How to talk to clients: intermediate

(Content warning: moderate sufficient profanity)

For those of you that have mastered the skills in the elementary course, now it’s time to step it up: this time I am going to give you some tips on how to communicate diplomatically.  I am joined today by More Charitable Athena (MCA) who more accurately represents my true professional persona.


Scenario 1:

When the client gives you a supporting schedule that has no relation whatsoever to the area you are trying to audit:

Don’t say: Your stuff is fucked up.  Fix this shit before you give it back to me.

Although this is probably the most accurate thing you can say, it is ultimately unhelpful.  Mainly because if it were obvious to your client how fucked up their shit is, they would have fixed it before they gave it to you.  So you have to point out specifics about where and exactly how much their shit is fucked up.

Also, the aggressive phrasing can be a bit off-putting.  They might get defensive, cry, or worse, complain to your boss about what a big meanie you are.  Bosses are notoriously unsympathetic to client misstreatment of their employees, so if that happens you’re really screwed.

Instead try: I am having some difficulty with this supporting schedule you provided (point out at least two or three specific things that don’t work).  Could you please prepare a reconciliation between the supporting schedule and the account I’m looking at?

MCA says: Many people who work in private accounting (i.e. our clients) spend all day working in the trees.  They see the bark on one tree, the sap on another, that damn squirrel that ALWAYS grabs those acorns that need to stay JUST SO to put the picture together.  (Their training conveniently neglected to mention that goddamned squirrel, by the way.  They had to figure that shit out all on their own.)  They don’t see the forest because they have more than enough to do with just the goddamned trees.  So when we auditors come in looking at the forest, we need to communicate with them in terms of the trees they understand.

Bonus: When the client gives you the exact same shit they gave you before that’s fucked up in the exact same way and says, “Here you are – I fixed it.”

Don’t say: What in the actual fuck?  This is the same shit as before, fucked up in the exact same way.  Try again, numbskull.

Same pitfalls as above.  Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?

Instead: Bring your computer over to them and ask, “Can you walk me through exactly how this reconciles these two areas?”

MCA says: I have found that a lot of people don’t know what it’s like to not know what they know.  Sure, THEY know that you have to add these three numbers and subtract 1/3 of the fourth number and multiply by the average internally-assigned acuity code of the patient population because they DO it every month.  But you don’t.  If you ask them to reperform what they did, one of two things will usually happen: 1) you will understand it, too; or 2) they will see that the supporting schedule they gave you is actually wrong and will fix it for real.


Scenario 2:

When the client disagrees with you and you turn out to be right (duh):

Don’t say: In yo FACE, sucka!!  Haven’t you learned yet not to argue with me?  I’ve forgotten more shit than you’ll ever know!

So you know all there is to know about accounting and auditing.  Fan-fucking-tastic.  Is that really where your sense of self-worth comes from?  Has it occurred to you that most people have priorities other than your particular area of expertise?  Look, the unfortunate reality is that while you see how important it is for people who do accounting for a living to, oh I dunno, actually know something about accounting, the rest of the world doesn’t feel that way.  And it shows.  Don’t suffer under any illusion that you’re going to change this.

Instead say: I’ll go ahead and post the adjustment on my end.  Would you like a copy?

MCA says: Most people care about doing their job right, but unfortunately may have been taught some incorrect or expired information.  If you want clients to be more helpful, get good at explaining things.  Talk to them in terms of the trees they understand (see Scenario 1 above) and walk them through how things work.  Draw pictures.  It helps.


Scenario 3:

When the client says to you on Thursday, “Let’s try and get these financial statements issued before I go on vacation next week.”

Don’t say: Well if you would quit having me change little LITTLE things that ripple through 7 workpapers, 2 adjusting entries, and 3 places in the report, maybe this would have already been done.  Don’t expect me to fix your shit and then question the manner in which I fix it.

Instead say: ….

(I got nothin’ here.  Ya just gotta do it at this point.  Sorry.)

MCA says: Can’t think of a positive spin on this one.  Your client’s just an asshole.


Note: This may or may not be inspired by my job right now.  I will admit nothing.

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2 comments

  1. There are times… when everything is f’d up for a reason, and the reason is that what you are standing on is not a floor but a rather thin crust covering the apocalypse. The entire edifice is about to collapse and everyone hopes that you will not step where they fear you may tread. It is why you never get what you ask for.

    I worked (briefly) in an IT role for a parts distributor. This was back in the magnetic ledger card days. Every week the accountant who processed their receivables began with the letter “A” and never made it beyond “M” because he had other things to do with his day, like run errands for his side business and get his hair cut.

    After weeks of obtuse behavior, I finally forced him to discuss transcribing the receivables into the mainframe computer. He asked to take a break – and never returned.

    1. Oh my – wow.

      Unfortunately that doesn’t surprise me. For some reason accounting departments in particular seem to be vulnerable to incompetence. I may have to discuss this in more detail in a future post, but I think the biggest reason is that outsiders (especially management) don’t know enough about accounting to know whether the accountant(s) are doing a good job. I could tell you stories about client after client who was screwing things up all year and then when the auditor (that’s me!) comes in at year-end, that’s when we fix everything. Now, the really frustrating clients don’t change what I tell them to change, which forces me to fix the same stuff every year in the same way.

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