What I Learned Last Year: My Time for Tax Consultation isn’t Free
I am quasi-famous in this industry, due to all of the writing, and speaking engagements that I do, and as a consequence, I get a ton of calls and emails from other professionals regarding those articles and seminars.
I always call the person back or reply to the emails, but one thing I won’t do is give someone an answer to something or tell them how to do something that took me several hours to figure out for myself. My response is always that I’m not trying to be rude, but you are a competitor and do your research, just like I did.
One lady called about an article I wrote. I called her back, and she was unavailable. I told the person who answered the phone that she could email me, which was met by, “Oh, no. [So-and-so] doesn’t do email.” I’m doing you a favor, and I’m not going to make it easier on you than it is for me. I feel it is completely rude of someone to set the terms at which I help them with something.
The notoriety also produces potential clients who make an appointment about an article I wrote. I will give you a free one-hour consultation, but for some reason some people will think that extends to follow-up emails.
After the initial consultation and receiving an email about some kind of tax planning, it is returned with an engagement letter and credit card authorization. I am either engaged, or the person goes away. I can’t spend a bunch of hours doing things for free.
That may sound crass, egotistical or whatever, but I used to have a tendency to do a ton of stuff for free. And when it came time to charge for my services, it was met with resistance, which would really upset me, because I spent all of this non-billable time with this person. The thing about non-billable time is that if I spend my days doing a bunch of free stuff, it is taking away from a client who will pay me to do something.
I have bills to pay, food to buy, things I want to do, and I can’t do any of that doing non-billable work. If you begin a relationship with a client trying to “prove” yourself, by answering question after question, they are going to expect you to do that forever.
I appreciate that people read my articles, and I really feel good when something I wrote incites someone to reach out to me. I will answer, have them set an appointment, or whatever. However, I have to cut that to one free consultation or reply. If I don’t, it can get — and, in some cases, has gotten — out of control.
For professionals, I am a professional, too. I have clients, just like you do. I would never send email after email, or call after call, expecting a person to reply to all of them, do my research for me, or whatever they are asking me to do.
For potential clients, I am perfectly happy to give you one hour of my time, which equates to $225. After that, I need to be compensated.
Why this has been hard for me is that I love what I do for a living. As a consequence, it can get away from me, and eventually upset me. I don’t do this for the money. I told my kids to find what they love to do, and the money will follow. I had a tendency to want to help so much, that I was ignoring people who were paying me, to help someone.
That isn’t to say that I don’t do things pro bono, because I do. It just depends on the situation. My biggest pet peeve is when the government, or someone else, is taking advantage of someone just because they know that they can’t afford representation. These people are extremely appreciative, and they refer clients to me who can pay my bill.
I think I have such a soft spot, because I was raised by a single mother, whose husband took off, became a millionaire, never paid child support, and we were dirt poor. I remember that my mom was always taken advantage of, by bosses who sexually harassed her, to the IRS, that garnished her paycheck, because our home was foreclosed on (in those days, foreclosures were treated as sales). There was no law on the books making the sale of a home tax-free.
I have applied, and been accepted, to law school. Right now, I want to be a tax attorney, maybe do some estate planning, cannabis, and some transactional work. But the main reason I’m doing this is when I slow down (I don’t think that I will ever retire), I can work for the Innocence Project, getting wrongly convicted people out of jail for free. Then, during tax season, I can donate my time to low-income taxpayer clinics.
However, today, my focus is on my children. My oldest son is a sophomore in college, and he has decided to major in accounting. He’s working as an intern with us now, and the deal is that he can have the practice, when I decide to slow down — as long as he pays me what I was being paid before I left.
I’m trying to build this practice up so much that he won’t have to start from nothing, like I did, and struggle until he finds his niche.
My philosophy is that I have suffered enough in my life for my whole family, and no one else needs to go through what I did to get to where I am today. Don’t get me wrong, the kid is paying his dues. He is at the bottom of the ladder, but he will have something worth something when I leave.
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Craig W. Smalley, MST, EA, has been in practice since 1994. He has been admitted to practice before the IRS as an enrolled agent and has a master's in taxation. He is well-versed in US tax law and US Tax Court cases. He specializes in taxation, entity structuring and restructuring, corporations, partnerships, and individual taxation, as well as...