Dealing with Disorganized and Unfocused Clients

It’s tax time and your client is talking in circles. Your clients give you data in pieces and the data they give is still not what you are asking for. Here’s how to deal with it.

Running Through Client Interviews Quickly and with Focus

You must do it.

It’s not just all about the money. You have commitments to other clients to file quickly to get them their refunds or to file in time to meet deadlines. They are counting on you and to come through form them you have to move fast.

Also, you know what? It is partly about the money. You work too hard to have a chatty client throw a wrench in your 12-week tax season where you must earn most of your livelihood.

It’s also good for the client. Studies have shown that practicing offices with quick turn around times attract the most sales and see the best client retention rates. This is funny because it is the client who is unfocused and taking so much time in the first place.

The tax preparer’s struggle.

How to Process a Client Fast

Many tax practitioners take an hour with a client just for them to drop off their documents. In my opinion, this is MUCH too long.

If you are taking more than an hour then it’s time to be introspective about how you are handling these meetings.

First, I train my gatekeepers to politely tell clients, “please drop off your documents, let Tod work on your taxes, and he’ll call you in to review them before they are finalized, and he will address all of your questions and concerns at that time”.

This is not only a faster way of doing it, but a more accurate one as well. I’d rather spend the time reviewing the final product than explaining to them (for the 10th year in a row) that they must keep track of their business miles.

I have my agents hand them a “canned” hand-out to cover their specific questions, assure them that I will talk about it with them, and tell them that I will call them in when it is nearly done.

I will relent that sometimes you really need to sit with the client when they drop off their docs. Sometimes, they demand it, and it is a service industry, after all.

For these meetings, I shoot for 20 minutes TOPS, though there are some business clients that need more time, especially if they are new.

Let me show you the outline/checklist that I use to run though the drop-off interview.

The skill of moving unfocused clients past your desk quickly is one that must be developed. Work on these things one at a time.


  1. Take 2 minutes to listen to the client.
  2. Look over the clients’ prior year tax return.
  3. Ask questions, if needed, to gather more info about the clients tax situation.
  4. Gather any info you can and make a list of any items that are still needed. Give this list to the client and keep a copy.
  5. Ask the client if they have any additional questions or concerns.
  6. Clean up, stack their documents, give them their list, and then stand up!

Here is a detailed explanation of each checklist item.

  • 1) Take 2 minutes to listen to the client

Hopefully they will be talking about their taxes.  If not, then we know that we are going to need to assertively control the conversation for the rest of the meeting. Still, give them their two minutes and listen to them. After 2 minutes, stop them. Tell them that you understand and that you are very sorry about (whatever they are babbling about).

If you were really listening, which you should be, you will probably not have to fake this empathy. Show this to them by telling them “I bet you feel like blah blah blah”.

Don’t miss a beat in interrupting them with your empathy at the two minute mark and move quickly into the next step.

  • 2) Look over the prior year tax return

Ask them for their tax return and start reviewing it (or if they are a returning client, pull it up on your computer).

If they are chatting and you have a question, jot it down so when they stop you can hit them with everything at once.

At this point, your purpose of reviewing the tax return is to see what verbal info and what documented data you will need from them.

  • 3) Ask questions, if needed, to gather more info about the clients tax situation.

Now that you know what you need, extract it form the client efficiently. Be relentless to stay on the subject of each item until it is discussed effectively.  “Hang on, I need to know about this item specifically”, I will say as I interrupt them. I’ll even put my hand up gently to halt them from branching off. I always smile and keep my tone light and friendly. Get it done and move to the next step.

  • 4) Gather any info you can and make a list of any items that are still needed. Give this list to the client and keep a copy.

This is crucial to efficient data management and it is also self explanatory. When both you and your client have a clear list of what is needed, you both can be very effective in completing the task at hand – which is to complete and file the tax return.

  • 5) Ask the client if they have any additional questions or concerns.

Keep your answers short as most of these answers “depend” on several things anyway. Do not try to guess how much tax they will owe or how big of a refund they will get. Just tell them that you will do your best and that you will get that information to them very quickly.

Remember that you do not have to teach them the tax code. That is a mistake that I used to make a lot. Now I tell them, “don’t worry, I will handle that and I will show you how I did it”.

There is really not too many questions that will require more than a 1-3 sentence answer.

If an additional concern leads to more information to be needed, go back to the previous step and quickly knock out this item.

  • 6) Clean up, stack their documents, give them their list, and then stand up!

It’s time for them to go. You do not owe them more than what is on this list. You do not need to give them more than what is on this list for them to like you.

Stack their documents neatly. It should be obvious to them that you are “wrapping up”. If they are still rambling about their farm back in the day, just stand right up. Smile and start moving toward the door. You are busy and it’s not rude to do this in a friendly way. They will get the picture.

The Golden Rule About Opinions

dealing with clientsDon’t give them to clients. Ever! No such acquaintance cares about what you have to say about how you feel about something. I’m sorry to be cynical but nearly all of them really don’t.

98%+ of the general public are great talkers and horrible listeners.

You don’t get these clients to like you by telling them your opinion. You earn their endearment by being relevant and friendly. Relevant means that you are the ones who will be solving THEIR problem. That problem is that they need to file their taxes and they need someone to do it. Thus if you are friendly and you are a decent tax preparer, they will automatically like you. All you have to do is stay friendly and file their taxes.

Some clients will resent you taking their time with your opinion giving. Even the ones who expect you sit through their own pontificating.

That’s people for ya. Rise above this.

I’m not saying that you should never chat nicely with other people about what’s on your mind. Giving your opinion is just fine if you want to have a two way conversation while on break with your co-workers, at home with your family, or hanging out with friends.

But there is a time and a place.

When at you desk and with a client, it does zero good to give your opinion. You are just wasting time and money.

See more free articles about managing a tax practice here.

If you have had experiences with an unfocused clients, please leave a comment with how you dealt with them.

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