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Lessons from a Bad Client

In  March 2010, my accountant told me I was a bad client. I’m not saying he implied that I was a bad client or hinted at his meaning. He looked me straight in the eye, sighed, and told me flat out that I was a bad client. He was right.

I had been with my accountant, Mike Weinberg of Weinberg, Griffith, Tucker & Jones PA, since starting this firm in 2002. Over the years, I have come to value his insight, his genuine concern for his clients, and his principled approach. But valuing those things is not the same as utilizing them.

Every year, I would gather my information from the past year – internally generated general ledger, payroll reports from ADP, personal information and receipts, etc. – and turn them over to Mike…usually somewhere around March. Mike’s firm would prepare the requisite returns, I’d pay the taxes, pay my bill, and put the process to bed for another year.

But a strange thing happened over the years. The firm grew, added employees, and became what one might call a “real” business. We had employees depending on us to help pay for their homes, their children’s education, and contribute toward their long-term security. We had a diverse and growing client base. We had become, in other words, a “real” business.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t acting like I ran one. Even while guiding clients through some extremely complicated situations, I was running my business like it was a start-up. Certainly, I had all the trappings of a real business – I had an insurance agent, an accountant, a benefits advisor and an IT consultant – but that wasn’t Mike’s point.

When Mike called me a “bad client” he was telling me that it was not enough to engage consultants if I was not willing to put forth the effort to use them properly. He wasn’t after a fee; what he wanted was communication. He wanted me to work with him during the year so we could do some tax planning and discuss the strategies he could employ to help us reach our goals as a firm. What he needed was for me to make it possible for him to bring me his best; when I failed to do that, year after year, I earned my label as a “bad client.”

I’ll never forget this discussion. It took all of 2 minutes and it contained one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as both a lawyer and a business owner. I’ve given that speech to my clients – those who pay me to be reactive, rather than allow me to be fully engaged in the pursuit of their goals. I gave the speech last week to a client who made an appointment to see me this week after many months of silence. I’ll probably continue to give this speech to carefully selected audiences for the rest of my career.

As we approach 2012, perhaps you may want to consider the advisors you value and ask yourself if, objectively speaking, you too have been a bad client. If so, maybe the new year brings with it a chance for you to do better.