Want to build better client relationships? It starts with air-tight, scalable proposals.

New clients are exciting. They represent your firm’s growth, present new challenges and new opportunities to make a difference to people’s lives.

Two people sitting next to each other at a table with a laptop and fake plant. They're smiling and laughing.

But as you’ve likely learned from onboarding clients in the past, there are many places where things can go off the rails.

Maybe the client is abrasive in the discovery call, and you shrug it off because ‘revenue is revenue’.

Maybe you give them a cookie-cutter proposal because it works most of the time, but then the client has other needs that aren’t addressed. (Enter: the dreaded scope creep.) 

Or maybe the client talks a big game about their plans for working with you, but when push comes to shove, all they need is tax work.

The truth is, starting off your relationship with them with an air-tight proposal is key in fighting these fires—in fact, key in never letting them ignite in the first place.

Karbon Co-Founder and Chief Partnerships Officer, Ian Vacin, and Ignition’s Partnership Manager, Jennie Moore, recently hosted a webinar and live Q&A session to address common proposal pitfalls and how to prevent them.

They drew on decades of experience, including Jennie’s own processes, anecdotes and techniques from running her accounting firm, Moore Details.

Here are the highlights from their discussion:

Getting the most out of the discovery call

The discovery call, the sales call, whatever you want to call it, is where the foundation is laid for a good client relationship. The most important thing about this call is to do more listening than talking. 

“When I’m having my discovery calls, the big thing I do is ‘shut up and listen’. This is where we find out what our value is to the client so we can create a customized proposal to suit their needs,” Jennie says. 

She prefers a 30-minute discovery call, with extra 30-minute sessions scheduled at a later date (if needed). Jennie can usually tell whether a client is going to work out within the first five to ten minutes. Why waste an hour of everyone’s time if a half hour can cover the most pressing issues? 

Jennie leans on Calendly to inform her prepwork for discovery calls. While the potential client is booking their consultation, she’s configured Calendly to ask some screening questions to give her a basic understanding of what the client is seeking. 

She breaks it down further into two major tasks to accomplish: determining client fit and understanding what the prospective client needs from an accountant.

1. Does the client fit?

Among the most basic and critical things to suss out on your discovery call is whether you and the client will work well together. This gets broken down two ways: in the services that you offer and in personalities. 

Jennie shares the acronym she uses to assess client fit: DRAGON.

  • Delightful: If you dread talking to the client, they’re not delightful.

  • Respectful: There must be mutual respect between each party.

  • Articulate: The client has to know what they want and be able to communicate it.

  • Growth-minded: Clients don’t want to keep things the same ‘just because’.

  • Online: The prospective client uses up-to-date software for bookkeeping.

  • Niche: Jennie’s firm serves a particular vertical, and clients must be in their specialty.

If a client has passed this initial screening only to end up not being a fit—perhaps they’ve displayed some bad behavior with your staff—Jennie says it’s okay to give them notice and let them go as a client.

There’s no need to bog down your staff with bad client attitudes.

Jennie Moore, Ignition

2. Can you meet their needs? 

This is where Jennie’s ‘shut up and listen’ advice is everything. A few questions can help guide you through this part of the process if the client isn’t forthcoming with their needs:

  • What is working? What is not working?

  • What is your value to the client, and what do they hope you can take off their plate?

  • What about their accounting is keeping them up at night?

  • What are their needs and goals in the next year?

Jennie intentionally avoids conversations about pricing and offering up free advice on initial calls. Pricing comes with the killer proposal that you’ll write after you find out what the client needs. As for advice, you’re not there to help them through their latest struggle. You’re there to see if you and the client can have a lasting relationship that benefits both parties. 

Not sure how to price and package your services and attract clients? Here's a pricing for bookkeeping services guide.

Proposals that scale

After a client has made it past your first screening process with a successful discovery call, it’s time to write a proposal that will scale with the client.

Here’s how Jennie structures her proposals to go the distance:

1. Make the experience fool-proof with the right tech

You might think presenting a proposal using Microsoft Word is sufficient, but Jennie once lost a client because they couldn’t work out e-signatures in Word. They simply gave up due to a clunky process.

But thanks to tools like Ignition, there are much simpler ways to build (and sign) a proposal.

She even strays from the traditional letter of engagement because it feels outdated and stuffy.

Keep the tone of your proposals light, fun and fresh, building the client’s excitement about working with you.

2. Be explicit in written and spoken word

While you’re making a proposal that gets clients excited, there are still core items that have to be addressed to prevent future scope creep issues. 

The more explicit you are at the beginning about what the client can expect from you, the less confusion there will be. 

Jennie offers 3-tiered pricing packages, such as gold, silver, and bronze, with clearly defined services for each tier. When she does that, she’s careful not to over-generalize with terms like ‘advisory’ and ‘audit.’ She clearly defines what’s involved in each area of service. 

“Extrapolate when you say ‘tax’ or ‘bookkeeping.’ Define common things that come up in providing those services, and list what it doesn’t include,” she says. 

It might sound tedious to spell out every inclusion and exclusion, but it will prevent headaches down the road when a client takes advantage of the undefined. You’ll serve the client better and get compensated for the work you do.

It’s important to actually discuss the proposal with the client. Many people sign documents without reading in detail. Having a friendly conversation about the limits of what you’re offering will benefit both you and the client. Even a quick phone call after you send the proposal should be enough. 

Want more help with your proposal format? Karbon and Ignition offer a proposal template that helps you spell out the nitty gritty.

Recommended reading: How to deal with clients who ask for too much free advice

Managing the dreaded scope creep

Even with a well-defined proposal, completely eliminating scope change issues isn’t realistic.

While an explicit proposal will head off a lot of major issues, clients grow and change at varying rates. Here’s how Jennie and Ian recommend handling scope changes:

1. Keep it positive

Let’s say your client has grown their payroll by 50%. That means they’re growing, too. You can’t be expected to double your payroll offerings without a change in pricing. Rather than coming at it from a negative mindset, come to the client with a positive take.

“Celebrate with the client. I say ‘Congratulations! We’re now going to change your proposal to reflect this new stage for you’,” Jennie shares. 

2. Don’t work for free

Sometimes clients come in with messy books. It’s not fair to your firm to fix them for free. If there’s a prior firm that’s been working on the books, make the client work with their prior accountants. If the client was doing their own books, quote them for the clean-up work. 

“You represent yourself, not someone else’s work,” Jennie says of those situations. 

It’s the same deal when a client needs you to dive deeper into a complex issue—you are not being greedy to charge for the work that you do. 

A general rule of thumb from Ian: Bigger clients make more money and require more work. They hold a higher risk but should give you a higher reward. Bill accordingly.

Making the juice worth the squeeze: Client profitability

Finally, once your client is onboarded, look back and make sure the agreement and relationship are still working for your firm. Periodically look back over your client base and assess the workload for each.

Here are some questions to ask when evaluating profitability:

  • Are certain clients eating up a lot of time but not billed accordingly? 

  • Where are the time sucks? Do those clients need a scope change?

  • Do you need to charge for work that extends beyond a certain standard timeframe?

  • Would any client benefit from a new or updated proposal to address scope creep?

  • Are there any clients who no longer align with your firm and who need to be fired?

With an enlightening discovery call, a rock-solid proposal, attention to scope creep, and an eye on client profitability, you’ll have healthier client relationships. And who knows, maybe those happy clients will send you more client referrals.