Bedside Manner is Important for Tax Pros, Too

Late last December, I was having awful stomach pains. So bad that it hurt for my shirt to touch my stomach. I thought I had gallstones … or worse.

So I went to the local walk-in clinic and they did a battery of tests. They drew bloodwork and took x-rays.

All the tests came back fine. The doctor hurried in and said I just had “inflamed muscles” and I was quickly sent on my way with a prescription for heartburn medicine and an admonition to take it easy.

(Earlier this month, the pain came back and I went to a different doctor who diagnosed a hernia within literally the first 10 seconds of examining me.)

Anyway ….

When the nurse was drawing my blood, she went on and on and on about how she hoped it wasn’t anything to do with my pancreas, because that’s just really bad and she knows someone blah blah blah blah blah.

Yeah, lady. I know people who have had pancreatic cancer too. It’s scary. You’re diagnosed one day and oftentimes gone in months, if not weeks. That was certainly on my mind.

And this nurse didn’t help by blathering on about it.

And then the doctor, who was obviously in a hurry to move me along as quickly as possible, gave a lame “the x-ray showed inflamed muscles” diagnosis and sent me away with heartburn medicine. Six months later, I finally got a proper diagnosis from a doctor who took time to look for the right things. (The doctor also informed me that it’s not possible to see inflamed muscles from an x-ray. More proof the other guy was just trying to move me along.)

People talk about whether healthcare providers have good bedside manner. But it’s important for accountants and tax pros too.

Especially when delivering bad news.

My rules for delivering bad news:

  1. Do it by phone or in person
  2. Come to the point quickly — I will sometimes say that I have “bad news,” but I find it’s best to avoid the descriptors and just come out with it
  3. Understand that the client may not be happy
  4. If you can work in an explanation before the client says anything, do so. Otherwise, let the client respond and have their say before you proceed with an explanation
  5. Don’t try to break the tension with jokes. Even if the amount of money is relatively small, even a $200 tax bill is a big deal to most average folks, especially if they’ve never owed at tax time before.
  6. Don’t make flippant comments about the IRS or the government, even if you know that the client’s politics lean toward the Tea Party side of things. That sort of talk won’t change the client’s current situation.
  7. Explain the client’s options for paying the amount they owe
  8. Follow up with an e-mail so there’s written documentation

Each year, I have to make calls like this every now and then, and these are the rules I follow.