Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by | Client Loyalty/Experience, Customer Service, Executive Coaching, Leadership

I hear from CPA firms. It usually goes like this: Clients expect so much. If they don’t get what they want, they threaten to go elsewhere. So firms are in a struggle to meet client demands while not burning out their staff, kind of caught between a rock and a hard place.

How do you solve this kind of problem? The answer is in the word ‘leadership’. If you feel as the managing partner of your firm that you have no choices, then you’re in victim mentality. I find quite a few CPA’s who are complainers. Things aren’t going like they would like or maybe as they used to, so they complain and wish clients, the economy, staff would go back a few years to when they didn’t have to market, didn’t have to make tough choices, didn’t have to lead their firms through a change process.

Here’s how to get out of the rock and hard place situation. None of these is easy to implement but they can be done. Leaders take responsibility for making things happen.

1. Look at your client.

– Is he realistic in the pressure he is putting on you? Maybe he’s the client that you shouldn’t have. He wants everything for nothing, takes up too much of your time and your staff’s time and never shows appreciation or makes a referral. I counsel my clients to draw up a list of criteria of their ideal client such as Pays on time, Pays our rate, No hassle to the staff, Provides required information readily, Gives referrals, Has additional work for our firm, Friendly and Appreciative. Give each factor a weight and create a 1 to 10 point system where you rate each of your clients. Each year, get rid of the bottom 5-10% and replace them with clients more like the ideal client at the top of the scale.

– Is he a fine client but you haven’t communicated with him well enough to shape his expectations, explain the hours/talent required for the work promised? A good leader has negotiation skills that make the client feel good about the service they are getting. Price pressure is usually because the value of the service is not well represented or because there is insufficient trust in the provider. Have you as a partner taken the time to get the prospect/client to know, like and trust you? Business happens with people we know like and trust. And we all know that an accounting firm is a people business. If this is not your best skill set, delegate it to someone who is talented in this area. Your responsibility as a leader is to delegate to others according to their strengths, including yourself.

2. Look at your organization.

– Have you created a strategic plan and have you communicated it to your staff? People can get very frazzled when they find themselves without direction, duplicating work, or worse going in the opposite direction from the partners because they didn’t know what the partners were thinking. If you haven’t communicated the plan well enough so that everybody knows what it is and what their part in it is, then you haven’t garnered any motivation, inspiration or excitement that comes with achieving individual and group goals. You haven’t created a high performance team that is excited and engaged in doing their best. So of course, they won’t be at their peak performance in servicing clients. Stress in the workplace creates fatigue and a higher level of burnout.

– Are people given training in personal growth as well as skill growth? Do you look at them as individuals with personal lives or as staff employed for the organization’s benefit? People work best when their personal goals, efforts and personalities are recognized and valued.

– Human resource studies show that the overwhelming reason that people leave their jobs is because of difficulties with their managers. Do your managers show praise and/or appreciation every day to every person? Do they identify guidelines about tasks or do they let people fail and only offer negative correction after the fact? Do they micromanage or let people take initiative? There’s a fine line. Have you trained your managers in how to manage?

– Do you have a way to measure client loyalty? Certainly you can start with a paper or online quick survey. But you can get more information through interviews and focus groups. Do you want to get better at customer service? Let your clients tell you where they see the holes. Then you can decide if you need to make staff changes, technology changes, strategic direction changes and how to allocate resources. Client complaints are your greatest ally. Learn as much as you can from them.

You as a partner or managing partner are the leader of your firm. Taking action to shape your firm, train your clients, bring out the best in your staff, make changes that lead to happy clients and happy staff are all your responsibility. Yes, you can and should get input. But it’s up to you to bring up the subjects, ask the questions, make decisions, get buy-in and create the future you want. There’s no room for complaining here. You don’t have to accept the spot in between the rock and the hard place. You can wiggle free and create a whole different future.

Jeri Quinn

Jeri Quinn from Driving Improved Results is an executive coach, management consultant, speaker and author who focuses on communication in her work with executives and companies. She is the author of The Customer Loyalty Playbook, 12 Game Strategies to Drive Improved Results in Your Business. With more than 40 years as a serial entrepreneur.

Quinn has worked with executives and teams in over 40 industries, spoken at major business expos including New York City’s Javits Center, facilitated business development and extraordinary customer service at institutions such as MoMA and AIG, and has partnered with New York City, The Kauffman Foundation, Citibank, Merrill Lynch, HSBC, and Signature Bank to educate their clients.


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