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Managing Client Expectations During Times of Crisis


Managing client expectations is a win-win for everyone, and it’s something you can easily do using the following four tips.

Apr 30th 2020
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Lockdowns and business closures due to COVID-19 continue in many parts of the country. Even those states starting to lift restrictions are doing so using a phased approach, meaning businesses that are able to reopen likely won’t be earning as much as they were a few months ago. The CARES Act programs meant to ease the financial strain small businesses are experiencing have run out of money once, and chances are good the second tranche will again see more applications than funds available.

These unprecedented conditions have caused many of our clients to become more demanding than usual. They want – and need – their books updated and their tax returns filed, and they need it done right away. Additionally, some clients who have been historically slow to provide us the information we need to do their accounting are now coming out of the woodwork and demanding our immediate attention.

But our clients aren’t the only ones under stress. On top of our regular workload, we’re learning about the various CARES Act programs and helping our clients apply for them. We’re setting up special tracking to ensure we have the documentation needed to get loan amounts forgiven. We’re brainstorming with our clients ways to stretch cash reserves and pivot their businesses to keep some revenue coming in. And we’re doing all of this while living during a worldwide pandemic which has upended not only our work lives, but also our personal lives.

Unless we effectively manage our stress, we ourselves run the risk of either falling ill or burning out.

We can’t lift lockdowns, make more money available for small business relief, or even change our clients’ reactions to their own stressful situations. But we can mitigate our own stress by managing our clients’ expectations. In so doing, we also help alleviate our clients’ stress.

Managing client expectations is a win-win for everyone, and it’s something you can easily do using the following four tips.

Tip #1: Keep Your Boundaries Intact

We have wept for and with our clients since the start of this economic downturn. Many of us have vowed to do whatever it takes to help our clients’ businesses survive. Unfortunately, for many bookkeepers and accountants, “whatever it takes” has included setting aside many of the boundaries they have established in their firms.

Setting aside our boundaries not only has the potential to harm us and our employees, but it is also confusing to our clients. Whereas our clients once knew what to expect from us, they now feel the need to reach out for status updates and clarification. We construe this as the client being demanding, and this increases our stress level. It’s a vicious cycle.

There’s nothing wrong with going the extra mile for our clients during this time. We do have to be careful to do it the right way, though. Overdeliver for your clients as much as possible while respecting your own boundaries. If you do decide to set aside a boundary to help a client, let them know you are making an exception. This isn’t “tooting your own horn;” it’s effective communication.

Which brings us to our next tip.

Tip #2: Over-Communicate

In the absence of communication, clients will draw their own conclusions. Often, the conclusion the client will draw is not only incorrect, it is also the worst-case scenario. It’s better to over-communicate to your clients than to wait until you think there is something to report.

This is especially true of delivery dates for work the client is expecting. Whether it’s routine bookkeeping work or a special project you are working on for them, communicate to your clients when they can expect the finished product. Follow the “under promise, over deliver” strategy: If you think you can complete something by the 10, tell your client to expect it on the 15. If you think it will take you a week to complete something, tell your client it will take 10 days.

Communicating expected delivery dates ahead of time will do a few things:

  • It will save you time answering status inquiries from clients.
  • You will be able to more effectively manage your work load.
  • When you’re able to over deliver, your clients will appreciate your additional efforts even more.

In addition to proactively communicating delivery dates to your clients, provide status updates on a regular basis…and let your clients know in advance when to expect those status updates. Again, this is important even if you are just stating that work will be delivered on time as usual. Over-communication provides certainty, and your clients will appreciate having certainty around at least one aspect of their business finances.

Tip #3: Let Some Squeaky Wheels Squeak

Many of us have clients who have gone from “radio silence” for months on end – ignoring repeated requests from us for information needed to update their bookkeeping – to daily emails, phone calls and texts demanding to know when their bookkeeping will be done.

If you have communicated with these clients when they can expect their work to be delivered (Tip #2), let go of the need to immediately respond to their every inquiry. If you haven’t communicated the due date for their work or project with them yet, communicate it, and then disregard repeated requests, at least for a while.

If this makes you feel as though you’re ignoring clients, create a detailed autoresponder that answers your clients’ most frequently asked questions. Include in this autoresponder when to expect status updates from you. Then, continue about your work guilt-free.

Finally, prioritize promises you have made to your top-tier clients over your “squeaky wheel” clients’ demands. Some of your squeaky wheels might get upset and disengage with your practice. That’s okay. You will be able to serve your top-tier clients better and upgrade your client list overall.

Tip #3 may be more about managing our own expectations than our clients’, but it falls in line with teaching people how to treat us. This is an important expectation to set regardless of the current economic client.

Tip #4: Continue to Charge for Your Services

During the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, bookkeepers and accountants were concerned about appearing opportunistic and heartless. We wanted to help, and we didn’t feel right about charging for this help. As a result, many of us stopped marketing and selling to prospects. Some of us even went further and waived our clients’ monthly fees.

The time for this practice has passed.

There’s nothing wrong with giving your clients a little extra during this time. I believe we should all be focused on how to increase our value to our clients. However, this does not mean we have an obligation to work for free or even a reduced price. In fact, doing so not only harms your income now, it could also set a precedent for the future that makes it harder to command the fees you deserve.

As with your boundaries, if you decide to give your clients a break on their fees or do some additional work for no additional charge, let them know you are doing so. And if you decide to assess an additional fee for added work, don’t feel guilty about it. Communicate to your clients ahead of time what the investment will be, and let them decide if they want to make it.

Our clients don’t expect us to work for free, even during an economic downturn.

Managing Expectations Manages Everyone’s Stress

These are stressful times, for our clients and for us. Effectively setting and managing our clients’ expectations will help ease the tension for everyone. This is the one thing we can each impact during a time when things seem totally out of control, making it the one thing we should focus on above all the other demands on our time and attention.

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