How NOT to Handle Client Complaints

I am moved to blog this topic due to a surprising experience at the current IRS roadshow here in Orlando. One reason we like attending these seminars is the plethora of vendors; there are always new ideas and resources to check out.

Our tax software vendor was there as usual. Let me preface by saying we have used them for years and their customer service has been extraordinary. Their people speak American and answer the phone within 8 rings. This helps make up for their software which looks like it was dos based, is not intuitive and is not easy to use compared to most others.

In a situation like this, where there is a good, long-term relationship, there are higher expectations if there is a problem than if the service was spotty or consistently poor (hello major airlines). Sure, they have earned Brownie points over the years, and we therefore expect the best.

Let's step back to April 15th, 6:45 pm. We are transmitting the stragglers. The worst thing that could possibly happen does happen: the tax software provider's servers go down. An hour later they simply stopped answering the phone. It wasn't until 11:40 pm EDT that their servers went back online. Cumulative blood pressure in the office was over 1,000.

Are you kidding me? The very least we expect of our tax software provider is getting our returns filed timely.

This one incident, because it was so important, deleted years of goodwill.

We looked forward to seeing our vendor at this year's conference to express our shock and disappointment.

At their booth, we were greeted by a well-groomed, professional looking salesman. We expressed our disappointment and concern that this could happen again. Didn't they have backup servers, redundant systems to prevent this kind of thing? Are you kidding me? How could this possibly happen?

Here is what he responded:

1) No big deal: the IRS made special accommodations for their CPA firm clients and we could file one day late without penalty (try explaining that to your clients when they all get late notices).
3) A major competitor blew up mid-tax season and they had to handle additional customers (what do we care?)
2) In fact, they picked up thousands of new customers!(about 10 million dollars worth according to my calculation)
4) This person talked to 120 customers personally (whoop-dee-doo)
5) It was yáll's fault for hitting the send/receive button too often (This was OUR fault? Did I hear that correctly?)

My partner and I walked out of there stunned; he never said they were sorry and that they appreciated our trust and continued business. He never said they had made sure it would never happen again.

Note: After April 15th the company did NOT even send a card or letter apologizing and telling what their cure was; this kind of service starts at the top. Maybe they just have become too successful to care.

If we hadn't used their software for years (and would not want to retrain our people) and if we had not received sterling service for the most part heretofore, they would have lost us as a customer. There are a gazillion tax software vendors out there.

Too basic? No CPA firm would do this? Give me a break. Other CPAs are amongst our best marketing tools because they handle problems the same way. A common complaint is they never return my calls.

Nobody is perfect. We make mistakes, too. However, our people are trained to respond to complaints by

1) Apologizing profusely and sincerely
2) Discussing with the client what it will take to fix the situation
3) What the client needs to do
4) What we will do
5) Thanking the client for their business
6) Following up later to make sure the issue was solved to the client's approval.

Client problems are opportunities to harm the relationship and set the client on the path to changing firms, or an opportunity to prove yourself under fire, which often strengthens the relationship.

How are problems handled in your firm? Is everyone on the same page?

Allan S. Boress, CPA, FCPA is the author of 12 published books on marketing, selling and managing the business development process for CPAs. The "I-Hate-Selling" CDs and Study Guide are available at www.ihateselling.com

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by Allan Boress, CPA - Based on over 25 years being a practitioner and consultant to the profession. Mr. Boress is the author of 12 published books in 6 different languages, including a best-seller, The "I-Hate-Selling" Book.

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