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Hints on Handling Awkward Conversations with Clients

You’re going to be raising prices. You’re looking to sever your relationship with a client. You need to remind a client about their obligation to bring you referrals. There are all sorts of conversations that can make the average accountant queasy – and all sorts of reasons you can come up with to put the calls off until another day.

The problem is setting aside important calls, no matter how unpleasant they may be, can have some serious repercussions for your firm. At the very least the stress of the thought of making the calls stays with you as a distraction – at the worst something that needs to be done for the betterment of your firm gets set aside and your business suffers for it.

However, you’re an accountant, a wizard when it comes to numbers but without training when it comes to delivering bad news. What can you do to make it easier for you to get these painful calls over and done with?


Make the call a solid thing instead of just something you’ll get around to by marking it down on your calendar. Even better, mark it down somewhere where your employees can see it, so you now have accountability to your team built into your schedule.

Better yet, make the calls the first thing you do in the morning. You already naturally lose energy and motivation throughout a normal workday, making it less likely for you to want to have to tackle an unpleasant call later in the day.

But if you do it first thing in the morning you’ll have more energy and you won’t be as sour on the idea of the call. This will come through to the client in your voice. Additionally, you’ll have more experiences through the day that will drag your attention away from the experience of the call whereas if you leave the call until after that’s likely all you’re going to be thinking about.

Prepare a script

You don’t have to write down something that you’re going to recite to your clients word for word, but having an agenda written down can keep you from having to stumble for words. It also makes sure that you hit all the important points that you want to make instead of forgetting something in your haste to finish up the call.

So consider writing down:

  • The main point of the call: “I’d like to take a minute to chat about the referrals we discussed in our last meeting.”
  • Why this issue is important. If you can, first frame it by saying why your client is suffering from not having this issue resolved, and then detail how it’s not doing your firm any good either.
  • How you think you and your client should best proceed. If you want to sever the relationship, perhaps you can refer them to other firms you believe would better serve their interests. If you’re looking for some promised referrals, you can outline why you asked the client for referrals from them (butter them up as an A-list client) and the qualities that you’re looking for in the referrals. By listing the qualities you may help your current client immediately think of a colleague or friend who fits the bill. Whatever the resolution, try to make it involve concrete steps that can be check-marked by specific dates.

Again, you don’t have to write this all out word for word. This script can just be in point form. The point is to have a list of prompts that keeps you moving smoothly through the call. It can also be a big help if you use the list to anticipate any objections your client may raise and have an answer ready for your response.

Consider your language

If you’re going to be making the dreaded contact by email rather than by phone then take a moment to consider the language that you use. You want your language to reflect that you have control of the situation, rather than you’re making a panicked attempt to fix a problem.

Controlled language is more likely to get you the results that you want because it makes it sound like you’ve reasoned out the situation and you’ve deduced the best possible outcome for both the client and your firm. On the other hand language that indicates panic is going to meet more resistance because it’s going to seem like you’re having a kneejerk reaction to a crisis.

So for example your subject line dealing with a price increase might go:

Pricing update: Here’s how our new pricing structure will benefit you.

As opposed to:

FOR YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION: Your prices are about to change!

We’ve exaggerated a bit in the second example, but you get the idea.

Take a breath

Inside your brain is something called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your works that tells other parts of your body to either relax or to speed up in the face of threats (increased heart rate, intestinal activity, clenched bits in your lower half).

By taking deep and controlled breaths you’re telling that system that everything is okay, these calls are just part of the job. While it doesn’t change the cause of the stress, the breathing changes how your body reacts to those causes.

So before you place the call take a few minutes to breathe deeply enough to visibly move your diaphragm, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then do a slow exhale. If you’re really keyed up, find a private spot where you can lie on the floor on your back and practice the breathing with your hands on your stomach so you can feel it rise and fall with each breath.

Find a private space

Sometimes the thought of other people in the office hearing you make the call can add stress to an already anxious situation. So if you can find a space where nobody else can hear you making the calls.

Find a pro

You might have someone in your office that has the golden touch when it comes to making these types of calls. This isn’t to get you off the hook; rather you can use these people to learn how they deal with these kinds of transactions, implementing what you learn from them in your own future calls.

The skills you learn from dealing with these unpleasant situations are going to be a boon for your firm. Not only will you be able to handle clients with grace, but they will also give you a skillset that can be applied to dealing with troubling employees and problems that arise in your social media campaigns.

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