been confronting, I would have loved it if a mature bookkeeping business owner reached out to me and gently set me on the right path. Because really, ranting can be counterproductive. It reinforces negative ways of seeing things. And most importantly, ranting about PITA clients cost me clients, money, sanity, and peace of mind.
Is your client really an idiot?
When I first started my business I'd get really offended by clients who didn't fit into my systems. I'd look at them like they were a “bit of an idiot” if they didn't “get it” when it came to all things bookkeeping, GST, and payroll. I'd take to social media because I knew there was a whole community of bookkeepers who would gladly jump on my complaint, share their similar woes, and give their opinions (that comfortably reinforced my own). The problem with this approach was that it ignored that fact that my bookkeeping client hired me in the first place for one reason: they didn’t have a clue about bookkeeping! They were looking to me as an expert in my field, but instead, I made them feel stupid by using bookkeeping jargon and trying to demonstrate how complicated the work was. I know the reason I did this was to try to show them I was worth the money and so they didn’t want to do it themselves. But I now realise the main result was that I made them feel stupid.
Your job is to solve their bookkeeping problems
And while there were times when I genuinely thought they were stupid (and maybe they were a little clueless with some basic bookkeeping concepts), but what I failed to see was that they were experts in their own fields. Many of my clients were brilliant people and here I was judging them based on their bookkeeping skills! But actually, that’s why they’d hired ME! I thought their biggest problem was either:
- They didn’t know how to do bookkeeping, or
- They didn’t care about their bookkeeping
I made it all about me. I wanted to do things a certain way and I wanted them to “tow the line” regardless of how that impacted them, and regardless of the existing systems they had already set up. I failed to notice how I could really, truly help solve their problems. The worst part of it was that I 100% sure that I was right. And boy do I love being right. Who doesn’t! 😉
Try to see things from your client’s perspective
So now let’s fast-forward five years down the track. One day I found myself very busy running my business and needed to hire a bookkeeper myself. I finally got a taste of my own medicine and realised what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. That’s when I saw how little empathy I had for my clients. Not out of malice, but out of ignorance. I’d just failed to see things from their perspective. Over the years, I've come to realise that the bookkeeper is not the most important person in the business (like I'd previously thought). You see, when clients ignored my requests or acted like a “pain”, I'd feel unappreciated and undervalued, disrespected, and even abused by clients. But was that really what was going? Now – I'm not making justifications for clients who are abusive – that’s an entirely different matter. And I will definitely write about that in the near future. I’m just talking about fairly everyday client/bookkeeper situations here. But what I’m saying is that there are always two sides to every story. And if we want to stop dealing with PITA clients, we need to take a step back and see things from their perspective first.
What problems do you really solve for your clients?
One of the biggest issues I’ve come across when doing business planning with bookkeepers is understanding problems/solutions. When I ask them, “What are the top 5 problems you solve for your clients?”, the number one response (about 95% of the time) is to list their solutions. For example…
- Bookkeeping and data entry
- BAS/IAS preparation and lodgement
- Payroll and compliance
- Accounts payable/receivable
- Rescue jobs
- Cashflow and budgeting
- Financial reporting
- Training in bookkeeping or software
- Software recommendation and set up
- Setting up bookkeeping systems and workflow
If that’s how you would have answered too, don’t worry. You’re not alone – there’s a major lack of understanding across our industry. It means you might need to change how you think about your business, your clients, and what the REAL problems are that they need you to solve.
No, not THOSE problems
So of course, I point out to my business planning bookkeepers that they’ve listed solutions, not problems (whoops!). Then they give me another response about the problems they solve:
- Don’t know how to do bookkeeping
- Don’t want to do bookkeeping
- Don’t understand their numbers
- Don’t care about their bookkeeping
- Messy and inaccurate accounts
- Overdue BAS
- Doing it themselves
- Cashflow problems
But the thing is… even though this is getting close, they’re still not quite there. While those ARE problems we solve, they’re not the problems your client wants solved when they hire you! I hate to break it to you, but a client’s number one priority is NOT to have a neat set of up-to-date accounts. As a bookkeeper, I felt great when the accounts finally reconciled. I’d do a little happy dance… yay me! But while it’s important that the accounts are neat, accurate, and up to date, that was what was important to me, NOT my client. Plus, neat and accurate accounts are just base level bookkeeping. That should be a given when you work with any bookkeeper, so they shouldn’t even be a selling point. I mean, if your accounts aren’t neat, accurate, and up to date then you shouldn’t be bookkeeping, right? To get to the REAL problem you solve, ask yourself “so what?”.
- So what if the accounts are up to date and accurate?
- What does it really mean for the client?
- What’s the real problem it helps them solve?
- What’s the impact of that problem?
- What is the client feeling?
You see, your clients’ priorities are not the same as yours. But before I could realise this for myself, I had to experience what it was like to have a bookkeeper make demands of ME, just like I’d made of them…
What happened when I hired my own bookkeepers
I’ve hired a few bookkeepers over the years now and I’ll be honest… while I’ve worked with some lovely people, my experience wasn’t that great. I felt most bookkeepers I’ve hired prioritised other (bigger) clients. They saw me as a small client with a relatively small turnover, and so they didn't do the work on a regular basis. This meant I never had up-to-date accounts. It made me feel annoyed, and frustrated. You see, I was counting on those reconciled accounts (especially the sales and purchases) so that I could see how much I owed, what money I needed to chase, and to make sure I was going to cover my wages. Micro-businesses just like mine need to really manage their cashflow and can’t afford to have out-of-date accounts. I also found that I had to do a lot of the problem solving myself. When things got a bit too hard for the bookkeeper to figure out, they would leave it to me to do it. (Annoying!) And then sometimes I’d just get completely inundated. Obviously it would come time for the bookkeeper to work on my stuff. Without any warning I’d sometimes receive five or six emails in a row, asking for a massive list of tax invoices that were for recurring subscriptions that were under the threshold. Often I would be in the middle of something so this made me feel very overwhelmed. And then I really had a taste of my own medicine when one bookkeepers started telling me to change to a new software program just because she didn’t like the one I used. It felt like my bookkeeper was there to push their own agenda, instead of trying to take time to really understand what I needed. (Yes, people, that was me doing the exact same thing to clients a few years ago. Gulp!).
Do you REALLY “take care of the bookkeeping”?
Our industry taglines often say things like:
- “We take care of the bookkeeping so you can take care of business”, or
- “We do the bookkeeping so you can focus on what’s important.”
(No offence but these taglines SUCK! Because they are so cliche… and actually, not even true. We SAY this is what we do. But what we actually do is different. We demand that our clients pay more attention to the bookkeeping than they ever did before. We want them to love bookkeeping like we do, and we expect them to get excited about providing 100 missing tax invoices. (Pleaaaase don’t get me wrong; clients SHOULD be providing tax invoices over $82.50 but we don’t need to bombard them or judge them when they lose them, or get told the wrong thing by their accountant, or simply don’t care.) I can’t say that I’ve ever truly had a bookkeeper who made me feel the way these taglines promise. Instead, I often felt…
- That I couldn’t just get on with my business
- Like I was hand-holding all the time
- As though I was constantly diverted from what was important to me
- And that I was never really served, looked after, or supported
How would your clients feel if you labelled them as PITA?
Now that I’ve had this range of experiences with bookkeepers myself, I definitely have a new perspective on it all. I know what it’s like to struggle to hire a great bookkeeper. And I’ve also got to be one of those pain-in-the-a$$ clients for a few bookkeepers. (How embarrassing! I’m one of those clients. LOL) I honestly feel a bit ashamed that I used to go on social media to rant about my clients. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if any of my previous bookkeepers did that to me, except maybe… disgraced. Because in my mind, I wasn’t a PITA client at all. All I want to do was work with my bookkeeper so they could solve my problems! And chances are, that’s exactly what YOUR clients want too.
Don’t rant about your client… do this instead
So, if you’re faced with a difficult situation or a client isn’t quite behaving how you wanted, don’t jump into a Facebook group to rant about it. Instead, take a step back and take some time to think about how you can serve this client. Think about things from their perspective. Remember that they are so busy they can't even stop to look for something (like that receipt you need!)! They clearly need someone to solve their problems and take problems off their plate – they don’t need someone to give them more problems to deal with. So, don’t be that person to them. Maybe instead you can call them, and show empathy for their situation, and then let them know…
- You're not there to create more problems and more work
- Instead, you’re there to understand their problems and help solve them
- You understand their pain
- You’ve got a great solution so they can spend minimal time thinking about bookkeeping
- They can focus on the things they really want to focus on (and you can even ask them if they would share with you what those things are – instead of assuming)
Tip: Think creatively about how you can set up a system to stop this from happening in the future. Just like any service that actually solves a problem, clients are willing to pay good money for it!
Over to you…
Set yourself up to look at your clients differently and you might even realise that you don’t have any PITA clients at all. It’s one of those amazing mindset shifts that can have a huge impact on your business – but it all has to start with you. I’d love to know… what are the top five problems you solve for your clients? And how will focusing on the REAL problems you solve help you manage your clients better (and have fewer PITA moments)? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and don't forget to go check out this week's episode of The Bookkeeper’s Voice when you're done!
P.S. Want to know more about bookkeeper pricing and fees? Join me for 5 Pricing Mistakes Bookkeepers Make, and uncover the common mistakes you're making and what to do instead.