I’m in dispute with my accountant at the moment over his latest bill, which seems exorbitant. I wrote explaining my concerns: that work had been completed that I hadn’t requested; that the time taken, with the associated cost, seemed far more than what the tasks demanded; and that a letter of engagement setting our their costs and conditions hadn’t been provided to me before the work commenced (apparently a no-no).

I’m not without blame in this. I should have been clearer in what I wanted them to do for me, and should have understood that having requested a company tax return, for example, it was natural for them to also complete the company accounts. The greater oversight on my part was not demanding the engagement letter. They’re at fault by not formally submitting it, but I’m a duffer for not asking for it before they started working.

My error is a common one for me. You would think I would know better, but my default attitude is one of trust. I’m one of those old-fashioned types who generally believes that people will do the right thing, and that my word is as good as my bond. Mostly that’s good enough too, but not always obviously. (Ironically when wearing my consultants hat I’m a stickler for getting everything ticked off as a matter of good governance).

I received a response yesterday to my email. I won’t bother going through all the blah, blah, blahs, but it’s the last line that caught my eye. He stated, my accountant, that normally he would be charging me for the time he took in responding to my email, but on this occasion he would waive it. To me that goes to the heart of a lot of things wrong in professional services these days.

I used to work in that environment. I still do occasionally. When I worked for one of the international firms it was gospel that we would charge our time out in 7 minute, or 11 minute (elsewhere), blocks. That was drilled into us.

It never sat comfortably with me. It made me feel mercenary. More particularly it made me feel that my purpose in meeting with clients was to rack up billable hours in 7 minute increments, rather than serve them with my expertise and experience. It reduced me to a commodity. I guess that’s the bottom line when you’re doing business, but when it’s such a blatant factor I think it corrupts the process, and undermines trust.

Trust should be the essential aspect of the relationship between client and consultant: faith that the job will get done as it has been contracted, and confidence that the trust between client and consultant will not be abused.

The fact of the matter is that consultants and professional services firms are held in poor regard by so many because that trust does not exist. There are bad apples out there who gold plate their contract, or drag the job out to maximise their income. More commonly professional service firms invoice their clients virtually down to the second. That may be in their charter, but it does nothing to build rapport with the client, who comes away thinking that in the consulting world greed is good.

I think it’s foolish. I’m a strong believer in partnering with my client. I’m in it with them, and I want them to know that. I find that goal is undermined if I then start charging them for everything. I provide my clients with a service agreement which details everything. I make it clear at the same time that I’m flexible and reasonable. I don’t start the meter any time they call me. Email is a part of business, and not something I will add to the invoice. In fact I tend to be generous and err on the side of conservatism when I bill them.

I think that’s good business practice. It engenders trust and it builds a relationship. I’m a straight-shooter, and they know it. Most importantly it makes for long-term relationships. I’d rather work with a client repeatedly over a number of years than milk him dry at the first opportunity and never see him again. What I’m about is creating goodwill.

That’s what my accountant has lost. He’s gone hard finding every angle to bill me – this is not the first time I’ve had reason to object. Well, he’s got some cash out of me, but he’s lost my business.


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