Tips for handling anxious clients
It’s no surprise that accountant Joshua Hanover frequently discusses tax law and offers strategic advice to clients. What is unusual is that while doing so he likes to quote a popular phrase from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic.
These words from the popular science-fiction series serve him well when dealing with the anxiety he often encounters during his work as a senior manager in Marks Paneth LLP’s real estate group and tax practice.
Paul Herman, CPA, also handles anxious clients at his full-service accounting firm Herman & Company CPAs PC in White Plains, N.Y. “People are anxious because you’re dealing with something that’s very important to them, their money,” he said. “When they’re dealing with the IRS, or one of the states, they have a limited amount of control, and nobody wants to be out of control, especially when it comes to your money.”
Most accountants are well trained to deal with technical issues. But there is minimal guidance for playing the role of unofficial psychiatrist. We spoke with several experts who offered advice for when you find yourself in that position:
This gives you a chance to spot or hear potential anxiety signals including being nervous, moving around a lot, exhibiting jitters and talking rapidly, said Heidi McBain, a licensed therapist and counselor based near Dallas. “There is something to be said about eye contact” that can be calming and reassuring, said McBain, who offers online counseling.
Small talk can also provide valuable insight. Initially, “we just talk, not even about taxes,” said Hanover, who is based in Boca Raton, Fla. “What do they have planned for the future? What is their family history? We need to see the entire picture. Their anxiety might not even be based on something tax-related or financial.”
While listening, she suggested, monitor for “trigger” words that may signal anxiety, such as “worried,” “fear,” or “scared,” adding that it is acceptable to acknowledge that someone seems anxious.
Hanover suggests treating an anxious client as gently as he handled his children’s fears of monsters in the closet: Treat them as though they are real, even though you know they are not. “I have to be careful in the way they are handled,” he said. “In the kid’s mind, those concerns are real.” Treat clients the same way: They may not have extensive tax expertise, but any issues they bring up should be treated as legitimate, even if you know they are not.
Added Lail: “Anxiety is minimized as clients build their trust in you as their adviser. This is an evolving process, but if you’ve earned their trust over the years, clients know they can rely on you to make decisions that are in their best interest.”
Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director of content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.
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