We’ve all done it. We’ve all opted not to pick up after seeing a client’s phone number pop up on caller ID or kept scrolling past a client’s email. We’ve all shifted that one particular file to the bottom of the pile or quietly relegated a task on our to-do to reflect a lesser priority.
Are we putting off the inevitable—or are we ghosting?
The term ghosting refers to abruptly ending communication with someone without explanation. It started in romantic relationships when one partner stopped calling or texting the other, vanishing as if they were ghosts rather than going through the emotional toll of a proper break-up. Over the years, the concept has broadened to include workplace relationships.
Resolving not to answer a client immediately—likely the one that checks in several times a day even though you’ve assured them that you’ll advise of any status changes—can be a means of self-preservation, assuming that you’ll eventually get back in touch. But not being communicative at all can be more than that.
Lack of communication and neglect routinely top the list of client complaints. Depending on the specifics, they can also lead to ethics problems. So how can you balance your sanity with client expectations? Here are a few tips.
In the early stages of any relationship—including those of a professional nature—it can be confusing to know where you stand. You don’t have to use the word client for a potential client to believe you’re already in a professional relationship.
While it may seem logical that a signed agreement may be the first step towards representation, a potential client may believe that the relationship began when you took the first call or answered the first email. To prevent any misunderstanding, outline the steps for onboarding a new client—and don’t offer advice or services until those steps have been completed.
If you choose not to take on a client, ensure that you deliver the news promptly and clearly. Do not simply stop answering the potential client’s queries, as that can lead to misunderstanding.
Depending on the circumstances, it may be worthwhile to explain why you are opting out. That’s true if there’s a practical reason, like you’re not taking on new clients or this particular query is beyond your area of focus. While no one likes to be rejected, explaining the reason may reflect positively on your firm and leave the door open for a future client relationship.
If you offer to represent a client and they’ve ghosted you—meaning you haven’t received a reply—you should still communicate that the relationship will not be moving forward. At my firm, we often had a “kill date” by which a response was required, or we would formally close the file.
No matter which party does the ghosting, I encourage the use of declination letters. This is particularly important when issues, including filing and court deadlines, may be time-sensitive. Your professional malpractice carrier or bar association may have sample letters that you can use as resources.
It can be tempting when dealing with needy clients to jack up prices to get them to stop calling—a twist on ghosting. I would urge you to think carefully about this process. Anticipating that a client may be burdensome and pricing appropriately is one thing, but raising prices simply to get a client to leave can create even more problems and affect your professional reputation. Learn to say no to demanding clients from the beginning or build in representation milestones that can allow for an easy out if necessary.
I’ve noted before that a good representation or engagement letter can go a long way toward setting expectations. While professionals have different communication styles, and states and regulatory bodies may have varying requirements, your letter should, at a minimum, clearly outline the fee structure and the scope of the work. This is also a good opportunity to explain to the client how often and in what manner they can expect updates, including when you will send invoices and your expectations for getting paid.
And don’t forget to formally close a matter. Termination letters make clear that the representation for that particular matter or transaction is over. They may also help outline information about making final payment or returning any remaining retainer amounts, as well as policies on retention of documents or obtaining copies of documents. Communicating those boundaries every time means that there is less room for confusion.
Once you’ve communicated the scope of the representation, create a rough timeline to share. None of us has a crystal ball—and it’s incredibly challenging to anticipate response times from agencies like the IRS—but you can often sketch out a plan in advance. For example, if you know that a filing deadline may be Sept. 15, signal to the client in advance that you’ll need tax records by Aug. 15 or access to bank information by July 15. Explain how the client can get you this information—for example, a dedicated portal—and how and when you’ll respond to avoid unnecessary confusion down the road.
Everyone goofs—including professionals. Sometimes, the emails and messages get away from you, and you forget to call or respond when you said you would. You might know that it was just an oversight, but the client might interpret the silence as deliberate. When that happens, speak up. Explain what happened. Apologize if the situation calls for it. And then make clear what the next steps will be.
Ask How You Can Help
Sometimes, when a client gets stuck, they can turn … difficult. If a client has asked you the same question three or four times, rather than turn a deaf ear, consider answering the question a different way. It may be a simple misunderstanding that could resolve easily.
You may think you’re too busy to spend a few minutes with a client when it’s not urgent. But I’d encourage you to do so anyway. Pick up the phone, schedule a Zoom call, or arrange for a quick coffee. The pandemic has forever changed the way we work. And while some of it may be good—admit it, you love not commuting into the office every day—the lack of in-person interaction can make it easier to forget about clients. Even though tax and accounting can feel like a numbers game, it’s really a people business. Clients tend to follow individuals, not firms. Taking a few minutes out of your day to say hello can help solidify a relationship.
Professional relationships don’t have to be scary. Taking the time to create a plan, set expectations, and step in when things don’t go to plan can go a long way toward producing happy clients and a reputation that you’re proud of.
This is a regular column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.
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