Art of Accounting: Managing client expectations


Overpromising and missing deadlines is a guaranteed way to disappoint clients. However, this can be a self-inflicted wound if not handled properly. We set the deadlines and make the promises.

Many times we succumb to urges and pleas by clients to set an unrealistic due date based upon the scope of what needs to be done and our available resources. However, it is we who “sign off” on the request or deadline. In effect, we are the ones who frame the expectation.

I can assure you that much success, and much less stress, come from managing client expectations. This includes defining the scope and then planning on meeting, or exceeding, it. This should be done for every client who pays you a fee, irrespective of the size of that fee. Regardless of what you think, every client is important to themselves and believes they should be treated in a royal manner. Tax season is a perfect time to keep this at the forefront of your mind. Furthermore, every client is a potential referrer of business. I once had a $300 tax client refer $250,000 of new business to me.

Once you give your client a deadline, that becomes your promise to deliver at that time. Not a day later, or some mythical extended date. Set the date realistically, considering your preparer and reviewer availability and your schedule to sign off on the return. Staff have many assignments to juggle and a bunch of single tax returns is usually never high on their “to do” list. Also, even though many are working from home right now, many are not, and they could be going to clients’ premises. If they work on a tax return on a weekend and will not be back in the office until Thursday, that means they either cannot complete it until then or cannot correct any errors the reviewer found. If the reviewer does not get to it before that Thursday, then the preparer might not be able to pick up that return until the weekend. This then stretches the in and out of that return to as many as 10 days. This either must be considered when you provide a delivery date, or you have to work better on the scheduling.

“Business as usual” doesn’t always work when you have staff who are usually out of the office or who are overloaded with bigger projects for business clients. When we have self-induced time pressure, we also tend to give in to scope creep and do more than we are hired to do since we loathe to confront a client with a request for added services when we are behind with what we are supposed to be doing.

I usually figure out when I could realistically get the work done, then add two days, and try to beat my deadline by a day. When setting the deadline, I try to overcome any client wishes for an earlier date by assuring them this is a firm date and that the time is needed to get the work done right, taking advantage of every benefit the client is entitled to.

There is a simple takeaway from here. Do not make delivery promises that you are notpositiveyou could adhere to, and do not promise results you are not reasonably sure you could meet. You set the expectations. Make them reasonable and attainable.

Do not hesitate to contact me atemendlowitz@withum.comwith your practice management questions or about engagements you might not be able to perform.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People list. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” He also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. He is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where he shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. He welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or

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