How NOT to handle customer consultations

Recently, a friend of mine passed along a newsletter she received from her CPA. Most of the content dealt with tips on preparing for tax filing, but one entry stood out.

Consultations versus “Quick Questions”

One of the things my clients have enjoyed over the years is relatively easy access to me for “quick” questions, by email or phone.

I noticed this past year, that sometimes I was overloaded with these “quick question” contacts during my busiest time of the year.  Even though I strongly encourage my clients to contact me for consulting during the other months for planning-type consulting, I was having to dedicate one to two hours a day replying to “quick” questions when I had 3 weeks or more of tax return work to attend to.  Handling all the “quick” questions was not happening quickly enough, and I fell even further behind.  My CPA association professional standards require me to obtain documentation for all advice given, which adds to the time needed to reply to your questions.

To help with the stress, and to be fair to those clients who have brought their tax information in to be worked on, I have decided to handle these email and phone “quick questions” a little differently this coming year.  It is an experiment, and I am open to hearing from you constructive comments on how I can better handle this area.

As announced in an earlier newsletter, starting February 1, 2011, I began handling these consultation requests more formally.  I will provide one “quick” question consultation, by email or phone for free to each returning tax client, per year.  Of course, there are limits to this, based on complexity and time involved, thus the implied definition of “quick” question.

After the one free “quick question” consultation, each additional such consultation will be provided to you for a small fee, depending on the complexity of the consultation and the length of time involved.

The minimum fee for these additional consultations will be $25 and will be due promptly.  If you choose to have me charge this fee to your credit or debit card, I will add $1 to cover part of the fees the card companies charge me for handling the transaction.

Yes, I know this is quite a change from the unlimited access to me you have enjoyed in the past, but I must get better control over my time, especially during tax season.  Your planning ahead on consulting questions, to minimize the fees I charge to you, will enable me to devote more time to tax form preparation during the busy times.

During the less busy times of the year, I will, at my discretion, waive the “quick question” consultation fees.

Please understand the limitations on my time during my busy time of year, which does not end until early May.  I will be working 70 to 80 hours a week during this time, doing my best to get your tax forms back to you as soon as possible.

One thing you might keep in mind, too, is that when you call for that “quick question”, if you talk with my receptionist or my tax assistant, and you will accept an answer from her, and she does not have to ask me the question to give you an answer, I will not consider this a consultation subject to the fee mentioned above.

What I am trying to accomplish is a reduction of the interruptions.  The preparation of your tax forms is tedious work requiring deep concentration.  Each time I have to stop to answer a phone “quick question”, even if it just takes 5 minutes, requires me to then have to regroup my thoughts and get back to the task at hand.  On a typical day in my busy time, I receive 20 to 30 calls a day.  I have a receptionist to take those calls and hopefully handle your requests.

Much is wrong with this, but let me point out a few items:

  1. The use of quotation mark around the word quick indicating that they are so-called by the client (his word) and that in his mind often these are not quick.
  2. Clearly, he uses the term client in all of its patron-benefactor denotation glory. He views my friend and others as the great unwashed, who can never understand the subtleties of his work.
  3. He acknowledges that these have become a problem, but rather that stratifying his clients (customers) and offering options, he decides to limit these connections for all.
  4. By limiting these interactions he is losing potential business. I am sure that some of these calls turn into engagements, now he will not ever get them because customers will be wondering if they should blow their one free call on something they think is insignificant.
  5. He also institutes a penalty of $1 for putting one of these on a credit card. I guess he would rather bill them in arrears and wait to be paid for at least 30 days. Why not just charge everyone $26 and call it even across the board?
  6. He insinuates that the answers giving by his receptionist and tax assistant have no value. If they answer the question then it must be unworthy. This makes them feel valued I am sure.
  7. Ultimately, he is blaming his own mismanagement of his resources on his customers.

Here is the kicker – he does not bill my friend by the hour, he fix prices all his work and as far as I know does not keep a timesheet. He could be a Trailblazer based on this. But the tyranny of time cuts deep, my friends, he is still mired in being a firm of the past.

6 thoughts on “How NOT to handle customer consultations

  1. Hard to say exactly what would fix this issue.

    I’d suggest maybe offering a pre-tax planning session included with the tax return for an added fee (I’d build that into my price).

    I’d also work hard on a FAQ of some sort if I was getting repeated questions — the receptionist could email these out.

    It’s going to be nearly impossible to dig out extra fees for quick questions and the entire email pretty much acknowledges that.

    I’m a much bigger fan of realistic pricing (would be curious when the last time fees were changed here) and building in one quick question to my price. Some clients would call. Some would not. Overall I’d make 25% more.

    Some of this is time management — with a receptionist I’d suggest holding all calls until a certain part of the day. Why does every call have to be immediately put through as an interruption ?

    And if the AICPA requires documentation — what’s happening when the receptionist “fields a freebie” — that’s a bit scary.

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  3. Very interesting – I agree Ed with your assessments, my initial input is if I were a client I would feel talked down to as this is all about him and not ME. To a certain extent I can understand his situation, but I would ask myself how I can create a clietn perceived opportunity out of this while managing my time better. Speaking from experience, having an answer for a “quick” question of mine is extremely important to me and incredibly valuable to have answered. I recognize some may be so basic, but again, my perception is my reality. I hate the nickel and diming and whats more is that the enforcement of these fees will create more time challenges in my opinion(billings, collections, disagreements, etc). My approach would lean more to how can I serve my clients this valuable service and manage my workload. Perhaps an hourly online chat session, weekly, etc for all my customers free of charge. That may provide some documentation requirements as well as allowing others to see answers as many people may have the same question. I would actually increase the number of times available during the busy time as that is when clients have the most questions. At the same time you are giving yourself the time you need to get done what needs to get done. Anyway – that is a quick thought on an interesting article.

  4. Well put, Ed. Good advice for the CPA but I doubt he’d implement your suggestions.

    I love that he admits, “The preparation of your tax forms is tedious work. . .”. If it’s so tedious, why doesn’t he leave the tax prep to his tax assistant so he can find something he actually enjoys doing?

    I’m not sure I’d want tax advice provided by the Receptionist.

    If I were your friend, I’d find a new CPA.

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