Tilting at Windmills Again, Or, Don’t Clients Have a Responsibility Too?

Here I go again on a writing spree about articles from the “experts” and the complaints of clients about how accountants aren’t doing enough.

The latest comes from a survey from Canopy, published in Accounting Today (link here) which as usual maligns accountants, we’re failing our clients, blah blah blah. From the survey:

Over half of tax clients (53 percent) aren’t positive that their accountant fully minimizes their tax payment, and 46 percent were disappointed by the size of their tax refund last year, according to a new survey.


Many tax clients are unaware of the post-filing services offered by their accountants. One out of three clients didn’t know if their tax accountant provides audit protection services. Business owners are two times less likely than non-business owners to know if their accountant provides audit protection services. Thirty-seven percent of the tax clients polled said they don’t know if their tax accountant provides legal tax services.

First of all, what does “don’t know if their accountant provides legal tax services” mean?

There’s no definition provided, because as usual with these sort of things, the fun is in bashing the accountant, not in explaining what any of this means.

But I digress.

As the title of my post says, I feel like I tilt at windmills when I write about these things, because I am one of the few voices on social media giving the accountant side of things, and who says “hey, wait a minute, this criticism isn’t fair.”

As I have written many times, I agree that accountants should be more proactive, communicate better and so forth.

The problem is, it’s a two-way street and — GASP!!! — CLIENTS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY HERE TOO!

And none of the articles acknowledge that CLIENTS need to be better clients.

It’s always just “accountants are failing their clients.”

Minimizing Their Tax Payment

Per this survey, 53% of clients “don’t know if the accountant is minimizing their tax payment.” Another 46% think their refund is too low.

Oh dear client, let me educate you on something: contrary to the H&R Block and TurboTax commercials, I don’t possess a magic wand or any ability to make your tax return “all better” after the year has ended. Once December 31st passes, what’s done is done.

Did you, dear client, ask me to help you plan during the year, when we could actually make an impact on your return?

No you almost certainly did not. But you probably complained that I didn’t reach out to you.

Could I, dear client, have reached out to you? “Proactively” as the lingo says in these accountant-bashing articles!

Yes I could have — but as you will read a little later in this post you’re not paying for the privilege of me “proactively reaching out to you.”

(Also, one of my pet peeves on this whole “he never contacted me” thing: perhaps I am mistaken but I believe phones lines and email run both directions. I could call you, but you could call me too. I could e-mail you, or you could e-mail me. But perhaps I am mistaken on how technology works.)

And, dear client, if you did ask me for help, did you intend to pay me for that help? Again, almost certainly not.

From the time I started in 2009 up until just earlier this year, I was trying to be a different kind of accountant. Always helpful, reaching out to people. Helping them plan.

And never billing for any of it. I have given away thousands of hours over the course of 11 years.

I justified this by saying that it was a value-added service and I didn’t want to nickel-and-dime people.

You pay for the tax return, and the rest just comes with it.

I Was Deluding Myself.

I understand now, why accountants have a reputation for not returning calls, replying to emails, or going out of their way to help people.

As a side detour, here are some of the real-world complaints I have heard:

  • My prior accountant never helped me when I was starting this business
  • My prior accountant never explained this or that on my return
  • I tried to meet with him to ask about starting a partnership with my dad, and he didn’t seem interested in having a meeting
  • I never heard from my accountant after the return got filed
  • He put me on extension in April and didn’t finish the return until October
  • I went to the accountant’s office on April 15th hoping to sign my return (note, this person didn’t know if the return was actually done or not, they just thought it “should” be done so “dropped by” to sign) and the accountant just laughed and said it was on extension; they looked like they were getting ready to go on vacation; then they didn’t finish the return until October

Those are all complaints about other accountants that new clients have said to me.

I also know my clients complain about ME in this way too, because I commit these same sins.

Here’s the thing: clients pay for the tax return to be prepared. There is a fee for that — a fee set by market forces, with little wiggle room.

Oh sure I can raise my rates a bit, but not a lot.

The degree of difficulty is far higher now than it was 5 years ago. I can’t put into words how HARD tax returns are now. It’s just in the last 4 or 5 years that this has become a thing.

The degree of difficulty means I am using a tremendous amount of mental energy on everything I do. But because market forces dictate the fee, I can only get compensated for the act of preparing the return, not for the mental energy expended on preparing the return.

Tax preparation is a commodity, just like buying something at the grocery store. I am providing a service, yes, but it’s a commoditized service.

And so you pay whatever you pay, based on what the market will allow me to charge. (And I am sorry [but not really] to say this, but in most practices, it gets done when it gets done, and that might be weeks or even months down the road, and the accountant isn’t going to apologize for that, nor should they….)

And then you have questions about this and this and this.

And you want advice on this and this and this.

And you’re starting a business and need advice, and on and on it goes.

And eventually the accountant just … can’t … anymore, because there’s a limit to our mental energy, which nowadays is all used up in the act of preparing your tax return.

So your questions go unanswered.

Phone calls go unreturned.

“Planning” never happens.

Because you’re not paying for any of that — and so why would you assume you would get those things IF YOU’RE NOT PAYING FOR IT??????

Charging For Advice

I am moving my firm in a different direction, toward what is called “advisory” service and into the things these surveys say accountants should be doing. But it’s a slow-go.

Why is it a slow-go? Because advisory service comes with the following BIG CAVEAT: clients will be expected to pay more — probably far more than they could imagine — for the privilege of working with me and getting access to my mind.

Take the tax-preparation fee and multiply it by anywhere from 2 to 4 times, and you’re starting to get into the territory of what it will cost (and a business client may find itself paying even more than that). I will prepare the tax return, yes, but the meat of advisory service is the planning throughout the year so I can help you reach your goals.

The point is: people will be paying me for the “proactive planning.”

And in my experience, the average client is only willing to pay for the tax return, at the market rate. So it will be interesting to see how many people bite at paying much more for a relationship with me that involves more planning and better access (for a cost).

The Moral

The moral is: it’s all well and good for clients to fill out a survey saying they’re disappointed in their accountant. And maybe accountants do need to be doing more for people. We are not innocent parties either.

But it’s a two-way street: perhaps the accountant would do more if you were willing to pay for more.

Just something for people to reflect on before they reflexively bash their friendly local accountant.