Do you have any worries or concerns about your taxes this year? If so, what are they?
With tax season just weeks away, your firm has likely already sent out its tax organizers and the yearly letter imploring clients to get their paperwork in early. Tax season is a time when a firm’s relationship with its clients can be tested — for firms, late paperwork, uncooperative or unresponsive clients, and handholding can mean real trouble. For clients, inadequate or incomplete explanations, unwelcome surprises, and feeling pressured and/or rushed can put them off your services.
When you have a zillion and six returns to complete, it’s understandable that you might resist spending any additional minutes thinking about how you interact with your clients, but this point is crucial: as stressed as you are, tax time can be stressful for many of your clients as well. Especially if they’re expecting bad news. So it’s worth taking even 5 extra minutes to consider their state of mind, what you need to communicate to them and how that information might be best received.
At the end of this blog is a quick checklist of questions you can use to help you assess your client’s state of mind and better communicate with them.
Three major things that influence client behavior (and how you can address them)
Fear is one of the strongest human emotions, because it’s specifically designed to keep us alive. It’s both insistent and persistent, and until an action is taken to resolve the fear, people remain in a heightened state of awareness. Being left in this heightened state too long leads to a litany of mental conditions from depression to anxiety.
If your client is afraid for any reason — missing paperwork, unpaid quarterlies, the possibility that they’ll owe more than they can afford — it will make it hard for them to absorb any information until that fear is addressed. If you know or suspect your client is afraid of something relating to their taxes, it should be your first order of business to discuss it. Often, simply understanding their options and possible outcomes is enough to put them at ease. And if you can completely eliminate their fears (which isn’t always possible), even better. Once discussed, it’s much more likely the rest of your conversation or communication will go smoothly.
2. The Unknown/Lack of Expertise
This is related to fear, but different. Not knowing something doesn’t necessarily cause fear, though it can. It can also cause confusion, avoidance, and withdrawal. The unknown can be tricky to deal with, because reactions to it can be unpredictable. Some people dive in, learning all they can to eliminate the unknown. Others lapse into the aforementioned states of confusion, avoidance, or withdrawal. And yes, some experience fear.
As a tax practitioner, you possess a grasp of the topic of taxes that presumably your clients don’t have. As a client, putting your finances or your business’ finances in someone else’s hands without understanding what they’re going to do with them can be stressful. In communications with your client, you don’t need to explain the intricate details of tax law or best practices, but you should do your best to help them understand what you plan to do or have done in the process of completing their returns.
While this might not be as necessary with more sophisticated clients, it’s a strong best practice for interacting with your clients who aren’t so sophisticated: explain yourself. But do it at a high level. For example, “There are five things I can do to reduce this entry on a tax return, and I looked at all five. Only one applied to you.” It sheds some light on how you did things, without getting too in the weeds. Most times, it’s enough to make the client feel more informed and in the loop on how this all happens.
3. Their Past Interactions
It’s part of human wiring to predict outcomes on past experiences, even when it’s statistically unwise to do so. Whether your client has a sketchy history with you, or a previous history with another preparer, they could be coming to the table ready for disaster/battle/confusion/tears/garment rending.
Most of us will raise an eyebrow when told, “but it won’t be that way this time,” as someone tries to reassure us about our bad past experiences. That’s because it’s nonspecific. If you’ve had poor interactions with your client in the past, or know they’ve had bad experiences elsewhere, get them into the open and explain what you’re going to do to make sure that isn’t repeated. Do they need more/fewer emails or phone calls? A face-to-face to go over the return? A check-in so they know how things are going and what they should expect to see?
Leaving your client’s past bad interactions in the past without addressing them can become a motivator for them to go elsewhere down the road. You’re providing a service, and part of that service should be making it as pleasant for the client as it can be. Leaving them stewing over a past event that made them unhappy starts you off on the wrong foot.
Client interaction doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does take active participation on your part. If you have it in your head just to get through the returns and call it a day, you aren’t really providing a complete service. Worse, you’re not differentiating your firm through a demonstration of care and concern.
You should also take the time to ask your clients about their businesses, not just their taxes.
With that in mind, here’s a short checklist of questions you can ask your tax clients to better communicate on both their taxes and their businesses, and make them feel heard:
TAX SEASON CLIENT INTERACTION CHECKLIST
Do you feel confident you can have all your required paperwork/information to me in time to get your taxes done by the deadline?
Do you have any questions about how your return will be prepared?
Is there anything from past years I could do better for you this year?
Is there any area of your taxes you feel might need special attention?
How are you feeling overall about this past year?
If I need to consult with you while preparing your taxes, what is the simplest and most convenient way for me to contact you?
What are your 2024 goals for the business?
Can we establish an expected turnaround time to provide responses to each other’s inquiries?
What was a highlight for your business this year?
Is there anything you don’t understand about my services or your taxes that I could clarify for you?
What happened in 2023 that you didn’t anticipate?
And of course, you can always craft even more questions or customize these to fit specific clients as statements rather that questions: “John, I remember last year I accidentally spilled a piping hot mug of coffee on your head as we were going over your return — I want you to know I’ve given up coffee, so no worries about that happening this year.”
And remember, getting things done quickly is always a good way to impress. We can help you with that. If you use Botkeeper, you can kick that time-sucking write-up work to the curb with Rapid Write-Up.