how to say no to clients

Overwhelming workload: Is this your reality at the moment?

You have clients calling you on the landline, mobile and via Whatsapp or Facetime? Add into the mix you have multiple pings coming at you from all the communication channels you have set up to keep in touch with your team who are now working from home, clients and wider community? Then you find yourself on back-to-back phone calls or ‘zoom’ calls with clients and your project teams. And when you are on the phone to clients they are really struggling, highly emotional and need more than just a quick 5-10 min chat. If this is you right now, I suspect that you have an overwhelming workload. As the crisis began to hit I thought my workload would go down and I would have loads of time to focus on what really matter now I wasn’t doing so much travelling. How wrong was I! If this is you right now, the first thing you need to do is just stop. And I mean stop for a moment. If you are going to get through this crisis with your health and sanity intact, then you need to put yourself back into control. This means taking a break to think through how you need to personally make adjustments to how you are working in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed. This blog post contains my best tips to help you if you have an overwhelming workload right now… and this is the same for most of your part of the firm right now.

Cut down the communication channels

If you are to focus or do any work at all, and particularly when clients, team and household members are crying out for your attention, the way you use your communication channels has to become more disciplined. Successfully dealing with an overwhelming workload is often about being disciplined about what you will do and where you will focus your time. These are the tips we have been recently giving to our clients:

  • Set expectations with clients for how they can get in touch with you and stick to this. For example, if they are not ringing your direct dial (as instructed) to call you then don’t take their Whatsapp or call via the mobile. You may find it helpful to put on the bottom of your email, how clients can get in touch with you.
  • Educate the members of your firm working on your projects and matters right now about how they can get hold of you and the best times for doing this. This means scheduling dedicated time in your diary for these conversations.
  • When you want time to really focus, turn off notifications about new messages, in particular Whatsapp or any team communication channels.
  • If you need more help with your willpower, use a technology solution like Freedom (affiliate link) to set times to block access to the most distracting sources on your phone, tablet and computer such as Email, Whatsapp, Slack, Social Media etc

Delegate like your life depended on it

Hopefully we will never have to live through another time like this again in our life times. Now is not the time to worry about your chargeable time targets by hanging onto things or thinking only you can deal with it. This isn’t just because of your overwhelming workload. Remember your partners will be looking to see who has potential for the future right now, in other words who thinks commercially. Those fee earners who become expensive because they don’t delegate stuff to the more junior members will potentially be the ones who the firm decides to get rid of if it needs to do a round of redundancies.  Your aim as a future partner is to delegate as much as you can down to more junior members of staff. This is one of the best ways to successfully be dealing with overwhelm right now. This will then free you up with the important things such as:

  1. Keeping an eye on the workflow to make sure everything gets done
  2. Speaking and communicating with clients
  3. Ensuring that your team or the people working on your matters, assignments or projects remain positive and upbeat

For more help with delegation read:

Run daily or even twice daily operational huddles

Our clients have reported that one of the sources of their overwhelming workload is balancing the requirements of their team, clients, household members and partners not used to working from home. If it is not a client wanting an urgent answer then it is a staff member with a query about one thing or another, or it’s a partner freaking out and trying to micromanage all their client projects and workload. Before the crisis really hit we always recommended to our clients from The Accountants Millionaires’ Club side of our business, that they have a Daily Operational Huddle with their team members. Our members have told us many, many times – particularly when they had an overwhelming workload during busy season that these operational huddles were a lifeline. The Daily Operational Huddle should be held by an intact team. For example, everyone working on a big project you are running, or all the audit managers who work on your clients. If you have lots of disparate teams you may find that you need to run a few of these Daily Operational Huddle with each of your teams. In the huddle everyone get 1-2 mins to talk through the answers to these questions or similar type questions:

  • What am I happy/grateful or positive about?
  • What am I going to complete today?
  • What help or support do I need to complete this?

The important part of these questions are to keep the first question as this helps boost people’s mood and stops them getting defensive. The second part of the questions is about helping your team become outcome driven (essential if they are to be a great virtual team), but also helps you identify who needs what help to get things done. You can then proactively get the team members the help they need, without getting interrupted at random times during the day.

Add in a structure to your day to avoid suffering with overwhelming workload right now

Most of us are probably discovering what it is like to work from home right now. Maybe you had a rose-tinted view of working from home, and always wanted the chance to work more from home. Maybe you had a vision that you would be ultra-efficient with your workload but still have time for the stuff that matters, like doing more exercise, taking a break when you felt like it…. If that was you, perhaps the reality is very different. We are hearing from many accountants, lawyers and consultants around the world that they feel like they are being welded to their desk chair at home on endless conference calls. Often when people start working from home they feel guilty if they are not sitting at a desk for at least 8 hours. Remember that if you were going into an office you wouldn’t be sitting at your desk for 8 hours solid. Your day would be broken up by phone calls, meetings, travelling to see clients etc. If you are finding that you have an overwhelming workload, say if you are in wills and probate, you are probably never going to be able to spend enough time with your clients and team right now. One way of dealing with an overwhelming workload is actually accepting your reality and being aware of what you can or can not control. And this is just the reality of the moment. What can help you make sure the time you do spend is productive is by adding in a structure to your day. For example:

  1. For the hours you are at your most productive, set these aside for your own client work which requires you to concentrate. Do not allow yourself to get pulled into a client or staff meeting in these hours. Tell your team and any members of your household about these times, and that you are not to be disturbed.
  2. You may find that your firm has got an automatic meeting booking system which allows you to set times when clients can book time in your diary. Allocate these times when you are not at your most productive and would welcome the distraction of a call with clients. Ensure that you use the ‘padding’ option so that for every meeting a client books via the automatic booking system you choose you have 5 – 10 mins between calls to write your notes, do any quick next steps, and get yourself in a position where you are mentally ready for the next call.
  3. Decide on the times when you will STOP working in the morning and the afternoon. When you are working from home it becomes all too easy to get welded into your desk chair and not get up for hours and hours. Your brain needs time to recharge to be at its best.

How to deal with clients all being desperate for your time

One of the reasons you may have an overwhelming workload right now is your clients are desperate for your time. After all, it’s only natural for clients to be scared and anxious right now. Both about the health of their family and loved ones, but also whether their job maybe on the line in the near future.  And as a result, they don’t feel able to keep the phone calls short. In this scenario you need to lead your clients, rather than be led by them or you will spend all your time on the phone to them. Our blog post “5 ways small accountancy firm owners survive and thrive the tsunami of work brought by COVID-19” talked about triaging your clients. This is an essential exercise if you are going to be able to cope with the sheer volume of clients needing your time.

You need to lead your clients, rather than be led by them

1. Call all your clients

It’s very much good practice now to phone all of your clients to see how they are doing. That way you and your team can validate who really needs the help of your firm and what help they need. If your client list is huge, then it’s time to share out the client calls between you and the other members of your firm who work on these clients.

2. Set up virtual weekly question and answer sessions for your clients to join

Depending on the nature of your business, you may find that your clients welcome attending an online virtual surgery session with other clients of your firm to discuss what is happening to their business and the help that is available. As many clients have exactly the same questions, these virtual surgery sessions are a great time saver. These surgery sessions are often good for your smaller clients to attend.

3. Send regular updates by email to your clients

Now is not the time to disappear. Your clients need you right now. This means emailing as well as calling your contacts to find out how they are feeling and coping. You may find that your marketing department is doing all of these client communications for you. Or they may welcome someone like you volunteering to help write them. And right now, your partners will be seeing who in their team is rising to the challenge and who is struggling at the moment.

4. Tell your clients via email how they can help you

If you are finding you have an overwhelming workload as your clients are continually bombarding you with email queries and phone calls, now may be the time to set expectations about the best way to get in contact.

5. At the start of a call with clients set expectations for the call

You are on a call to a desperate client, it’s only natural that you will want to spend as much time as they need in order to help them. However, if you did this now for every single client or contact, you’d not have time to eat or sleep. Here are some tips from our clients how they are coping with this scenario:

  • At the start of the call stating how long they have got for the call and why it needs to end on time, e.g. “I then have a call with another client in a similar difficult position to you”
  • Ask clients at the start of the call to prioritise what they really want from the call
  • Set an audible timer 5 mins before the end of the call to remind you to start to wind the call down

6. Aim to move the client to a logical and rational state quickly

There is a huge amount of emotion present right now. Most people are in a heightened state of fear and anxiety about the health of their family and friends, and also the health of their job or business. This level of emotion doesn’t make it easy to quickly work out a plan of action for a client. In this scenario, with any client call, after you have understood the priorities for the call, it’s essential to check out their emotional state. Allow some time in the call to just listen and hear how they are feeling about things. The more you can allow someone to talk, rant or vent, the easier it will become to help them take rational and well-thought out decisions.

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