I was in a pub deep in the Essex countryside the other week having a quiet drink with an old friend. I looked up towards the front door as it opened, one of those old fashioned bell-ring type arrangements that automatically drew your attention every time it opened. I saw two older looking guys come in and then looked back at my friend who was in the middle of telling me one of his many funny stories. But something had registered with me about one of the guys. I hadn’t seen his face but there was something very familiar about the frame and the way he held himself. I knew that I knew him from somewhere. After a minute or so the chap in question was at the bar ordering a couple of beers and I recognised him as a client that I used to look after quite a few years ago. We’ll call him Bob.
I smiled inwardly as my mind went back. Bob was a funny old egg. He had a successful business based in the high street of a historic Essex town. His company always made a profit but he had a habit of overspending and every year was something of a balancing act to find the right mixture of dividends, salary, trust distributions and rental income to balance the books in his personal life. Every year we would have the same conversation about how he had champagne tastes and a beer budget. “You can’t keep taking £100K out of your company each year Bob” I’d say with shrugged shoulders and a smile on my face. “We never did get to the bottom of those big cheques for £5,000 a piece, other than to say they were drawings”. Bob would always smile and shrug, “I know I know” he would say suitably chastened, and then continue spending money like no tomorrow.
Bob was a very popular guy with everyone who ever met him. Outgoing, polite and genuine, although a little slow in getting his accounts and tax details to us. The only trouble was that he was never shy of popping into the firm for a chat about nothing important, or picking up the phone to discuss the most trivial of things. Lovely guy or not, we made a crushing loss on the job every year and ended up writing off hundreds, if not occasionally thousands, of pounds in time costs. Thankfully the partners liked Bob and knew what he was like so it was never an issue for me personally. We had worked together for around five years when one day I had a call from reception to say Bob had turned up unannounced and could I spare him ten minutes. I popped down as usual to be met with an uncomfortable looking Bob. After the usual handshakes he told me, with a very guilty look on his face, that he was changing accountants.
I must admit that I was surprised, and I asked him why he was changing. “Oh it’s not the service” he said still looking guilty. “You guys are wonderful, it’s just the cost. I’ve found someone cheaper”. These are never the words an accountant wants to hear. Your first reaction is to think whether your pricing policy is wrong or if you should have tried to reduce fees before now, but in Bob’s case I quickly dismissed the idea. Bob had received a professional service second to none and way above the fees that he paid us. I asked him how much he’d been quoted and nearly fell over when he told me. Three hundred quid! “So let me get this straight” I said, “this new firm are going to prepare your tax return, two trust tax returns, rental accounts, annual meetings with tax overview planning and corporation tax planning and filing, for £300?. Bob nodded. Then I raised the subject of all the telephone calls and unscheduled meetings. Bob nodded again and told me they’d assured him the level of service he would receive would be as good as we provided if not better. Then he told me the name of the firm and I groaned inwardly. It was a small firm well known for selling false promises of cheap fees and customer service but who always failed to deliver. Professionalism stopped me from saying too much but I knew it would end in tears.
A few months later I had the first call from Bob, asking if I could chase a tax repayment for him. I pointed out very gently that we were no longer his accountants and that I couldn’t carry out any work for him. I suggested he get his new accountants to chase it up. “I can’t” said Bob, “They told me I should chase it”. I gave Bob HMRC’s number and told him what to say. Within a few weeks he was on the phone again saying he still hadn’t received the repayment. “Ah that’s a shame” I said, “But I’m not really sure why you’re telling me?”. “Can't you ring them” he said?
Over the course of the coming weeks Bob must have phoned me on half a dozen occasions, to do with bank charges, tax rebates, coding notices, tax statements etc. On each call I became less helpful, which I didn’t like doing, and I kept pointing out he had taken on a new agent who had promised to do this. The final straw came when he came to the office to ask for my help with something. I explained to Bob, in no uncertain terms that whilst I liked him a lot, I simply could not do work that I wasn’t engaged or being paid to do. I reminded him of the wonderful pitch the other agents had given him and asked why they weren’t delivering. “Nobody will speak to me” he said. I was tempted to say I-told-you-so but I liked him too much.
A few months later we received a clearance request from a new firm of accountants asking for copies of Bob’s tax returns etc. I rang them saying they should contact Bob’s most recent accountants who had all these details from when they took over from us. “We did”, they told us, and they never replied. It seems they took Bob’s £300 upfront, never did any work, didn’t send in his tax return and left him with a late filing penalty. I re-sent Bob’s details in the hope that the new firm would be able to look after him a bit better.
Back to the present day. Bob looked over from the bar and saw me. His face lit up in a way that a Labrador seeing its long lost master might. He almost broke into a jog as he came flying round the bar to see me and gave me a huge hug. “Hello mate” he said as if I was his long lost son. I introduced him to my friend who was sitting with a puzzled expression on his face, wondering who this ageing long lost friend was. We spoke for about 5 minutes about nothing in particular and I was pleased everything seemed to be going well in his life. He made to leave and then turned to me. “I’m sorry” he said, “for leaving you when I did. You were good to me and I just didn’t realise”. An elderly couple sitting at the bar gave me a very strange look. “I got it wrong” he said. “And I know I should have just come back but I felt silly”. The couple by the bar were staring at us intently, slightly open mouthed. “Come on you big old softy” I said, playing to the gallery and giving him a hug, “You’ll always be my favourite even though you could be quite demanding at times”. The old lady nearly fell off her bar stool. I thought about giving Bob’s backside a little squeeze for effect but decided against it. Bob wasn’t in on the joke and might end up punching me on the nose. He wandered away under the gaze of the old couple who then looked back at me. “I can’t help it” I said to my friend in a slightly theatrical voice “He schooled me in love and life and I’ll always miss him”
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