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IN PRAISE OF THE SCREW-UP CLIENT

[Note: I’ve not yet found a gender-neutral pronoun that sounds elegant to my ears so please forgive the antiquated “he” throughout.]

I’ll tell you a little secret about what I do. Tax work when the client comes in with his records in pristine condition and just needs me to translate that to a return isn’t that fun. Bookkeeping work when the client does everything right and just needs me to take a look and bless it isn’t that fun.

Now that I read that, it probably isn’t all that much of a secret, huh? Don’t get me wrong, I still like that work because the CLIENTS are fun. But what I want to talk about today is what is to me a very underappreciated part of CPA life: The Screw-up Client.

The Screw-up Client doesn’t have his financial life together for any number of reasons. I have clients who have emotional issues around money so severe they discuss them with a therapist. I have clients whose ex “always handled that stuff”. I have clients who really just think it’s boring but have finally accepted that it’s part of life so SOMEBODY (but not them!) needs to do it.

The Screw-up Client generally comes to me a bit apprehensively. He doesn’t like accountants (tough but fair). He’s had an accountant that either talked above his head or talked down to him and he’s not sure which was worse. He’s been invested in “if I ignore this I don’t have to deal with it” for so long the whole thing makes him anxious. He’s afraid I’ll be unapproachable. He’s afraid I won’t “get” what he’s about or what he needs. He’s afraid I’ll try to sell him a bunch of services he can’t afford. He’s afraid I’ll judge him when I hear just how much of a Screw-up he is.

Well, here’s what really happens.

We sit down (or if you’re remote we talk on the phone or do a Google Hangout) and I type notes while you talk because I can’t read my own handwriting. Don’t let it make you nervous. I ask what your current situation is. You tell me something you think is shameful (“My business is entirely cash and I want to go legit”, “I don’t even know the last year I filed a tax return”, “Somebody mentioned sales tax to me last week and I have literally never even thought about that”, “I’ve been putting IRS letters in a stack on my kitchen table, but they froze my bank account today so I probably need to talk to someone”). If you laugh, I laugh. If you’re stoic, I’m calm and unfazed. You cope how you cope and I’m adaptable. Then I outline an action plan, quote you an hourly rate, request that you sign a (tax-only) power of attorney, and ask how much you want to be kept in the loop on what I’m doing. I’ll copy you on every email I send, or I’ll send you a final answer and the bill if that’s possible.

That’s it. For you. As for me, I get to have FUN. I love solving a problem. I love a unique situation. I love doing something that I know I do at least as well as anybody around.

I left my job earlier this year for many reasons, but chief among them was the feeling that I should be doing something to help people. At the time, I was certain that meant a career change, but it turns out that isn’t the case. I’m not changing the world, but I’m changing the lives of individual people, and that works too.

Reach out if you’re ready to be a Reformed Screw-up Client.

Dawn Howard