Print Edition
      September 2013

Quality counts

By Phil Cowperthwaite
Illustration: Mike Ellis

Ensuring your clients are the ones you really want takes time and effort, but in the end it’s a win-win for everyone

Every professional wants quality clients, that is, those with some combination of professional challenge, acceptable engagement risk and a good fee recovery. But many practitioners have what they consider difficult clients, who are just plain hard to service for a variety of reasons.

The importance of having and maintaining quality clients seems self evident. Difficult ones can be overly demanding on staff and firm resources for the fees they are willing to pay, may treat professional services as a necessary evil, and carry a higher than normal engagement risk.

A quality client is not always one that is easy to service. However, the risks and challenges are understood by everyone involved in the engagement and the value added by the professional is appreciated.

So how do practitioners determine which clients are best suited to them and their firm and, just as importantly, how do they go about shedding those that are overly difficult to service?

Establish quality client service and quality client profiles
As a practitioner, it is essential to determine what the attributes of quality client service are to you and, equally important, what a quality client for your firm looks like. Unfortunately, this is not a one-size-fits-all exercise.

One way to establish what quality client service and a quality client look like from the auditor’s perspective is to develop a profile for both that are unique to the firm and the practitioner. Evaluating new and existing clients — and the ability to service them — against these profiles is an important first step to consciously building a practice full of quality clients.  

Quality service  To deliver quality service, think about what your firm considers quality service and determine whether you can deliver that service on a client-by-client basis.

Good practice management is not only profitable, it is also a requirement — many of the attributes of quality audit service are requirements in Canadian auditing standards (CAS). Specifically:

Quality clients  Consider what type of client is important to you. Factors to consider when establishing the profile of a quality client could include, but are not limited to:

Using your profiles
Quality-client service and quality-client profiles are only helpful if they are used. And that means taking the time to compare prospective or existing engagements against these profiles.
If a prospective or an existing engagement does not fit your profiles, then you need a good reason to accept the engagement. At stake are higher-than-acceptable engagement risks at best and a failed engagement at worst, coupled with lower-than-acceptable profit margins.

Consider developing a one-page checklist that works for your firm, listing the attributes you consider essential to performing quality service and gauging the quality of a client. Complete the checklist before accepting a new client. Do this again at the end of every continuing assignment to evaluate whether the client continues to be right for you, your staff and your firm.

Disengaging from difficult clients
How can you disengage from a difficult client? How about one that has been a client for years?

Chances are difficult clients could be as dissatisfied with your service as you are with them. In addition, staff members are likely not thrilled with having to work and deal with a difficult client year after year.

If you have identified a client that does not fit your quality-client profile and you have decided to end the relationship, consider the following:

Quality clients are good for everyone. They receive the best service and staff members enjoy being part of the engagement team. By definition, quality clients also have a risk profile acceptable to the firm culture and good fee recoveries.

But — just like any relationship — making sure all your clients are the ones you want takes time and effort. Figuring out what you are looking for in a client relationship, comparing this with the attributes of current and prospective clients, and taking action to end unacceptable relationships is a formula for success for both your firm and for your clients.

Phil Cowperthwaite, FCA, is a partner of Cowperthwaite Mehta and a member of the IFAC’s Small and Medium Practices committee

Technical editor: Ron Salole, vice-president, standards (retired)

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