Last week another CPA asked me how I achieve balance when working in these very intense relationships. It's not uncommon for clients to come to rely on you for a whole host of things. Despite your best attempts to outline scope in a fixed price agreement they will inevitably ask you to do things that, in your mind, are not included in the proposal they accepted. This is natural because your clients have never experienced anyone offering the kind of service that you offer. Strategic consulting is a lot different than traditional CPA work. Clients literally don't know what to expect. As things come up most will just ask for your help and expect that if you can't do it under the original agreement you will tell them. The problem we run into is when WE don't say no.
As a rule of thumb you should expect to say no to some type of request within the first two months of working with a new client. If you haven't said no once in your first 60 days it's almost a guarantee that you are working out of scope. And it's not the client's fault. The client doesn't know any better. They have never had anyone like you before. The only thing they have to go on is their current experience. So if you say you'll do the work they assume it's included. If you start saying you won't do the work then they will know it's not included.
The truth is we hardly ever tell clients that we won't do the work. We simply say, "That definitely sounds like something that would be valuable for you. If you'd like us to move forward there are just a handful of questions that I could send you in an email. We call it an Additional Service Request. When you get those answers back to me I will put together a quote and let you know how much it would cost."
This approach gives the client plenty of options. You are not asking them to commit to an additional investment. You are simply letting them know that if they want to move forward you are going to need more information before you can tell them how much of an investment they should expect. Once you send over your questions they will have another opportunity to either choose to answer them or tell you they've decided they can handle it on their own. If they answer your questions they will get one more opportunity to make up their mind before committing to a financial investment. This multistep back-and-forth can take as little as a couple of hours. Or it can take longer if you stall because you are uncertain whether you want the work.
If I have this conversation with a client it is almost always because I want the work. If I didn't want the work I would have said something else along the lines of, "That sounds like it will be a worthwhile project. Do you think John on your team could handle it on his own or is it something he would need someone else on the team to help out with?" The client clearly gets the message that I think this is something they can take care of internally.
There are obvious times when clients will ask you to weigh in on things you should punt to another expert. Reviewing contracts is a common one. I tell clients their attorney is better suited for that than I am. I have also been asked to weigh in on complex benefits programs. Again we reach out to outside experts who know a lot more and can actually move forward with implementation if the client makes a decision. As a general rule of thumb I find that CPA’s are pretty good at staying out of areas where they know just enough to be dangerous.
But controlling the scope of your work isn't just about staying within your sphere of competency. It is important for me to keep clients moving on their strategic plan. There will always be additional work available during execution. But if I slow down to manage that work I give up my role as the driver of bigger priorities. Some clients won’t have any problem keeping you busy on project work even if they are paying extra because it takes the heat off of them to execute the strategic plan. If you move forward with an Additional Service Request make sure that 1) it will not slow down execution and 2) it contributes to the priorities of the current quarter.