How to Be a Better Client: Don’t Argue with My Advice

Image courtesy of user "geralt" on
Image courtesy of user “geralt” on

Recently I read an article from the New York Times titled “How Not to Be a Networking Leach: Tips for Seeking Professional Advice.”

There was one item in particular in that article that made me shake my fist and say “right on, brother!!!”

That item was: “Don’t argue about their advice or point out why it wouldn’t work for you.”

Here’s an example in my own experience, which happened earlier this year.

A prospective client came to me because they said they needed bookkeeping and tax help, and help with running their business better.

In our meeting, the prospective client expressed frustration over the fact that her Quickbooks file was a mess, she was always short of cash, but yet somehow her tax return showed a profit and she owed money to the IRS.

Pretty typical stuff people like me deal with all the time.

Except I ended up turning down the opportunity to work with this client.

I told her we weren’t a good fit for each other — mainly because she contradicted EVERY SINGLE THING I SAID.

“I’m Not the CEO of Principal”

In response to her complaints about her Quickbooks file being a mess and not knowing where her money was going, I said: “Step 1 is to get your Quickbooks file cleaned up, which I can help with. Step 2 is to create a simple budget and pull a few reports to see where the money is going. And then throughout the year, we can monitor and stay on top of things so there aren’t any surprises.”

Sounds perfectly reasonable. Except ….

Her response was “You need to remember that I’m not the CEO of Principal here, I’m just a small business owner trying to make it in the real world. We don’t need to go overboard.” (“Principal” refers to Principal Financial Group, headquartered here in central Iowa.)

I admit to being taken aback by her comment.

SHE came to ME with this problem.

I simply took what she said and I agreed that the problems needed fixed. I didn’t suggest anything exotic or out of line for a small business. I’m not sure what she expected of me — other than probably wanting a magic-wand solution. (More on the “magic-wand” phenomena in another blog post.)

Everyone Else Knows More than the Licensed Professional

The talk then turned to taxes.

She asked a few questions about deductions, and some basic things about how taxes worked.

Every time I would say something, she would counter with her own opinion.

She would contradict me with things she had “heard” about taxes from:

  • Her mother
  • “Friends who have businesses”
  • A CPA she had used one time but then left after he sent her an invoice for his work and, in her words, “he only did 10 minutes worth of work and I was like, screw that”
  • A bookkeeper who had helped her (apparently not very well) with her Quickbooks file.

All of those people knew more than I did.

“It’s just so confusing because there’s so many voices telling me all these conflicting things about what can and can’t be done,” she said.

I concluded our meeting by saying I didn’t think I would be a good fit for her.

Be a Better Client

If you’re looking for an accountant or a tax preparer, here are some things you can do to get off on the right foot with the professional:

  1. Don’t just Google “central Iowa tax preparer” and go down the list, calling about fees. Googling is fine, but go through the results and find the ones who seem the most competent and who seem to fit your situation the best. Ask friends or other professionals for referrals. Almost all of my clients — 90% — are referrals, either from existing clients, or from investment advisors or attorneys.
  2. Once you’ve picked a good professional to work with, trust them and stick with them. Ideally it will be a life-long relationship.
  3. Along those same lines, understand that a licensed professional such as myself really does know more about taxes and accounting than your next-door neighbor’s daughter’s boyfriend’s step-dad’s brother in Florida who runs a drywall business out of the back of his pickup truck.
  4. The professional you work with might not always tell you want you want to hear, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about.
  5. Understand that the whole “proactive planning” thing cuts both ways. I can help and I can do a lot of good things, and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect me to be “proactive” (even though most people can’t define what “proactive” even means). But I am not a miracle worker. YOU have to be an active participant in the process.
  6. Yes, you’ll probably have to pay for the things the licensed professional does for you