Finding new clients is the essential first step to starting and growing your accounting business. Accountants who are just starting out are sometimes tempted to accept any client who will have them, almost without regard to other factors that could affect their work. Taking on just anyone, however, is usually a mistake, as unsuitable new clients may impose demands you have trouble meeting. To screen out bad matches, it helps to ask a few questions.
"How can I help you?" is a good question to start with. Getting an honest answer to it from new clients puts what is expected of you on the table right away and gives you a clear picture of whether it is going to be possible to please them. If you are a dedicated tax planner, for example, you need to know during the first meeting if the client is looking for tax services. If not — say, if the client wants estate planning — you can end the initial interview immediately with a friendly referral to a specialist. This saves the hard feelings that come with wasted time and puts you near the top of the list when the same client really does need the services you offer.
"How often will you need me?" might not be the kind of question you feel comfortable asking new clients, but the answer is something you need to know. Fixed-rate accounting work in particular places you in a vulnerable situation when clients regard you as being essentially on-call whenever they want to talk business. A client who takes two hours of your time once a quarter offers a substantially different return on investment than a similar client who needs you once a week. By successfully estimating the demand new clients are likely to have for your time, you are far more likely to make an accurate bid and get paid what your services are worth.
"How will you be paying for this?" is another question that new freelancers might be shy about asking, but it might be the most important question of all. Few things are as discouraging as pulling long hours to please the people whom you thought would be lucrative new clients, only to discover after the work is done that they want to be billed quarterly rather than monthly, or that your hourly rate is too high for them. Unpleasant surprises such as these can ruin contracts, though you can easily avoid them by settling your terms during the first meeting. Before new clients leave your office, make sure you both know — and have in writing — the payment amount, schedule, and method.
Recruiting new clients is exciting, and the last thing you want to do is scare them off during the initial interview. Getting the facts straight right away, however, serves you well in the long run, as any small number of new clients you lose with direct questions are replaced with more stable and rewarding accounting work over time.
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